With stints in the ministry, college leadership, the California state legislature, and even as president of the California Community Colleges, Jack Scott’s career has been anything but a straight line. But there is a theme that binds everything he has done together: wherever he goes he strives—and succeeds—to provide education to those who need it most.
With stints in the ministry, college leadership, the California state legislature, and even as chancellor of the California Community Colleges, Jack Scott’s career has been anything but a straight line. But there is a theme that binds everything together: wherever he goes he strives—and succeeds—to provide education to those who need it most.
Scott was born and raised in Sweetwater, Texas, a town whose population has remained around 12,000 for over 70 years. This is where he went to high school and attended church. At that time, the town was segregated, though that was something Scott didn’t pay much attention to until he was a teenager.
“It wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that I looked around and realized how unfair that was,” he said. “You can be slow to come to a realization of injustice if you are surrounded by it.”
That realization came while Scott was getting ready to go to college, where he hoped to study theology in preparation for a career in the ministry. What attracted him was a commitment to serving those less fortunate (Scott considers himself lucky to have come from a close-knit, middle-class family).
“I would begin to think about statements like when Jesus said, ‘Do to others what you would have them do to you.’ And there’s just no way I would want to be treated the way African-Americans were,” he said. “It was just outright
discrimination. I knew I couldn’t be on that side. I had
to be on the side that said justice for all.”
Scott views that realization as a turning point in his life—and a motivating force in his career: “Subsequently, I have been very sympathetic to causes like the women’s movement and the gay and lesbian movement. But it all started with that basic injustice that we visited upon
From Sweetwater, Scott received his bachelor’s degree from nearby Abilene Christian University and a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School. He briefly entered the ministry, but ended up teaching religion at Pepperdine University. Simultaneously, he earned a PhD in history from CGU, which he received in 1970. Shortly afterward, his career took a shift from the classroom to administration. After five years as dean of instruction at Orange Coast College, Scott was appointed president of Cypress College in 1978.
The impetus for his transition from teaching to community-college leadership can be traced back to the lessons he learned in church and from living in Sweetwater. Scott sees education as “perhaps the number one civil-rights issue of our time.” And that issue plays out most prominently at community colleges.
“Education is the road to equality. Education is the key for the poor, for the discriminated against. Even today, community college is the main point of entry for African Americans and Latinos,” Scott said. “Community colleges are the avenue for the student who comes from a family where no one else has gone to college. For a recent immigrant who needs to learn English. For a student who can’t afford to go to a four-year college, but can stay at home
and transfer after two years.”
Throughout his career, Scott has championed his belief in expanding access to community-college education, often while facing a headwind of harsh budget cuts. In fact, three months after assuming the presidency at Cypress College in March 1978, California passed Prop 13. This new law reduced property tax revenues to community colleges by
60 percent (or $300 million). Scott immediately got creative to find ways to save money and bring in the needed revenue to keep students in class.
One of his most popular fundraising initiatives was launching a weekend swap meet on campus. One of his least popular (or at least controversial) was ending Cypress College’s football program (though the team’s previous 1-9 season did give him some political cover). But the hard
feelings didn’t last. Scott weathered the budget cuts and went on to serve as president for nine years—still the longest tenure of any Cypress College president—and received the college’s Man of the Year award in 2009.
In 1987, Scott assumed the presidency of Pasadena City College (PCC), the third largest community college in the United States. His eight-year tenure was marked by rapid expansion of the school’s campus and services. Shortly
after taking office, he initiated a $100-million master plan for campus development. He later oversaw the additions
of a library, parking structure, education center, and child-development center.
Though nearly two decades as a college president could nicely serve as the capstone for most careers, Scott was just getting started. As president, he had often made trips to the State Capitol in Sacramento and gained first-hand experience in how influential the legislature is in shaping education policy: they determine the budget and regulations—including teacher tenure—that affect the more than six million people attending public schools in California. And in higher education, the legislature influences private schools through Cal Grants, which can provide around $12,000 of funding per year for students.
