Why Kern County needs to diversify its higher education leadership

In summary

Kern County has a major opportunity to add executive leaders to its community colleges and university who reflect the region’s majority Latino population.

Guest Commentary written by

Mark Martinez

Mark Martinez

Mark Martinez is a professor at Cal State Bakersfield and chair of the political science department.

In February 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Dale A. Drozd ruled that the Kern County supervisorial districts that were drawn up in 2011 violated the Voting Rights Act. Specifically, acknowledging that Latinos made up a majority of the county’s population, Drozd said the districts illegally split and diluted their voting power and ordered officials to redraw the maps.

Today, the local higher education system faces a similar challenge. Kern County’s population is now more than 56% Latino, yet the Kern Community College District – made up of three community colleges that serve a Latino-dominated population – and Cal State Bakersfield, which serves a student population with 63% Latinos, altogether have only two Latino academic deans and one interim president who is Black.

Representation in our government’s public institutions lies at the heart of our democratic experience and is key to citizens’ rights, as Chief Justice Earl Warren’s Supreme Court ruled in the 1962 case Baker v. Carr. While the court focused on voting and the disproportionate population counts between districts, Warren warned against any “arbitrary impairment by state action” that sustained a system of either “false tallies” or demographic undercounts.

Representation is the heart of our country’s constitutional promise. Warren’s ruling – which he later called his life’s most significant court decision – helps us understand the opportunities for change in Kern County’s public institutions of higher education.

The Kern Community College District is searching for a new chancellor, while Bakersfield College, one of the state’s largest community colleges, will begin taking applications for its presidency next year. And with Cal State Bakersfield President Lynnette Zelezny’s announcement that she will retire at the end of the year, the university is also searching for a new president.

Kern County has a major opportunity to add executive leaders to its community colleges and university who reflect the region. The Baker v. Carr decision and the 2018 order from Judge Drozd should guide these efforts.

The need for representative executive leadership is especially critical for two reasons: First, the university has one of the lowest college graduation rates in the CSU system. Second, the percentage of people in Kern County with bachelor’s degrees trails both Mississippi and Alabama, making Bakersfield in the one of the least educated cities in the U.S.

Asking regional and state leaders to build a strong pool of Latino applicants is not an institutional stretch, either, considering how issues of representation have been handled in the state’s courts.

After taking office, Gov. Gavin Newsom looked at the demographic face of California and saw an imbalance with its judiciary. With Latinos representing 40% of the population and Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders making up 15%, California’s judicial system was minority dominant.

It wasn’t even close, actually. In 2020, while 65% of California’s judges were white, 28 of California’s 58 counties had no Latino judges. Newsom has worked quietly to change these numbers.

In March – at the swearing in of California’s first Latina Supreme Court justice – Newsom highlighted how, out of the 288 judges he’s appointed, at least 169, or 59%, were people of color and more than half were women. The governor understands that deliberate action is required to meet the spirit of the law.

Any effort to remake Kern County’s higher education leadership so that it’s more representative of the people it serves would help move in the constitutional direction Earl Warren understood, that Judge Drozd’s 2018 ruling embraced, and Newsom’s judicial appointments clearly honor.