(BCN) — California Community College Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, whose six-year tenure was marked by an ambitious agenda to improve student achievement and social justice across a sprawling system, will soon head a foundation dedicated to increasing diversity among the state’s college graduates.

Oakley’s time as chancellor was also hampered by plunging enrollment during the pandemic, clashes with faculty and a series of data problems. He resigned, effective Aug. 1, to become CEO of the Oakland-based College Futures Foundation.

The chair of his new employer praised Oakley for his commitment to diversity and student achievement.

“At College Futures, we believe that securing the college success of students facing the most formidable barriers will help all of us thrive — our communities, economy, and state,” Donna Lucas, chair of the foundation’s board, said in a statement. “Our staff and board are dedicated to ensuring that more students who reflect California’s diversity can complete their postsecondary journeys and access the opportunity for a better life. Eloy Oakley lives this mission every day.”

In an interview with EdSource, Oakley said he believes he is “leaving the system in a really good place. We have the best budget we have ever had. Our team is really strong.”

His departure was announced Thursday. A champion of diversity and making college more accessible to low-income Californians, he said in a statement that leading a system where he was once a student was deeply gratifying.

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“Serving as chancellor of the community college system that gave me the opportunity to succeed in higher education has been the most rewarding experience of my life,” Oakley said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom praised Oakley, calling him “an incredible leader and champion for higher education, setting California’s community colleges on a course for transformational change.”

There was no immediate word on a successor. Deputy Chancellor Daisy Gonzales filled in for Oakley when he took a sabbatical last year to spend five months as a senior adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

Oakley also told EdSource he intends to remain as a University of California regent. His 10-year term expires in 2024. Oakley was also praised by local college presidents and elected trustees in a statement by the Community College League of California, which represents them on statewide issues.

“Chancellor Oakley has been an exemplary leader and champion for diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility during his tenure,” the league said in a statement. He pushed “for systemic change in all areas of our higher education system, including addressing students’ basic needs, reducing barriers to degree attainment, and expanding financial aid opportunities for students.”

Oakley dubbed his signature project as chancellor Vision for Success, a student-centered program designed to close equity gaps and increase student transfers to universities and the number of students achieving degrees or certificates.

Vision for Success “has been and will continue to be our North Star,” Community College Board of Governors President Pamela Haynes said in a statement. “We are indebted to Chancellor Oakley for his vision, his unwavering commitment to our colleges and most importantly our students.”

Oakley pointed to increases in transfers and certificates but acknowledged that, like the rest of the world, the community college system was knocked sideways by the global pandemic.

Colleges scrambled to shift to online classes in March 2020 as campuses shut down. Enrollment across the system declined significantly during the 2020-21 academic year: The system reported its enrollment at 1.8 million, down about 15 percent from before the pandemic. Many colleges have continued to lose students this academic year.

In the midst of it all, the system’s online application portal was hacked by bots. Phony applications flooded the system, with some receiving student aid dollars. The FBI began an investigation.

Around the same time, the system took down some enrollment data from its DataMart webpage and posted a red-letter warning that its remaining publicly available data contained inaccuracies and should not be relied upon. Repairs were eventually made, but Oakley said Thursday a major data overhaul is still needed. Oakley also won board support for a new requirement that the 72 districts that run the state’s 115 on-campus colleges respond to data requests from the central office. The system has been hampered by incomplete and inaccurate data from the districts.

A new application portal, which serves all the colleges, will require more money in future budgets, he said. “We need to improve the user experience and secure the data,” he said, adding that it would help enrollment rebound.

But it will take more than that to bring students back, he acknowledged. “They want us to meet them where they are.” That means more scheduling flexibility and online classes, and aid with housing and living costs, he said.

Oakley was president of Long Beach City College when he became chancellor of the nation’s single largest higher-education system, with 114 local colleges in December 2016. The system subsequently added Calbright, the system’s only online college as the 115th college in 2018. Calbright is an initiative that Oakley has continued to support despite opposition among some lawmakers that the college has lagged in enrolling enough students. The system’s 116th college, Madera Community College, joined the system in 2020.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Oakley grew up in South Los Angeles. After serving in the Army as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, he enrolled at Golden West Community College in Huntington Beach. He eventually transferred to UC Irvine, where he received a bachelor’s degree in environmental analysis and design and a master’s degree in business administration.

In 2019, both the Faculty Association of the California Community Colleges, an advocacy group, and the executive council of the California Federation of Teachers, the labor union representing 30,000 local community college employees, each approved no-confidence votes in Oakley. Both cited a lack of communication with faculty, concerns about college funding, and the creation of Calbright, the state’s online community college, which created fears it would siphon away money better spent at brick-and-mortar schools.

Oakley insisted his communication with faculty was robust, and he was defended by the state community college board of governors, which oversees the system, and that the no-confidence votes essentially became a stalemate.

In the EdSource interview, he noted that the statewide Academic Senate never voted a lack of confidence in him and that is the standard by which he should be judged.

But the Academic Senate approved a resolution in 2018 asking Oakley to improve his relationship with faculty. It stated, in part, that Oakley “set an unnecessarily adversarial and defensive tone by limiting collegial consultation and transparency” and “exhibited a general disregard of the concerns of the faculty.”

In a statement Thursday, the faculty association said that while it has “not always agreed with the Chancellor on certain policy matters, his legacy of bringing equity to the forefront of every community college policy discussion should be celebrated and continued. We wish him all the best in his new position.”

Asked for a reaction to Oakley’s departure, Jeff Freitas, president of the faculty union, the Federation of Teachers, said through a spokesman, “We wish Chancellor Oakley the best in his new endeavor. We look forward to working with the Board of Governors to find a new leader for our community college system.” Freitas declined to offer an assessment of Oakley’s tenure.

Following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, Oakley issued what he said was a call for action, urging colleges to review law-enforcement training programs, calling for improved dialogue over race and equity, the creation of anti-racist curriculums, and for local college district boards to update equity plans “with urgency.”

The call was widely praised, although Oakley did receive criticisms that he brushed off. Among those who emailed him was a local trustee of the Feather River Community College District in Plumas County, who wrote, “I am amazed that you equate ‘police brutality’ and ‘racism’ as one in the same. To assume the ‘college community’ are all bad cops, therefore we need counseling and retraining, is laughable.”

Oakley also came to the defense of the then-chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, Constance Carroll, in 2021, when she received racist emails after she criticized the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“No one at a community college, whether a student, an employee or a district chancellor, should be subjected to such hate speech and racism,” he said. “We all stand with Chancellor Carroll and others who speak out forcefully against white supremacists and attempts to derail our democracy.”

Asked Thursday to assign a letter grade to Oakley’s tenure, Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, a photography professor at College of the Canyons, said that rather than grade the outgoing chancellor traditionally, she’d make a written comment on his report card: “Needs to work well with others.”

EdSource Reporter Ashley Smith contributed to this report.

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