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Sonoma Profile

Frank Chong

Age: 59

Current job: President, Santa Rosa Junior College

Previous jobs: Deputy assistant secretary for community colleges for the Department of Education; president of Laney College in Oakland; president of Mission College in Santa Clara; student affairs dean at City College of San Francisco; special assistant to Willie Brown, then speaker of the state Assembly; special services director for Oakland’s Asian Community Mental Health Services; executive director of Asian Manpower Services, a job-training center in Oakland.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in social welfare and Asian-American Studies at UC Berkeley; master’s degree in public administration at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government; doctorate in educational administration, leadership and technology at Dowling College in New York.

Santa Rosa Junior College president Frank Chong describes himself as an ABC from NYC, or an American-born Chinese from New York City.

The youngest of five children, he was raised in the Lower East Side of Manhattan by a single mom who immigrated to the United States during World War II. His father died when Chong was 5 years old.

“She never really spoke English,” he said of his late mom, Lin Chong, who worked at her brother’s bakery and later remarried. “She did whatever was necessary to raise five kids.”

As a son of Chinese immigrants, Chong said he feels a strong connection with his students, many who are immigrants themselves or first-generation Mexican-Americans.

“I observed a lot of the challenges of being from an immigrant family,” he said.

Chong, 59, is now putting those observations to work, along with experience drawn from more than three decades of work in the worlds of academia, politics and nonprofits. He oversees a college with a $173 million annual operating budget and 28,000 students spread across its Santa Rosa and Petaluma campuses, the Public Safety Training Center, Southwest Center and Shone Farm, which is used for agriculture classes. The college is one of the largest employers in the county, with more than 3,000 faculty and staff.

Chong is the fifth person to serve as president in the college’s nearly 100-year history. He also is the first minority to take on that role — and one of the few in the country, where, he pointed out, less than 1 percent of college presidents are Asian-Americans.

“He sees the college as an institution that gives an opportunity to all,” said Ricardo Navarrette, SRJC vice president of student services. “Other presidents have done that also, but I think he has re-energized that kind of vision that really embraces everybody in our community.”

Chong arrived on campus four years ago at a time of changing demographics in Sonoma County. The school’s role, too, was shifting from a traditional institution that prepares students for four-year universities to one meeting the demands of the local workforce. And it’s a change he has helped accelerate.

Businesses have increasingly turned to community colleges to fill workforce needs since the end of the recession, and Santa Rosa Junior College has been no exception. Chong, who has worked closely with business organizations such as the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce and the North Bay Leadership Council, said the college exists to meet the needs of the community and should reach out to all segments of the population.

“I see my job as making sure that all students succeed, that they get to reach their ultimate objective, whether it’s to get a certificate in fixing cars or a certificate in working in some of the finest restaurants in Sonoma County, or to transfer to a four-year university, which many of our students do,” Chong said.

“We do both and we do both well,” Chong said, referring to workforce development and preparing students for four-year institutions.

Inclusive campus

Boosting diversity on campus and making the college more inclusive is a central mission for Chong, who lives in Petaluma with his wife, Lene Jannes, and has two daughters, Mia and Sophia, from a previous marriage. Since his arrival, he’s doubled the number of Latino professors and hired more LGBT faculty members, part of an initiative to make the faculty better reflect the community.

The college also tripled the number of international students from 65 to more than 200 under his tenure, Chong said. Last year, it was designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution by the Department of Education, which made it eligible for grants to assist Latino and low-income students. Six months after the designation, it won a $2.65 million grant to launch a program to provide academic counseling, tutoring and other support for these students.

All students benefit when the college brings in special dollars that improve programs and technology, Chong said. So does the community, he argues.

“The future of California’s economy is going to be based on a skilled and educated workforce and if you break down who that skilled and educated force is going to be, many of those folks will be Latino,” Chong said.

Colleagues said he’s charismatic and humorous, as well as a strong listener who actively seeks input from others and welcomes different opinions.

Working with faculty

While Chong and faculty may not always agree on goals and how to achieve them, they’re committed to working together, said Sean Martin, a philosophy professor and president of the college’s faculty union.

“We share a commitment to a legacy of excellence at SRJC,” Martin said. “For faculty, that means that we need to attract and retain the best faculty in the state. We’re encouraged that President Chong has on numerous occasions expressed that view.”

Santa Rosa Junior College board trustee Rick Call said the president has worked hard to include faculty, staff and students in the decision-making process. The college is putting together a master plan to upgrade its facilities after voters approved a $410 million bond measure in 2014. Chong has invited “anybody and everybody” to take part in the discussions, said Call, who has been on the board since 1992.

“It’s been different than what I’ve been used to,” he said. “It’s working well. People feel like they’re being heard.”

Nontraditional path

Chong, who earned a doctorate in educational administration, leadership and technology at Dowling College in New York, did not take the traditional road to college presidency. He first became a dean at City College of San Francisco in the early 1990s, running the Tenderloin campus after spending four years as a special assistant to Willie Brown, then the speaker of the California State Assembly.

