California’s Newest Community College Has a Tech Startup Vibe

Everything about Calbright, the state’s 115th community college, is different, from the lingo – it enrolls “learners” not students – to what it teaches: medical coding, information technology and cybersecurity.

by Nanette Asimov, San Francisco Chronicle / September 30, 2019
Shutterstock/Wpadington

(TNS) — No students are enrolled yet. No faculty is hired. But Calbright is set to open Tuesday, and college officials say the state’s first fully online, free community college is off to a great start.

“We had a little high-five moment here in the office” when visitors to the website expressing interest in enrolling recently surpassed 1,000, said Derek Gordon, the college’s operations chief.

No classes will be taught Tuesday. But it’s the first day students can register for them.

To faculty representatives, however, Calbright officials are downplaying the importance of instruction as they transform the state’s 115th community college from concept to reality.

“As of today, as far as I can tell, there are no full-time faculty hires for Calbright, and there’s no faculty contract,” Eric Kaljumagi, president of the Community College Association, told Calbright’s Board of Trustees at its Sept. 17 meeting in Sacramento, two weeks before opening day.

The Community College Association is the union expecting to represent Calbright faculty — once hired. It operates in the South Orange Community College District, which in July was chosen by state community college Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley to help the cyberschool with labor matters.

“Calbright may be a different type of college, but I’m expecting that the faculty enjoy the levels of autonomy and professional authority that you see elsewhere,” Kaljumagi — also a math professor at Mt. San Antonio College near Los Angeles — told the trustees.

Little about Calbright resembles the state’s other 114 community colleges.

Proposed only last year by then-Gov. Jerry Brown — acting on the notion that online schools can teach people faster and cheaper than classroom instruction — Calbright is meant to help working adults acquire more skills and get better jobs. Deadlines and budgets for the online college are baked into state law, which requires the speedy Oct. 1 opening and guarantees annual allotments of $20 million on top of a one-time $100 million payment authorized in the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Calbright’s vibe is more startup tech company than college, partly because of the lingo that surrounds it. Heather Hiles, hired last winter, would be — in the humdrum community college universe — a campus president. At Calbright, she is the CEO. Other colleges enroll students. Calbright will enroll learners. They will enter one of three program pathways. That means they will take classes.

The three pathways are medical coding, information technology and cybersecurity. In this first year, Calbright will cap enrollment at 400, admitting learners on a first-come, first-served basis, said Gordon, the chief operating officer. Each pathway will offer classes in “program essentials” — basic math, reading and workplace preparation skills related to the course of study.

Calbright has not yet posted job openings for the six full-time faculty it’s seeking. But this month it hired three full-time deans, Gordon said. One for each pathway.

Calbright vernacular isn’t the only thing old-school academicians find unfamiliar. It’s Calbright’s apparent priorities.

At the meeting this month in Sacramento, John Stanskas, president of the statewide Academic Senate for California’s community colleges, reminded the trustees and Calbright officials that they must support a student government, teach financial literacy and provide mental health services.

“Until such time that you have tenured faculty of your own to organize themselves, it is my duty to act as the faculty voice for you,” Stanskas told them.

The board went on to talk with Hiles about “learner device provisioning,” meaning the number of laptops and mobile hotspots they will buy for a lending library so students can take classes from wherever they are.

Kaljumagi admonished the trustees for “talking about hardware” without mentioning faculty hiring.

As is common during public meetings, neither the trustees nor Calbright officials responded to those who addressed the board.

Later, Gordon told The Chronicle that planning has gone on for nearly a year. He called it a “very collaborative, collegial process.”

“Today, we have 11 folks on the instructional team,” he said. Six are teaching contractors, five of whom teach at other colleges. Two contractors are college counselors.

And there are the three new deans, who will soon post openings for full- and part-time teaching positions, Gordon said. “And we’ll be able to start converting what are now contractors to our own Calbright college employees.”

It’s not yet clear what the compensation will be for those jobs, but Gordon said the college enthusiastically supports its eventual unionization.

“When they’re ready to talk, they’ll have ready and eager partners to talk with,” he said.

Gordon also defended Calbright’s priorities.

“We’re a brand-new community college — one that is fully online — and one that has to (open) under legislative deadlines,” he said. Once that is all set up, Calbright needs to make sure that students “can actually learn online with us. We need to wrestle with (that) today because we’re opening Oct. 1.”

©2019 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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