New SDCCD acting chancellor champions public service, equity

A community college graduate himself, Greg Smith understands what District students are going through


Acting Chancellor Greg Smith presents at the SDCCD Classified Professionals Service Awards, May 15, 2023. SDCCD on Flickr

Marco Guajardo, Multimedia Journalist

Greg Smith spent sixth grade in Mrs. Brown’s classroom trying to shake the feeling that she didn’t like him. 

Smith noticed in several of his attempts to comment during class discussions that she would ultimately respond to the contrary in some form. 

Nonetheless, to young Greg’s surprise, Mrs. Brown approached him in the middle of an activity during the last week of school to express her sincere appreciation for his participation in her classroom that year.

The unsuspecting pupil blurted back to his teacher, “I thought you hated me.”

As he remembered, Mrs. Brown, a black woman, reassured Smith that she only wanted him to understand that “not everybody experiences the world the same way you do.”

Gaining more life experiences and learning about the inequities of the world, it became very clear what his sixth grade teacher had attempted to impart.

“And that’s the power of education,” said Smith, now the acting chancellor of the San Diego Community College District.

“It’s beyond just the value of what you learn from an academic perspective,” he added. “The ability to learn from each other on a human level and the importance that our teachers, professors or instructors can have in helping us understand the world that we’re going out to interact in, it has stuck with me.”

On his road to SDCCD, Smith purposefully pieced these culturally significant lessons together into practice. They now define the equity-focused goals, values, and leadership style he brings to the district as acting chancellor. 

Executive Vice Chancellor, Business and Technology Services Bonnie Ann Dowd was celebrated during a retirement party on December 13, 2022.
Acting Chancellor and Vice Chancellor of People, Culture and Technology Services Greg Smith, second from the left, celebrates the retirement of former Executive Vice Chancellor of Business and Technology services Bonnie Ann Dowd with district administrators, including City College President Ricky Shabazz, far left, on December 13, 2022. SDCCD on Flickr

That road all started, incidentally, with younger Smith knowing that regardless of which path he went down, it would ultimately lead him to land in San Diego. 

Though the California native was raised in Ridgecrest, a small town in the Mojave Desert, Smith’s father was born and raised in San Diego and would frequently bring his family down from the high desert to visit their relatives. 

Smith was enthusiastic about his childhood family visits and always wondered why his parents moved away from San Diego.

Smith “made it a career goal to get here (to San Diego) as soon as I possibly could,” he said. “Took a few years but I finally found my way.”

Finding his way brought him full circle in more ways than one. 

Neither of his parents went to college and Smith said it was important to them that he did. 

“But how do you do that, how do you succeed, what do you do when you show up on day one – they couldn’t help me with that,” Smith said. “And they did not make enough money to make other options available.”

While enduring the sight of many of his friends leaving straight to four-year universities, Smith decided enrolling at Cerro Coso Community College would be his best route coming out of high school.

Beginning in 1995, his experience at Cerro Coso opened his eyes to the quality of the education community colleges can provide. Smith said he came away debt-free and above all encountered a faculty more directly invested in the success of their students than what he found at the more prestigious universities he later attended.

After successfully completing the transfer requirements toward a degree in English Literature and taking a few detours, Smith moved to Phoenix, Arizona in 1999. There, the institutional and bureaucratic roadblocks of being classified as an out-of-state student for three years made it unaffordable for him to attend Arizona State University

With ASU on the back burner, a job at Fry’s Electronics gave Smith the opportunity to start working in sales as an installer of high-end custom electronics. Smith was able to have some success but quickly found the work limiting.

“Yeah, it feels good helping somebody really be able to enjoy (a) movie at home,” Smith said, “but you’re not making your community a better place.” 

That realization led him to apply for a part-time job at the U.S. Department of Labor in 2004 and sent him further on his road to SDCCD.

Before finding his way back to San Diego, Smith got his start in higher education administration at Shasta Community College, contributing his skillset to the social and cultural transformations around diversity, equity and inclusion taking place. 

Stacey Bartlett, Dean of Arts, Communication and Social Sciences at Shasta, worked closely with Smith and recounted the value of his contributions during his four-year tenure. 

“You can imagine finding somebody who not only supports diversity, but really embraces it and wants it to become really powerful for the students at Shasta, for the faculty and staff, and Greg really was that beacon,” Bartlett said. “People who had never really had talked about diversity and talked about equity issues, who it wasn’t in their worldview to even be aware of it, he brought it (to them) and made it really accessible.”

Smith came across the Shasta opportunity in 2016 while pursuing his Master’s Degree in Public Administration at the University of Southern California, and coincidentally winding down a 12-year tenure in which he moved up the regional ranks at the U.S. Department of Labor as an Equal Employment Opportunity investigator.

As a discrimination investigator at the DOL, Smith worked on reforming organizational cultures and hiring practices, which gradually convinced him of the importance of organizational culture to employee experiences within a company.

“I would interview employees,” he said, “and they would talk about what it felt like to come to work every day and how much that got influenced by the way that human resources set the tone for what’s acceptable, what’s not, by how they enforced or didn’t enforce policies.”

However, he realized his work wasn’t having a meaningful impact. Companies seemingly showed concern about discrimination and equal employment opportunity as they were being investigated by Smith, but would resume their unethical practices as soon as he turned his back.

He wanted to have a more direct impact on the people that public money would ultimately serve.

The stars aligned for him at that moment, as he had reached a ceiling at the Department of Labor and already started down the academic path of training for direct public service. 

Marvin Jordan, Smith’s former supervisor and regional director at the DOL, knew it was only a matter of time before his star employee would move on to seek a greater purpose.

“I just immediately saw his investigative prowess, his potential, his ability to think on his feet and get ahead of me with a lot of things,” Jordan said. “It’s time for him to stop just doing what he’s told, I’ve got to get obstacles out of his way so that he can freely think and soar.”

While celebrating his achievements, Jordan reflected on Smith’s departure and said that in his 17 years with the department, “he was my greatest loss.”

When he started looking into public service as a career, Smith saw the emphasis on community colleges having Equal Employment Opportunity plans and addressing diversity.

As it turned out, Shasta College was looking for a director of HR focused on developing an EEO plan and conducting equity analysis.

The community college alumnus landed at his destination and closed the loop in 2020 when the SDCCD brought him on board as Vice Chancellor of People, Culture and Technology Services.

Smith stepped in to fill the role left by Carlos Cortez who resigned from his chancellorship May 1 to care for his parents after taking a period of emergency family leave. 

Having participated in the development of the District Strategic Plan under the leadership of Cortez, Smith is making a seamless transition as acting chancellor.

Smith finds great satisfaction in fulfilling his ideals, which has afforded him the opportunity to give back to the type of institution that set him on his path. 

“The opportunity to come back to our system, after I went out and had some life experiences, to get back to that was, I just feel so much personal value in my work,” Smith said. “Reinvesting in an education system that says no matter who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve done, what your struggles, what your triumphs have been, this is a system that will help you succeed, that’s a really cool thing to be a part of.”