SMC President Tsang reflects on retirement

In front of a crowd of roughly a hundred at Soka Gokkai International on Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica College President Dr. Chui L. Tsang expounded the fundamentals of the college’s Global Citizenship initiative. The school-wide initiative is one of the many legacies Tsang will leave behind for the college when he retires at the end of the school year. Tsang related global citizenship to Soka Gokkai’s buddhist views in that they both seek to instill in people the ideas of interconnectedness between all living things, respect for differences of others, compassion and empathy, and the idea of cultivation as one of education’s major roles.

When Tsang first started as president and superintendent of SMC in late 2006, no other colleges had an initiative like Global Citizenship and he worked with the Board of Trustees to make it happen. In an interview, Tsang revealed that when he began, he had set his tenure to last eight years before retiring.

“Eight years would have been last year,” says Tsang one afternoon in his office. “But it was not a very good period for me to resign.” He mentioned the college losing Executive Vice-President Randal Lawson, numerous construction projects that were still in flux, and most crucially, the college just coming back from a rough economic period.

During that period, the Board of Trustees and Tsang faced fervent opposition from students over contract education, which Tsang referred to as a self-funded program which would benefit the entire college, and not as it became commonly known among protesters and media outlets, “two-tier education.”

Tsang says he still doesn’t understand why it was so highly opposed by some students.

“When we proposed to offer that program, it was at a time when we were on the verge of eliminating the entire winter session,” said Tsang of the dire economic climate in California at the time. “Other colleges were just looking to close the college, and many did. We were different.” The winter session ended up being funded by the Associated Students that year.

Tsang thinks the idea would have provided an option, much like UCLA Extension does, for students to pay out of pocket for classes where otherwise they would not have classes available to them. To him, it was a chance for students to finish classes even faster and move closer to graduation.

“It was not a bad proposal, just one that was bad at that time,” says Tsang.

He notes how the climate at the college has changed much since then with winter and summer sessions no longer under threat and the number of offered courses at the college rising closer to its 2008 height.

He is aware that students still have trouble adding courses, particularly in the Mathematics department and notes that classes have opened up through petitions from students before and that SMC is hiring an average of 20 tenure-tracked full-time professors on a yearly basis. “With every full-time hire we have, we expect the person to stay here for their entire academic career,” said Tsang. In reference to the availability of math classes, he says “anyone with good math skills can find employment in many different fields. In some sense, we’re competing with private business for talent.”

“Every institution will have its own challenges over time,” says Tsang. “When there are events that we can control and events that we can’t control.”

Tsang himself is a product of the community college system, transferring to Berkeley and then earning his doctorate in linguistics from Stanford. “I understand why students come here, how we can best help students,” saysTsang. “Our lower division education rivals the best of any public universities.”

Tsang is not the only school official retiring. Last year, Vice-President of Academic Affairs Jeff Shimizu retired but returned to assist in the wake of Lawson’s passing; He will return to retirement in time. Mona Martin, Dean of Library Resources, also retired over the winter. “There’s been an acceleration of retirement recently because the baby boomers, my generation, are coming to the end of our working life,” Tsang points out. “So we’re seeing many transitions.”

The Board of Trustees will hire search consultants to begin a nationwide search for Tsang’s replacement soon. It will be up to the incoming president to fill the vice-president and dean roles which will also be vacant. In addition, the new president will fill a key role in the completion of current projects like the construction of the Student Services Building that has been in some stage of construction for the majority of Tsang’s term, and a new Math building that is only in the early planning stages.

“I see my retirement as something that will be positive for the college,” said Tsang. “Sometimes, it would be great to have new leaders with new vision and new energy to take this to a new level.”