David Mertes, who led the nation’s largest collection of colleges through massive social changes and numerous political mine fields, will resign June 30 as chancellor of the California Community College system.
The 65-year-old former high school teacher, college professor, community college president and biochemical embryologist, said he has had “basic differences” with his bosses, the 16-member Board of Governors.
Board members, several of whom have criticized Mertes privately but refused to discuss their troubles with him on the record, have already launched a nationwide search for his replacement.
“Times have changed and we need to change,” said board president Vishwas More, a retired engineer who headed the Lawrence-Berkeley research laboratory at the University of California-Berkeley.
“I don’t want to criticize [Mertes] but you always want to look for someone stronger and better,” More added. “What he did was fine, but we need someone with a vision for the next century.”
Mertes has held the chancellor’s post for eight years–the second longest tenure in state history–and has contended with daunting obstacles along the way, ranging from attacks on affirmative action to California’s crumbling economy.
Nevertheless, he drew praise from community college officials across the country for helping to mold California’s system — with its $3 billion budget, 71 districts and 1.4 million students — into a national model for others.
“David Mertes is a class act.” says David Pierce, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. “He presided over very challenging times in California. I have always admired him.”
The “Sacramento Bee.” in an editorial lamenting Mertes’ resignation, said that largely because of the chancellor’s work, “the community colleges outshone the four-year institutions” in California.
Mertes says the past six years “have been very, very difficult, primarily because of the inability of the state to fund any of its services at an appropriate level due to a major recession.”
The California legislature recently approved a 5.3 percent increase in the system’s budget, marking the first time lawmakers have granted community colleges an increase in six years.
“We have also had some very bitter relationships between the governor and the legislature that, in my view, have become more and more difficult with each passing year,” Mertes says.
“And we’ve had high levels of immigration into the state,” he adds. “Because we are the colleges that are open admission we have to address that challenge and make sure [newcomers] are not disenfranchised.”
Nearly half of the students served by California’s two-year schools are minorities, more than any other state except Hawaii.
Over the years, Mertes also fought to keep California community colleges.’ tuition among the lowest in the nation ($13 a credit) and to keep institutions on the cutting edge of education, technology and social change.
His proudest accomplishment, he says, is a report by the Commission on Innovation, a blueprint for the system’s future. It calls for addressing the complex economic, social and educational needs of students and the state.
Lois Callahan, chancellor of the San Mateo County Community College District, who worked with Mertes when he was president of the College of San Mateo, called his resignation “a great loss to the system.”
“He understands both the political realm and the needs of the individual colleges,” she said. “He was an articulate spokesman for both demands. We were very fortunate to have him.”
“It’s probably an impossible job,” Callahan added. “You can never please all the masters.”
Even his critics on the board begrudgingly credit him with successfully steering the system through rocky times.
“It’s a very difficult position,” says Larry Toy, one of two faculty representatives on the board and an astronomy professor at Chabot Community College in Hayward.
“I think he was a good chancellor for the transition that we had,” Toy adds, “but none of us hired him.”
Mertes declined to be specific about his disagreements with the board but said, “The issue is what is the appropriate role for a board and what is the appropriate role for a chancellor.
“The chancellor’s role is to administer the system and work with the board,” he said. “This board wanted very much to be involved with the day-to-day administration of the system. I believe we were losing the big picture.”
Mertes, whose education career has spanned three decades, also has served as chancellor of the Los Rios Community College District in Sacramento and the Santa Barbara Community College District.
Although he insists his plans are not firm, Mertes says he will remain active in the community college education field, perhaps writing and doing consulting work “on the key issues I think we face.”
“I look at this not as retirement,” he says, “but as a different direction.”
COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com