Chancellor begins new role with clear focus on equity and opportunity
January 31, 2024 |
After serving as acting chancellor since March, Gregory Smith’s role as permanent chancellor of the San Diego Community College District begins February 1. Smith is the seventh chancellor to lead the district in its 50-year history.
Chancellor Smith’s career path has been guided by an unshakeable belief in equity. He credits his sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Brown, a Black woman who encouraged him to see the world through multiple perspectives, with sparking his interest in equity. “I just want you to understand that not everyone experiences the world the way you do,” Smith recalls her telling him near the end of the school year. It is this foundational principle that Smith will use as a guide as he leads 5,000 employees and the nearly 80,000 students they serve at the SDCCD.
“My vision is creating an environment where everybody who comes here feels they can be who they are authentically, an environment where students know and feel they belong, a district that’s invested in them, that supports them as they become is the person they want to be,” he said.
Smith grew up in the rural Southern California communities of Trona and Ridgecrest. When it came time for the son of working class parents and grandson of a foster child to enroll in college, he turned to Cerro Coso Community College as the only affordable option, while his peers, whose parents had Ph.D.s and master’s degrees, went off to study at the likes of Yale, Berkeley, and University of California, Los Angeles.
“My parents could not go to college, my grandparents could not go to college, so it was really important to them that I go, because their prospects were really limited,” he said.
It would be his start at a community college that became the foundation of his career in public service initially as a compliance officer with the U.S. Department of Labor enforcing equal employment opportunity and affirmative action regulations, then moving on to Shasta College in Northern California where he took on roles as director of Human Resources, associate vice president of Human Resources and interim vice president of Administrative Services before making his way to San Diego when he was hired in 2020 as vice chancellor of People, Culture, and Technology Services at the SDCCD.
Now, as chancellor, Smith is responsible for a $1 billion annual budget and all operations for a system that stands as the largest provider of workforce training and higher education in the region. The district and its four colleges – San Diego City, Mesa, Miramar and College of Continuing Education – have an annual economic impact of $4.5 billion. Enrollment is growing and, thanks to the governing board’s careful stewardship, the district’s fiscal health remains solid.
But challenges remain. Many students are still struggling as a result of the pandemic, which required some to put their education on hold. The state, which funds most district operations, is facing a budget deficit estimated at $38 billion in 2024-25, with multi-billion-dollar deficits projected for following years. The district, in need of significant upgrades to support the latest innovations in technology, as well as much needed facilities upgrades and repairs, is preparing to place its first bond program on the ballot since 2006. Additionally, Chancellor Smith takes over on a permanent basis at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is taking a more hostile attitude toward diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) and affirmative action in hiring practices.
He remains undeterred. Smith likes to tell people: “Relentless optimism is my superpower.”
Those who know him say Smith is more than ready for whatever comes his way.
“One of the things that really strikes me is how skilled he is in understanding how data affects solid decision-making,” said SDCCD Board of Trustees President Bernie Rhinerson. “It’s also quite remarkable how he has detailed data at his fingertips. He has exhibited the highest standards of insight and innovation in the work that he does. He is a true leader.”
In addition to his start at Cerro Coso Community College, Smith earned bachelor’s degrees in English literature and political science from Arizona State University ― graduating summa cum laude ― and a master’s degree in public administration at University of Southern California.
“Leadership is about building trust in others and with others,” Rhinerson said, “and Greg excels at building trust and building relations. There is no doubt in my mind he will be an excellent chancellor.”
Indeed, Smith’s impact was being felt when he was still acting chancellor. He was a driving force in the district’s decision to boost the minimum wage for all permanent employees to $30.58 per hour ($63,606 annually) beginning January 1 and wages for temporary employees to $23.21 per hour ($46,404 annually). With an official ground-breaking ceremony in October, plans to build affordable, on-campus housing at San Diego City College remained on track for students who might otherwise be couch surfing or living on the street.
“I will advocate for the best interests of our students,” Smith said. “That includes our students who are recent immigrants, who are undocumented, our students who are LGBTQIA+, and our students who are from a variety of historically minoritized cultures. I’m here to advocate that every single member of our community has that same access I had.”
Chancellor Gregory Smith at the MLK Parade in 2024.