SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - California Community Colleges on Thursday named a veteran administrator to lead the nation's largest system of public higher education as it confronts a host of financial and academic challenges.
Brice Harris, who previously headed the Los Rios Community College District in the Sacramento area, will become the 15th chancellor of the state's 112-campus system. He starts the job Nov. 6.
Harris will replace Jack Scott, who retired this month after more than three and a half years in the position. Scott recently joined Claremont Graduate University as a scholar in residence.
As the statewide chancellor, Harris will receive an annual salary of $198,500 plus benefits, the same as his predecessor.
"I am extremely confident that we have chosen the right person at the right time," board President Scott Himelstein said at a news conference in Sacramento. "He has the knowledge and the skills to lead this system during what we all know are going to be some difficult days ahead."
Jonathan Lightman, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, called Harris an "excellent choice."
"He's a visionary. He's a good listener. He deeply cares about the educational mission of the California Community Colleges, and the students in particular," Lightman said.
Harris will be inheriting control of a higher education behemoth buffeted by budget cuts and debates about its mission and student success rate.
In response to state budget cuts over the past four years, California Community Colleges has reduced enrollment from 2.9 million to 2.4 million students, cut course sections by 24 percent and raised student fees from $20 to $46 per unit, officials said.
Harris, who is married with three grown children, attended Southwestern Oklahoma State University, the University of Arkansas, Nova Southeastern University and Harvard University before joining Kansas City's community college system as a faculty member and later vice chancellor.
Harris served as president of Fresno City College before spending nearly 16 years as chancellor of the 85,000-student Los Rios Community College District. At the four-campus district, Harris led two local bond measures to improve facilities and oversaw the establishment of the Folsom Lake campus, according to a release from California Community Colleges.
Harris said the community college system must continue to educate the public about the importance of Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative.
If the Nov. 6 ballot measure fails, California Community Colleges would face a midyear funding cut of $338 million and be forced to turn away more than 100,000 students, officials said.
"It's a critical election for the future of California," Harris said.
Even as the system grapples with strong financial headwinds, Harris said he would continue to focus on increasing student access and academic success.
On Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation aimed at improving graduation and transfer rates at California Community Colleges.
Under the Student Success Act of 2012, all students will receive support services to help them reach their goals, colleges must report the academic progress of all students, and students must meet minimum academic standards to receive fee waivers.
"I am bullish on California Community Colleges," Harris said. "I believe the best days are ahead of us, and I look forward to this challenge."
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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