Hasty Departure for Head of Calif.'s New Online College

After less than a year on the job, Heather Hiles is stepping down as CEO of Calbright College, California's new online-only community college.

January 14, 2020
 
Courtesy California Community Colleges
Heather Hiles

The president and CEO of the new online venture started by California's community college system has announced her resignation less than a year into her tenure.

Heather Hiles, Calbright College's first CEO, will step down effective March 31 and will be on leave until that time, according to a news release from Tom Epstein, president of Calbright's Board of Trustees.

The board voted unanimously Monday to accept a separation agreement with Hiles. The board plans to hire an interim CEO while searching for a permanent replacement. It has not yet announced who will fill the interim role.

The quick departure of its first official leader is another setback for the state system's new venture, which has faced criticism after a significant infusion of state funds.

"I think it's big news, and it definitely was not expected," said Phil Hill, an education technology consultant and blogger. Hill said he's watching to see what further information the college releases, as well as whom the board picks as Hiles's replacement, to determine what might have gone awry.

Others say this news could just be a sign of the growing pains that frequently accompany new endeavors.

"This type of turnover is not uncommon in this type of start-up," said Russ Poulin, executive director of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) Cooperative for Educational Technologies. "It is really difficult to do these things at the start."

Poulin cited other now-established start-ups, like Western Governors University, which had interim leaders for a time before naming a permanent president.

At the same time, Poulin said the lack of leaders with higher education experience is a concern at Calbright. While the president doesn't necessarily need to have that experience, someone on the team should, he said.

"It’ll be interesting to watch how they spin this and how different the institution itself will be," he said, adding that the choice of the next president will be "very important."

The Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, which has from the start criticized the creation and funding of a new institution as unnecessary, expressed its continued skepticism of the venture, no matter the leadership, in a statement Monday.

“We wish Heather Hiles the best in her future endeavors. FACCC and other faculty groups have not been shy about sharing concerns about Calbright since its inception. We continue to question the value of Calbright," the statement read, adding, "Unfortunately, new leadership alone will not fix this inherently flawed use of state resources."

Hiles was hired last February to lead the new college on a four-year contract with a base salary of $385,000, according to EdSource. The college opened in October and has since enrolled about 300 students in its three program pathways. Its goal was to enroll about 400 students in its first class, according to Education Dive.

She faced a series of challenges leading the venture. The initial funds -- about $100 million for start-up costs and an annual investment of $20 million -- were set aside by former California governor Jerry Brown. The plan was to create an online-only community college that would provide job-specific training and nondegree options for adults. Brown envisioned it as a connector to degree-offering community colleges for students who wanted to continue their education.

Hiles did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In a statement provided to California-based journalist Mikhail Zinshteyn (an Inside Higher Ed contributor), she said now that the college is operational, it's time for her to step down and pursue other work she was engaged in before starting Calbright.

Critics, which included the Community College Council of the California Federation of Teachers, previously told Inside Higher Ed that Calbright "shouldn't exist" and that its money should instead go to the state's 114 existing community colleges, many of which have workforce-related programs.

The choice to hire Hiles further set the online college apart from traditional higher education initiatives. It was her first full-time position at a college or university. She had most recently started an online learning platform and served as a deputy director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and had founded four other ventures in the past.

In a statement, Epstein said the board "appreciates the leadership provided by Ms. Hiles during her tenure."

"We look forward to working closely with the public officials who entrusted us with oversight responsibility of Calbright to make the college a success," he said in the statement. "We welcome the input and involvement of all stakeholders in the community college system."

The college did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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