Chong first met Brown while working on his master’s degree in public administration at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Brown was visiting the law school. Impressed by his speech, Chong elbowed his way to the front of the room and introduced himself. Brown ended up hiring Chong when he graduated in 1986.

The political skills he learned while working with Brown have come in handy.

“Presidents need to have political skills,” said Chong, who worked as the deputy assistant secretary for community colleges for the Department of Education under the Obama administration immediately before joining SRJC. “They need to learn to deal with the press. They need to go fund-raise. They need to be able to advocate for legislation.”

“The days of public institutions of higher education that are simply just about academics are over,” Chong added. “We’re not in this ivory tower anymore.”

Chong has spent two decades guiding community colleges in California, serving as president at Oakland’s Laney College and Santa Clara’s Mission College and dean at City College of San Francisco. He also served on the San Francisco Board of Education in the late ’90s.

Out in community

Chong has been more visible out in the community and online than his predecessor, Robert Agrella, whom he meets with for breakfast a couple times a year.

Chong, who’s active on Facebook, said he’s comfortable on social media and likes going out in the community to tout the college. He’s also quick to share stories about students and their accomplishments.

“He’s at every event he’s ever invited to. He knows just about everybody by name,” Call said. He said he once joked with Chong that there wasn’t a podium the college president did not like.

Students often stop him to chat when he’s walking around campus, board trustee Dorothy Battenfeld said. He enjoys being around the students and often attends their sporting events and theater performances, she said.

Chong works out nearly every Tuesday and Thursday in the school gym with assistant baseball coach Ben Buechner. Chong doesn’t mind being around students as he lifts weights and does lunges and push-ups. Students on nearby treadmills watched as he and Buechner did crunches while balancing on a fitness balls.

“They give consideration to us old people,” Chong joked. “We’re not as limber and as fit.”

Chong doesn’t just see himself as a college administrator overseeing the day-to-day functions on campus. He said he’s also an ambassador, or politician of sorts, advocating for the college and searching for potential donors and students, particularly at a time of declining revenues and enrollment.

When the position for college president opened up, Chong immediately called Steve Herrington, superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education, to get his perspective on the college and its financial situation. He was the only job candidate to do so, Herrington said.

Chong said he has turned to people like Santa Rosa philanthropist Connie Codding and Sonoma Raceway President and General Manager Steve Page for financial and other support for the college. Codding provided money for a special program for students who have been in the foster care system, while Page donated cars for the college’s automotive program.

Latino allies

Chong also found allies in the Latino community, including La Tortilla Factory’s Willie Tamayo and Herman J. Hernandez, a Guerneville real estate broker and president of the county’s largest Latino leadership group, Los Cien.

Not long after his arrival, Chong reached out to Los Cien. Hernandez said the group was small at the time, meeting in a room at a Mary’s Pizza Shack in Santa Rosa.

Although he’s lived in Sonoma County for 45 years, Hernandez said he met previous SRJC presidents only twice. Chong, on the other hand, has became a regular at Los Cien’s monthly meetings and has supported the Russian River Rotary Club, which offers English-language courses to Spanish-speaking families.

Chong came out one year to congratulate students who had gone through the program. Hernandez said he made a lasting impression on those students. Many had never met a college official before, he said.

“All those students remember that day,” Hernandez said. “Frank has created a lot of goodwill (and) a lot of friendships. He’s opened up the college to where years ago it didn’t seem to be so open.”

Berkeley ties

Tamayo first met the college president at the Fountaingrove Business Club. Both loved to golf and had attended UC Berkeley, where Chong earned a bachelor’s degree in social welfare and Asian-American studies.

“I found him very easy to speak to. He’s a great listener,” said Tamayo, a co-founder of the Elsie Allen High School Foundation. “It’s a great sign of a leader.”

After learning that many students at Elsie Allen had never visited the SRJC campus, Chong went to the high school to meet with them, Tamayo said. The following year, he worked with school officials to get the students on campus.

“For so many students, just being able to go to the JC and having that experience is a game-changer,” Tamayo said. “Frank has been a great champion.”

It’s all about building partnerships, Chong said.

The partnership will be important as the college moves forward. Call said SRJC is going to face another tough financial year. The college is looking at a $5 million budget shortfall for the upcoming school year, in part because of declining enrollment.

Call said the college started adding classes when the economy began to bounce back. However, students weren’t enrolling at the level college administrators were expecting.

“Now we have to reverse ourselves,” he said. The college likely will have to cut the number of classes offered next fall, Call said.

Student support

Chong said he’s also looking to address the homelessness problem among students. It is estimated that 800 students live in shelters or sleep on the streets or on someone’s couch.

The college is looking for ways to support students not only academically but financially, Battenfeld said. She said the president recognizes the challenges students face living in a county with skyrocketing housing costs.

“He really understands the challenges that the JC is facing right now and has a really good sense of what it needs to do to move forward,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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