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Gray's Priority As Regents President: Restore Trust, Integrity

Board Plans To Appoint California Chancellor As Regents President Thursday

By KATHLEEN MEGAN

May 15, 2013

Gregory Gray says his top priority as the new president of the state's Board of Regents for Higher Education will be "to restore trust and integrity" in the position and in the regents system.

Gray, 64, who is expected to be appointed by the regents at a meeting Thursday morning, said earlier this week that as a first step toward accomplishing that goal, he will visit all 17 schools that the regents oversee. His first day on the job, which will pay $380,000 yearly, is scheduled for July 1.

"I've been around a long time. I understand administration, but I don't exactly understand Connecticut yet," said Gray, chancellor of the Riverside Community College District in California since 2009. "Obviously, I'm going to have to come there and learn a lot from all the various stakeholders."

Gray was scheduled to arrive in Connecticut on Wednesday night and planned to stay for a few days. He was scheduled to meet with the 17 college presidents on Friday, he said, and then planned to look for a home in the area.

His overall mission as president will be "somewhat simple," he said. "I want our learning environment to be the best in the world. I worry about student learning first."

Gray will come to Connecticut after four years of managing the Riverside Community College District a three-college district with 55,000 to 60,000 full- and part-time students through especially troubled fiscal times. His compensation as Riverside chancellor was about $300,000.

His resume also includes three years as president of Miami Dade's Kendall Campus and eight years as chancellor of the Fayette Campus for Penn State University.

Those who worked closely with him in Riverside including the president of the district's board of trustees, professors and the former mayor of Riverside praised Gray as well-organized and creative and as a consensus-builder at a time when California state colleges faced deep financial troubles.

They also say that he is an excellent fundraiser garnering $30 million to $35 million in private funds during his tenure and that he is focused on ensuring that students have access to, and complete, college. In addition, he has worked closely with local businesses and industries to see that graduates get the preparation they need for available jobs.

"He's exceptionally well-organized and is particularly effective in making things happen," said Ron Loveridge, who served as mayor of Riverside for 18 years before leaving in December. "He wants to move from talking about something to having it happen."

Virginia Blumenthal, president of the Riverside Community College District's board of trustees, said: "He has done some wonderful things for our district along with helping to guide us through some terrible financial times. There will be a deep void when he leaves here."

1{+s}{+t} Under New Law

Gray's appointment will be the first under a new law, signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on April 22, which shifted the power to appoint the regents president from the governor to the Board of Regents.

Gray said that change was "extremely important" because it takes the politics out of the position.

"I'm not a politician, I'm a teacher," said Gray, whose early career was spent in vocational-technical education and as a professor. "Politics aside, my hope is we can focus on students learning. ... Let's make sure the quality of the system really grows."

Gray said that he was interested in the Connecticut position because the opportunity to "provide leadership in the state system was really intriguing, particularly one that's brand new." And, he said, he felt he was well-suited because his background includes administration in both four-year universities and two-year community colleges.

Gray was not the regents' first pick. About two weeks ago, Jack Warner, CEO of the South Dakota Board of Regents, rejected an offer from the board. They had one other finalist for the job, Jay Kahn, interim president of Keene State College in New Hampshire

In Connecticut, Gray will inherit a troubled system that was created in 2011 when Malloy led the effort to merge the management of the four state regional universities, the 12 community colleges, and the state's online college, Charter Oak State College. The system serves about 95,000 full- and part-time students. The only state university not overseen by the regents is the University of Connecticut.

Malloy's goal was to save money in administration and redirect the savings to the classroom, but many of the leaders of the state universities and community colleges feared that their unique missions would be lost in the merger. Adding to the problems, Robert A. Kennedy, handpicked by Malloy as the system's first president in August 2011, resigned abruptly last October amid a furor over several controversies, including the improper payment of more than $250,000 in salary increases to his top staff.

With state budget cuts, financial problems have plagued the system. Faced with a $5.5 million deficit, the board's chief financial officer, Bill Bowes, said recently that the board would probably have to tap reserve funds to help balance the budget.

On the matter of dealing with budget deficits, Gray said, he is all too used to it. Only 10 minutes into the first day of his job at Riverside in 2009, he said, he got a call saying that the district would have to cut $16.5 million from its budget within a week.

In his four years at Riverside, Gray said that he faced about $60 million in cuts. He never laid off full-time faculty, he said, but he did have to reduce part-time faculty and the numbers of classes by about 12 percent to 15 percent.

"My time in California has really been a time of doing everything possible to contain our costs and to keep reductions as far away from students as possible," he said.

He said that he sees the challenges he faced as a "test of my ability to manage and lead" and as "excellent preparation" for any fiscal deficits he might face in Connecticut.

'From Good To Great'

Fabian Biancardi, a professor who is a vice president of the Riverside Community College District chapter of the California Teachers Association, said of the past few years: "We had severe cutbacks, lots and lots of class cancellations. We had to fight really hard, every inch of the way."

But Biancardi, who works at Moreno Valley College, part of the Riverside district, said that the faculty found Gray to be "very reasonable, willing to listen to all sides, very attentive."

"He always took lots of notes at meetings and would report back on the progress that he had made on each bullet point."

The faculty didn't always share the same priorities as Gray, Biancardi said, but Gray did use a "stakeholder model" and sought input "from every corner of the district on saving money."

Biancardi said that Gray was always "pushing us to go from good to great. It's kind of a motto he has. I personally will miss the guy."

Although some community colleges in California are "looking at closing doors," said Blumenthal, president of the board of trustees, "we are still financially solvent."

With California's passage of Proposition 30, which increased taxes, Gray said that the district's financial situation was brighter now. Plans are to add 150 classes in the fall, he said.

Gray also focused on fundraising to offset the district's financial troubles. In addition to raising $30 million to $35 million in private funds in the past four years, he said he believes that the district has the most grants $52 million in state, federal and private grants of any community college in California.

Gray said that one of his early plans for Connecticut is to talk about fundraising with the college presidents, perhaps putting together a statewide campaign in which each of the 17 schools has a goal.

"More important is to establish a culture of giving," he said. "At Penn State, they get money because it's normal. It's part of the culture ingrained."

Job Readiness

Among the issues that Gray has emphasized during his tenure at Riverside is making sure that the college is preparing students for the available jobs in the community. It's a goal that Malloy speaks of often for Connecticut's higher education system.

Jamil Dada, who is chairman of the Riverside Community College District Foundation, said Gray believes that colleges should be "engines for economic growth" and worked closely with area business and industry leaders to make that happen.

Recently, Gray said, he was working with Skechers, the shoe company, which has a worldwide distribution center in the Riverside area that is operated with robotics.

"Everyone has to be a computer technician because when one of those robotic arms goes down, the place comes to a halt," said Gray. "That's an example of a local company, with local training needs. Two-year colleges have these types of training programs."

He has also worked with Native Americans who run casinos in the Riverside area to discuss the possibility of curriculums that would prepare students for the gaming industry.

With a grant from the Gates Foundation, Gray said, the district has also put a program into place at local high schools that ensures that students are ready for college and that guarantees them admission if they complete the program. Participants take a test early in their junior high school year to assess their progress. If they need extra help, they get it in the next two years to ensure that they are ready for college.

Gray has also emphasized study abroad programs not available at many community colleges.

In addition, although Gray said he was glad to see politics taken out of education, his supporters say he that has had plenty of experience dealing with it in California. The five trustees on his board are elected by voters.

"I tell you, it's not easy to please five politicians," said Dada. "He did a really good job, keeping people together and selling his message. I think he's a consensus-builder."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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