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Revamping community colleges


By all indications, the trustees of Baltimore County's three community colleges have chosen well in selecting Daniel J. LaVista, an experienced educator and administrator, for the newly created position of system chancellor. Colleagues describe Dr. LaVista, 51, as a forceful yet compassionate leader, an excellent fund-raiser and a good communicator, befitting someone with a background in English, speech and theater.

The new chancellor will need all these skills and more as he takes over a network of colleges that has had its share of troubles lately. Like many public education systems, the Baltimore County community colleges had to absorb financial hits while their student rolls swelled. From 1988 to 1994, the county's contributions to the colleges at Dundalk, Essex and Catonsville dropped by some 20 percent. The amount of state aid has likewise fallen. These reductions, combined with enrollment growth, have caused student costs to double since the mid-1970s.

A streamlining of the system was inevitable, especially given that Baltimore County was the only U.S. jurisdiction whose community colleges were run by separate presidents and administrations. No wonder there have been duplication and other forms of mismanagement. A consultant who recommended last winter that the schools merge under one chancellor noted as well that the trustees could not perform their traditional oversight duties because they were too involved in daily operations.

Under the new arrangement that officially takes effect Sept. 1, each college will still have its own president. But they will answer to Dr. LaVista, who will report to the board of trustees. This approach can work only if the chancellor lives up to his reputation for forcefulness and makes it clear from the start that he is the boss, that power and policy flow from his office. Otherwise, the three presidents could slide back into their independent and competitive ways. Dr. LaVista will also have to deal with the aftermath of the Essex administration's rebuke by a national professors association for the allegedly unjust firing of four faculty members.

The community college, an increasingly popular choice for students of varied interests and ages, must continue to perform its valuable service while fending off challenges of all kinds, from academic to economic to social. The united system, which will be called the Community Colleges of Baltimore County, should be up the task with Dan LaVista in charge.

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