A new chancellor for SDCCD faces unprecedented issues

New problems arise during the return to campus for a new leader

New Chancellor Dr. Carlos O. Turner Cortez

New Chancellor Carlos Turner Cortez is pictured at the SDCCD’s César E. Chávez Campus in Barrio Logan. SDCCD courtesy photo

Marlena Harvey, Editor-In-Chief

For the San Diego Community College District, a new school year after a global pandemic meant more than just reopening campuses. After being chancellor of the SDCCD for 17 years, Constance Carroll retired and Carlos Turner Cortez was chosen to replace her. 

“We wanted someone who would carry the work forward that our former chancellor did,” said Maria Nieto Senour, president of the SDCCD Board of Trustees. “We wanted someone who could create new ideas, was an innovator, and who was committed to the values of our board and our district.”

Cortez has been in education for the last 23 years, most recently serving as the president of the San Diego College of Continuing Education. Formerly called San Diego Continuing Education, it is the noncredit college in the San Diego Community College District.

“It’s very rewarding for me to be able to be in a position where the decisions I make and the choices I’ve decided upon have real consequences on the students we serve and their families,” Cortez said.

Cortez spoke to City Times via Zoom in late September about his first semester on the job during unprecedented times and the difficulties of reopening after a global pandemic. 

“We have unique challenges,” Cortez said. “My job is to try to find the space in the middle where stakeholders can come to some degree of consensus.”

Cortez explained that most students and faculty have been supportive of putting in enhanced protections on campus like masks and social distancing. He also said most stakeholders want to reopen fully as soon as possible. 

“The amount of tension around these conversations is probably what surprised me the most,” Cortez said.

The district hopes to be fully open and operational by January 2022, according to Cortez.

Community colleges across the state of California are struggling with enrollment after the COVID-19 pandemic, according to researchers at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The pressure to get enrollment up is another challenge Cortez faces as he settles into his new position.

With plans of reopening in the near future, Cortez said he and the Board of Trustees are working on ways to expand enrollment for spring. 

Affordable and accessible student housing is high on the list of priorities for Cortez, who said he is already pushing the district to help students who previously did not have access to housing. 

But due to decreased enrollment post-pandemic, class sizes have shrunk, leading to the SDCCD budget shrinking with them.  

“Reopening after COVID, enrollment and the budget are all really one problem,” Cortez said. 

Until enrollment is back up and campuses can fully reopen, giving students access to more affordable housing options is a less attainable goal.

Maria Senour, president of the Board of Trustees, spoke of Cortez’s ability to innovate and create new ideas and also said he is a role model for underrepresented groups. 

“He’s a young guy with a lot of energy,” Senour said. “We thought this would be a brilliant leader for our community. As a Latino, as a gay man, he personifies diversity in his own being.” 

In a Board of Trustees meeting in early September, Cortez was criticized over his reaction to a recent American Federation of Teachers Local 1941 union resolution about occupied Palestinian Territories. 

The resolution sparked controversy, with some arguing it was antisemitic, while others said criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians was warranted. 

In response, Cortez stated the district champions free speech to the extent that it has codified its commitment to civility and diplomacy. 

Cortez said he will continue to plan with faculty, staff, students, and shareholders on how to safely fully reopen campus as soon as possible. 

“The students come first,” Cortez said.