In summary

Heather Hiles, founder of Pathbrite and a Newsom appointee when he was San Francisco mayor, will run the controversial new online college signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.

California’s community college system has chosen an entrepreneur with a background in technology and philanthropy to lead its controversial new online college, as system leaders push to meet a fall deadline to have the school up and running.

The college’s board of trustees voted Wednesday to hire Heather Hiles, the founder of digital portfolio platform Pathbrite and a former official at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as CEO. Her salary will be $385,000.

The hiring is yet another signal that the state is charting a non-traditional course with the new college, which will provide working-age adults with short-term credentials in industries with high demand. The community college system has sought advice from employers and labor unions as it develops curriculum pathways in medical coding, IT support and frontline supervision.

Hiles most recently served as CEO of Imminent Equity, a venture capital fund. A graduate of the Yale School of Management, she oversaw communications for Gov. Gavin Newsom while he was running for mayor of San Francisco in 2003, and Newsom subsequently appointed her to a seat on the San Francisco Unified School District board. She also co-founded SF Works, a non-profit focused on workforce development.

Tom Epstein, president of the online college’s board of trustees, said Hiles’ experience in technology and “social innovation” was part of her appeal.

“Nobody better understands the communities the college aims to serve—the needs of both working adults and hiring managers in the modern economy—than she does,” Epstein said in a statement.

“I think it’s the biggest challenge I’ve had the opportunity to take on,” Hiles told CALmatters.

“There are easily 10 million Californians who are underemployed or have to work multiple jobs to survive. People are looking for the information and the social networks that can get them the kinds of jobs they want.”

Hiles added that she relishes the chance to work with a “blank canvas” and envisions the college developing its own custom technology to deliver curriculum. She steps into a high-profile position: Other states will be closely watching the experiment in California, which has the largest community college system in the country.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown budgeted $100 million to start the online college with the provision that it enroll its first class by Fall 2019. Community colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley has made the system’s 115th college a focus of his tenure, saying he sees it as an alternative to more expensive vocational training available at for-profit colleges.

About four million California adults ages 25 to 64 have attended some college but did not earn a degree and are not currently enrolled, according to a report by California Competes, a nonpartisan think tank. The online college aims to lure some of them back to higher education with flexible, competency-based courses.

But the decision to create a separate online college with its own governing structure, rather than bolster online programs at existing community colleges, has ruffled feathers among faculty. The Faculty Association of the California Community Colleges opposed the college’s creation, citing concerns about how much input existing faculty would have in creating the curriculum, and whether the college’s employees would be unionized.

“We look forward to working with [Hiles] on making sure those issues are addressed,” said FACCC executive director Evan Hawkins.

Trustee Man Phan, a Cosumnes River College professor, was the only board member not to vote yes on Hiles’ contract. He called the compensation package excessive, saying he abstained because he thought Hiles was qualified but should not earn so much more than other college presidents and the system’s faculty.

Hiles, who has not worked at a college, said she learned how to collaborate with educators during her time at Pathbrite. She said she wants the new college to not only create its own curriculum but find “ways to bring new life to curriculum already created by faculty.” And she raised the possibility of faculty participating in externships at the companies where their students are seeking work.

Some face-to-face interaction will also be important for the college’s students, she said, whether it takes the form of weekly seminars or internships. “A pure online offering does not work well with people who haven’t been successful in education in the past,” she said.

Oakley said in a December interview that the college was on track to open in the fall—though its initial cohort will be “relatively small,” likely under 1,000 students, and might be limited to the medical coding program.

Though the new college is a public institution, close collaboration with industry has been a hallmark of the its early development. The advance team received input on curriculum from major technology companies, Kaiser Permanente, Amazon, Walmart and the Service Employees International Union, among other groups, Oakley said.

Walmart has donated nearly $2.4 million to fund training programs at the college that will help retail workers become supervisors.

Still, Oakley said that the college would focus on training workers broadly rather than meeting the needs of individual companies.

“We are not the training arm for any one employer,” he said.

This story and other higher education coverage are being supported by College Futures Foundation. 

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Felicia Mello covers the state's economic divide. Prior to this role, she was editor for CalMatters' College Journalism Network, a collaboration with student journalists across California to cover higher...