It wasn’t too surprising then that, after stepping down as PCC president in 1995, Scott chose to parlay his experience and interest in education into politics. In 1996 he won a seat in the California state assembly from the 44th District—the first Democrat to ever do so. He was re-elected in 1998. In 2000 and 2004 he earned a seat in the California State Senate, where he chaired the Senate Committee on Education.
In Sacramento, Scott combined his passion for education with a strong background in government gleaned from his studies at CGU, which had an emphasis on America’s revolutionary period. Fittingly, his dissertation was on John Witherspoon, a founding father who was the only college president to sign the Declaration of Independence. One of the lessons Scott drew from his time in Claremont was an appreciation for checks and balances, and the resulting necessity to compromise.
“I get dismayed at our current government’s inability to get things done. Part of that is because people don’t understand the value of compromise. That’s what I had to do with my bills,” he said. “You can’t bring too much self-righteousness and ideology to something. In the first place, no one has all the answers. You need to listen. The nature of government is that you have to compromise.”
This philosophy certainly benefited Scott. In his 12 years in the California legislature, he authored 158 bills that became law—the most by any legislator during that period. Many of these bills involved education, but not all: he passed bills that streamlined the adoption process, required all handguns sold in California to have trigger locks, and imposed new gift and loan restrictions on elected officials. Of course, he also made his mark in educational matters: some of his achievements include
bills that stabilized funding for community colleges and others that expanded vocational education opportunities.
While in Sacramento, Scott ended up working with three governors: Pete Wilson, Gray Davis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Perhaps surprising for a Democrat, Scott has a special fondness for the Republican Governator: “I had a great relationship with Arnold Schwarzenegger, though
we were from different parties. He went to Santa Monica College, so he knew first-hand the value and importance
of a community-college education. Now that didn’t stop him from vetoing some of my bills,” Scott chuckled. “But
we got a lot done.”
California has a two-term limit for legislators, so in
2008 Scott was not eligible to run again. However, he wasn’t unemployed for long. In early 2009, the Board of Governors from the California Community Colleges asked him to become the new chancellor. After accepting their offer,
he was unanimously approved for the position.
This would be a tough job under any circumstances. California has 112 community colleges, with a collective enrollment of 2.4 million students. This makes them the largest higher education system in the world. But someone taking over in 2009 would be presiding over the fallout from California’s plummeting property tax revenues—and the resulting slashing of education budgets. Indeed, over Scott’s three years as president, funding was cut $809
million, or 12 percent. So why did he take the position?
“Leadership has to happen in difficult times as well as good. And you don’t get to pick,” he said. “Look, I knew we were in for tough times financially, but I’m a congenital optimist. But then, you have to be. If you say everything’s going to hell in a handbasket, you’re not going to get
anything done. That said, I was surprised at how severe
the recession proved to be.”
Scott’s optimism was tested during his three years as chancellor. Budget cuts led to schools reducing class schedules and prevented approximately 200,000 students from attending classes. But that didn’t stop him from enacting reforms—albeit, reforms that didn’t cost much money. Scott helped broker a transfer program with California State University that made transferring into a Cal State school easier. He helped create new regulations on priority enrollment designed to increase student success. And
he helped create a Student Success Task Force that has come up with 22 recommendations aimed to improve completion rates of community college students.
After three years as chancellor, Scott stepped down
and joined his alma mater as a scholar in residence in CGU’s School of Educational Studies for the 2012–2013 school year. In addition to providing lectures and workshops, he is helping develop the school’s new certificate
for community college professionals. Like Scott, many
community college administrators are picked from the faculty, and do not have any managerial experience
“In most cases, people who become administrators
learn on the job. They might do good enough, but they probably don’t know a lot about community college finances, the principles of dealing with people, or student services. This certificate program will help prepare some people to navigate those areas before they get in and make mistakes,” Scott said.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that here, as with every other stop in his long and winding career, Scott continues working to improve community colleges. A 50-year habit is hard to break. But as impressive as his decades of leadership and advocacy have been, his actions surely pale in comparison to the cumulative accomplishments of former community college students that would never have otherwise been
realized if not for Scott’s efforts.