Presidential decision looms, finalists vie for appointment

Four finalists address community concerns at public forum in Knox Center a week before the district’s final decision

By Lorenzo Morotti and Christian Urrutia, Staff Writers

The district’s year-long search for a permanent college president will be settled on March 17.

Before the district Chancellor Dr. Helen Benjamin confers with the Governing Board to select Contra Costa College’s next president; faculty, students and people from the community listened and asked the four finalists questions from 12:15 to 3:45 p.m. on Thursday in the Knox Center.

The Presidential Screening Committee, empowered by the Governing Board, narrowed a short list of applicants to four finalists who addressed community concerns in the public forum.

Celia Barberena, Krista Johns, Mojdeh Mehdizadeh and Luis Pedraja were selected as finalists and were provided the opportunity to explain why each is the best fit for the position.

The four candidates were each given a 45-minute session to explain their areas of expertise and past experiences that will help   provide growth through managing general operation, budget issues, media relations, student success and representing the campus at the district and state levels.

People who attended the public forum filled out comment cards after each session. These were reviewed at the Presidential Search Committee on Monday, and will be considered during Benjamin’s penultimate consultation with the district board today.

District Executive Vice Chancellor of Administrative Services Eugene Huff announced that he was representing Benjamin at the public forum, but the “comment cards will be incorporated in the decision-making process.”

Candidates explained their work history related to education and how it led up to their current or past roles in various institutions of higher learning.

Anecdotes by each candidate mainly tied to cultural struggles, challenges that shaped their educational motivation and how they envision the college’s future.

Barberena opened her session by explaining what brought her to apply for the position —which is “the love of work.”

She said her life path has been filled with challenges and opportunities that are reflective of the current state of the college and is confident she can work with students and staff to address problems.

Counselor Alfred Zuniga asked Barberena about her teaching experience and how her current position as an educational consultant, after serving as president of Chabot College from 2012 to 2014, would be beneficial for the college community.

Barberena said she taught Spanish and English as a second language at Sacramento City College and Modesto Junior College as an adjunct faculty member.

Counselor assistant MaryKate Rossi voiced a similar concern regarding her ability to lead during a rebuilding period in an area facing socio-economic challenges.

Rossi said she is looking for a committed candidate and asked Barberena why is she looking to get back “in the ring.”

Barberena said that she took some time off for a family related illness, but after her husband had recovered she wanted to get back to helping people progress into higher education.

Pedraja, the current vice president for academic affairs at Antioch University in Los Angeles, gave a similar response when counselor Norma Jimenez-Valdez asked a similar question but emphasized his ability to relate to CCC’s student demographic.

“I want to be president at (CCC) for a simple reason. I am very impressed by level of diversity that exists in this community,” Pedraja said. “I also am driven to help students who, like me, grew up with parents who did not have advice about college.”

He said if selected as president, he would make it his “mantra” to ensure student success through community involvement because it is his “passion to get out of the boundaries of campus and get in community to create a structure where students live.”

Johns, the current interim Berkeley City College president opened her statement addressing the importance of reaching out to potential students in surrounding communities.

“Sometimes we make it a little tough. We’re not sure how to tell people how to come in and work with the college and so I feel that part of it is being out there and be part of the community in order to engage students that way,” Johns said. “As you may know this is the place that started it all in terms of Contra Costa Community College District.

Richmond resident Fatima Alleyne asked Johns what significance does the West Contra Costa Unified School District play in relation for potential students interested in attending.

Johns said it is vital in the college meets the needs of its diverse student demographic. She said whether they are high school graduates on the “fast track” to transferring or older students who have reached a mid-point in their lives in which education serves a new outlet, local ties with WCCUSD must be strengthened.

Katherine Krolikowski, biotechnology professor, asked each candidate about UC Berkeley’s global campus at the Richmond Bay development site.

Krolikowski said the UC Berkeley campus research campus has a 40-year development plan, but will have an impact on the city of Richmond in terms of housing, employment, local procurement and education.

She asked finalists what would they do to help students in the college’s service area benefit from this large project in its local neighborhood?

Johns said the STEM majors at the college should be included into the conversation because of the tremendous opportunity for the college to partner with UC Berkeley.

Barberena and Pedraja said they would also work closely with members on the respective committee to make sure CCC’s concerns are included.

Mehdizadeh, current interim college president at CCC, had an informative response.

“(The Vice President of Instruction Tammiel Gilkerson) has been instrumental with sharing the college’s strategic plan and bringing information back about the initiatives under the Berkeley global campus,” she said. “(CCC) needs to ensure we are well very aligned with the work going on at Berkley global campus. Not just aligned but as an integral part in the planning efforts to ensure that (CCC) is written into the plan.”

Mehdizadeh has held multiple roles within the district such as executive vice president for technology systems and educational services, institutional research, workforce and economic development.

“I studied organizational and intercultural communications. It amplified myself. It also was a wonderful accompaniment to my undergraduate degree,” Mehdizadeh said. “Learning systems and understanding how things work from a systems perspective is valuable in any endeavor one chooses. But to humanize that and to couple that with communication studies, focusing on cultural and organizational aspects, has really helped me as an individual,” she said, “and ultimately for the organization that I have worked for now for 29 years.”

Rick Ramos, administration of justice department chairperson, asked each candidate what is their plan to face a $1 million budget deficit using their experiences in cost cutting measures?

Mehdizadeh said she had experience with reducing costs while working with the district when it was operating two major systems, one for the district and another for the Contra Costa County Office of Education to run payroll, purchase functions and other “sub systems.”

She described the process of finding areas on campus that are increasing operation costs, but are lacking in improving student success as, “pruning.”

“We need to prune our trees and rosebushes in order for them to grow stronger and to produce more flowers. That is exactly what we have to do as a team here at (CCC) with everyone recognizing and reviewing the information and data, because I think we have lots of opportunities for growth and I think the college community recognizes that as well,” Mehdizadeh said.

Pedraja agreed with Mehdizadeh but stressed that he would consult very closely with departments before cutting budgets, programs or courses.

“I am in a private non profit university that is 98 percent tuition dependent, so I am very experienced with budget deficits,” Pedraja said. “We managed to cut 1 million and the way we did it was with a transparent process and involving faculty to examine areas where potential cuts could happen.

“A lot of times talking to learn where cuts can be made without hurting the program and can actually be more successful,” he said.