Head of California’s new online community college abruptly resigns

In Summary

Heather Hiles had hoped to draw on tech industry experience to launch the college. But community college faculty complained the courses were redundant, a no-bid contract with a connected Bay Area recruiter drew attention and no full-time faculty have yet been hired. 

Only a few months after enrolling its first class of students, California’s new online community college is parting ways with its CEO. Heather Hiles, who worked in technology, venture capital and philanthropy before taking the helm at Calbright College, has resigned effective March 31, after being placed on paid administrative leave last Friday.

A statement Monday from Calbright board president Tom Epstein said the board appreciated Hiles’ leadership in enrolling the college’s first cohort, and would appoint an interim successor. Hiles could not immediately be reached for comment.

More than 450 students have signed up for three tuition-free career pathways in medical coding, cybersecurity and information technology. But Calbright’s launch has not been without hiccups.

“We look forward to working closely with the public officials who entrusted us with oversight responsibility of Calbright to make the college a success,” the statement read. “Calbright has the potential to be a powerful resource to help low-income and disadvantaged Californians move up the economic ladder. We are determined to fill that goal.”

Launched in 2018 with enthusiastic support from former Gov. Jerry Brown and community colleges chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the college aims to provide working adults who never completed a college degree with a path toward living-wage jobs. 

More than 450 students have signed up for three tuition-free career pathways in medical coding, cybersecurity and information technology since the college opened enrollment in October. Oakley has said he sees Calbright as an alternative to for-profit colleges, which also serve many low-income, older students but often leave them burdened with debt and few job prospects.

But Calbright has faced critiques from community college faculty that it was simply duplicating online courses already being offered at other colleges in the system, and its debut has not been without hiccups. The college has yet to hire any full-time faculty, according to spokesperson Taylor Huckaby, though three deans and a small number of contract instructors have begun guiding students through the curriculum.

“We continue to question the value of Calbright,” the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges said Monday in a statement responding to Hiles’ resignation. “Unfortunately, new leadership alone will not fix this inherently flawed use of state resources.”

Hired in February at a salary of $385,000, Hiles called the Calbright job a career-capping challenge, expressing hopes to draw on experience creating the digital portfolio site Pathbrite to help the college develop its own custom technology.

But some of Hiles’ actions raised eyebrows — like the signing of a $500,000 no-bid contract with a politically connected executive recruiter to fill top positions. Some board members abstained from ratifying the contract, saying bidding should have been competitive.

The Legislature set aside $100 million in startup funds for the college, along with $20 million annually in ongoing funding. The 2020-2021 budget Governor Gavin Newsom proposed last week would keep that funding intact, while also increasing funding for online continuing education programs provided by University of California and California State University extension programs.

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