Dr. Sonya Christian
Dr. Sonya Christian. Photo via the Kern Community College District website

The new top executive of California’s 116 community colleges will be a familiar face: Sonya Christian, current chancellor of Kern Community College District and a longtime campus administrator in the Central Valley region.

She will be the first woman appointed as permanent chancellor and the first person of South Asian heritage to lead the nation’s largest system of public higher education. The California Community Colleges Board of Governors formally hired her Thursday at a public hearing after conducting a half-year search following the resignation of its previous chancellor, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, last summer. Nineteen candidates applied and four were finalists.

“I do feel a sense of urgency and moral obligation to the job at hand,” Christian said at the meeting. She cited the system’s enrollment woes, partisan politics, artificial intelligence and other huge shifts to the workplace that pressure community colleges to prepare students in new ways. “We have no choice but to succeed. Our time is now.”  

Christian, 56, will receive a starting salary of roughly $411,000 and merit pay of up to 7%. Her first contract lasts four years and she’ll receive pay increases of $15,000, $20,000 and $25,000, respectively, between years two and four of her tenure. 

She earned her bachelor’s degree at University of Kerala in Kerala, India, according to a biography the system provided to reporters. She also earned a master’s degree in applied math from USC and a doctorate in education from UCLA, CalMatters confirmed with both institutions.

The new chancellor will begin her tenure June 1. Interim Chancellor Daisy Gonzales will continue to lead the system until then.

“Dr. Sonya Christian is one of our nation’s most dynamic college leaders, with a demonstrated record of collaboration and results in the Central Valley,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a written statement.

As a multi-school executive, Christian is relatively new. She has led the three-campus Kern district since 2021, but she was president of its largest institution, Bakersfield College, from 2013 to 2021 and previously taught math at the college.

While she was president, the campus’ graduation rates rose, the percentage of students completing required math and English courses to transfer to four-year universities increased and, in 2021, the school was, for the first time, identified as one of the 150 most exemplary community colleges in the country by the influential Aspen Institute

But the school trailed community colleges in the Central Valley and statewide in graduation and transfer rates, according to a CalMatters review of publicly available data. Nor did the campus make a major dent in narrowing the graduation- and transfer-rate gaps among student racial and ethnic groups. Transfer rates overall also barely budged at Bakersfield College.

Christian will lead a system shaken mightily by the COVID-19 pandemic, one that lost roughly 300,000 students — down from 2.1 million —  since fall 2019 and is only now seeing signs of a modest rebound in enrollment. The loose system of colleges also aspires to narrow pervasive graduation-rate gaps across racial and ethnic groups, outcomes that past community colleges officials admitted won’t likely happen.

She’ll oversee a system in the throes of change, including state laws requiring community colleges to enroll more students in math and English courses required to get into a University of California or California State University campus. Another is an overhaul of the courses students are required to take at community colleges to transfer into those two universities. Some faculty groups opposed the various changes to transfer policy. 

And while Oakley’s tenure was marked by ever-increasing state budgets that poured billions more dollars into community colleges, austerity likely lies ahead for Christian as California grapples with a projected $22.5 billion budget deficit.

A Great Pick

Christian as system chancellor “is a great pick,” said Oakley in a phone interview, who added that he wasn’t part of her hiring process. (Oakley leads a group that supports CalMatters financially but has no influence over the newsroom’s coverage.)

His list of reasons is long: Christian’s deep roots in Bakersfield are an asset for a system whose top goals include educating more students in the region and other communities with large populations of low-income students and students who are from Black, Latino and Pacific Islander backgrounds. Bakersfield is in the Central Valley, among the poorest regions in the state and one where fewer adults earn any type of college degree.

Oakley also credited her for emphasizing green-energy jobs and supporting programs to narrow graduation gaps among racial and ethnic groups in a conservative part of the state, where such efforts are often less popular, he suggested. 

“She talked about equity and transitioning to a green economy in a very difficult environment,” Oakley said.

That Chrisian is an immigrant herself taking over a system with a large population of students born abroad makes her particularly suitable for the job, said board of governors member Felicia Escobar Carrillo today. “I think that’s really something special and something to be celebrated.”

Other Challenges

Some colleges may receive less state money once a new funding formula takes full effect in less than three years. Currently, the state is “holding harmless” college districts that would generate less state support based on the new funding formula, which for the first time takes into account not just student enrollment but also how many students are low-income and how many graduate or transfer. That safety net disappears in 2025-26. Though state law would prevent any college district from collecting less state money than they did in 2024-25, several advocates fear that some colleges will generate less revenue through the formula than they need to fully fund their operations.

“We hope that the new chancellor can lead us through this precarious time and ensure that our colleges can, and I hate to be this dire but, stay open,” said Evan Hawkins, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, in a phone interview.

Christian was a member of the task force responsible for implementing the formula, Hawkins noted, suggesting she’s among the best informed about the formula’s nuances.

Oakley, whose tenure sometimes enraged faculty, argued that colleges have had since 2019 to prepare for the funding shift, a change he championed so that campuses had financial incentives to enroll low-income students and improve graduation and transfer rates.

“Colleges are operating with revenue they haven’t necessarily earned,” Oakley said. Still, California is home to many students enrolled in online universities that operate in other states, so “there’s plenty of enrollment,” he said, but it’s up to colleges to “want to adjust themselves to capture that enrollment.”

How to do that will be among the many jobs awaiting Christian.

“We must expand the canopy of community college learners,” she said today. “And this means focusing on communities that have remained in generational poverty.”

And a brand new challenge awaits her: Just hours before Christian’s appointment, the state auditor released a report criticizing the community colleges for employing too few full-time faculty and knocking the chancellor’s office for miscounting how many full-time faculty teach classes — a major impediment to a long-time state goal to have at least 75% of instruction taught by full-time faculty. The report also singled out two districts, including Kern, the district Christian ran the past two years, for being unable to prove it spent new state money to hire additional full-time faculty. 

Many Interest Groups, Limited Power

UC and Cal State systems revolve around centralized offices and top executives who hold huge sway over how campuses operate. Not so at the California Community Colleges. Its Office of the Chancellor shares power with a confederation of 72 locally controlled districts overseeing 115 physical campuses. Each district has its own labor contracts and must contend with local political dynamics that are often far removed from Sacramento.

“There’s a natural tension” between the central office and the local districts, said Larry Galizio, president and CEO of the Community College League of California, an advocacy group for local college executives and trustees.

He views the chancellor’s office and the statewide board as key players in setting goals for colleges but not in telling colleges how to reach them — “tell us the what, but not the how,” he said. But some local college leaders felt “that there was overreach” during Oakley’s tenure, Galizio said. Many labor groups agreed.

Whether that mood will change with Christian is unclear. The systemwide board of governors specified that the next chancellor must follow the accountability framework Oakley created with the board’s input. That document, called Vision for Success, now guides the governor’s oversight of the community college system.

“Make no mistake, this board remains committed to the Vision for Success and a roadmap that is evidenced by our choice in Dr. Christian today,” said board president Amy M. Costa today.

In other words, a source of tension between the Chancellor’s Office and constituent groups isn’t going away.

“I think that it will be just a lot of the same, which of course, from our perspective, is a bit challenging,” Hawkins said.

He hopes that Christian proposes no new big academic and funding overhauls that characterized Oakley’s tenure and instead gives colleges time to put in place those changes..

“We’ve really got a lot on our table,” Hawkins said. 

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.