As two California higher education systems continue to feud, lawmakers have entered the equation using a route usually reserved for irate retirees: A strongly worded letter.

The matter at hand — the 1,300-student Feather River College in rural Plumas County offering a bachelor’s degree in applied fire management — has become a lightning rod issue, sparking delays and anger on both sides. 

“I was quite frankly shocked and disheartened,” said California State
University Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester
 at a trustees’ meeting, claiming that the community college system had “acted unilaterally” and out of accordance with the law by approving the bachelor’s degree program at Feather River.

At the same meeting, Koester stressed that each component of the state’s higher education system — the 116 community colleges, 23 California State Universities campuses, and 10 University of California campuses — play a distinct role. 

Koester’s objection stems from the Master Plan for Higher Education California adopted in 1960 and tweaked occasionally since. In that plan, the University of California system has sole jurisdiction to award doctorate degrees; the UC and CSU systems should both award bachelor’s degrees; and community colleges are supposed to function as vocational instruction, plus undergraduate education for students who then transfer to a UC or CSU. 

The crux of the current kerfuffle is a law that went into effect last year that allows the Community College Chancellor’s Office to establish as many as 30 new bachelor’s degree programs every year at any one of its 116 colleges, with certain caveats. Most importantly, the bachelor’s degree program cannot be “duplicative” of “existing baccalaureate programs offered by state universities.” 

Cal State officials have argued that the applied fire management program at Feather River duplicates a bachelor’s program at Cal Poly Humboldt, though Humboldt’s doesn’t yet exist. The two colleges are roughly 270 miles apart, a five and a half hour drive. The Feather River program would theoretically enroll 20 to 25 students in its first year. 

A ‘red herring’ 

To the CSU Academic Senate, the debate is also about enrollment and money. 

In a resolution last year, it called on the CSU system to study the financial impact of allowing community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees, which they fear could lead to “reduced enrollment in CSUprograms, a reduction in revenue from student fee and potentially a reduction in State support.” 

Community college administrators see a different challenge. “A great example is nursing,” said then-Community College Chancellor Eloy Oakley at a July 2022 meeting: “It is clear that there is a need (for nursing degrees), that the CSU cannot fulfill that need, so why wouldn’t we be able to fulfill that need?” 

The pushback from CSU officials towards bachelor degrees, Oakley said to his colleagues, is a “red herring“. In reality, he said, it is about “perceived competition for enrollments.” 

Koester argues that the proposed fire degree at Feather River College is essentially the same as the one Cal Poly Humboldt plans to offer. Moving forward with the program would jeopardize the “trust” between the two higher education systems, Koester wrote to the Community College Chancellor’s office on Jan. 23.

Community college leaders decided to proceed anyway. 

As new applications for bachelor’s programs poured in this year, and the leaders from both systems refused to budge on a plan to resolve future disagreements, Senate Education Committee Chairperson Josh Newman, a Brea Democrat, and Assembly Higher Education Chairperson Mike Fong, a Monterey Park Democrat, issued a joint letter on Tuesday, asking the community college system to put the new applications to a “pause.”

Wildfire country

“I wasn’t expecting (the legislators’ letter),” said Lizette Navarette, interim deputy chancellor of California Community College, in an interview with CalMatters today. “Is this signaling towards legislation that they’re going to run? Is this an indefinite ‘pause?’”

Although the letter comes from the Legislature, she said the language is “consistent with some of the other letters the CSU has sent.”

Nonetheless, she affirmed that her office would “of course want to work with the legislature” on its requests.

Neither Newman nor Fong responded to questions from CalMatters regarding the letter. A CSU spokesperson said the Cal State system wouldn’t speculate about what it would do if the community college system doesn’t pause, per the legislators’ request.

“We expect that the final approved bachelor’s program will not duplicate a CSU or a UC regardless of location,” the legislators wrote, which runs counter to the interpretation that the community colleges have made. 

The colleges see “relative geographic location” as one reason why a school may deserve to award a certain bachelor’s degree. 

Feather River College is a prime example. Nestled in the High Sierra two hours north of Lake Tahoe, Feather River is a small, rural school with the setting to prove it. 

“I can walk out on my campus and look at the hill across the valley and see a burnt hilltop,” Kevin Trutna, president of the college, told CalMatters. “Plumas National Forest, Lassen National Forest, Lassen National Park. Three-fourths of our county is federal or state forest. You have a ready-made (wildfire) laboratory here that nobody is focusing on. This is our speciality.” 

Both the Camp and Dixie fires tore through the Feather River Valley in 2018 and 2021, respectively, leaving nearby towns like Greenville in ashes

“We cannot sit here and let Humboldt State (Cal Poly Humboldt) or Cal Poly San Luis Obispo or Chico or anybody say ‘Hey, this is our business. We’ll send you people out there,’” Trutna said. “We need to do something to be proactive to preserve the rest of our national forest.” 

When Feather River College submitted an application in January 2022 to offer a bachelor’s degree in “Ecosystem Restoration and Applied Fire Management,” two professors from Cal Poly Humboldt, as well as professors from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Cal State Chico, UC Davis, and the nearby UC Cooperative Extension school all submitted letters in support. 

Four months later, then-Associate Vice Chancellor of the Cal State University system Alison Wrynn objected to the Feather River program, arguing that it duplicated  Cal Poly Humboldt’s soon-to-be fire management program. 

Other California community colleges face scrutiny 

While the Feather River program has become the most contentious, other community colleges faced similar pushback. Out of the nine colleges that were approved to offer bachelor’s degrees under the new law, at least four faced objections from CSU campuses.

Cal State San Marcos, for example, said that San Diego City College’s application to award bachelor’s degrees in “Cyber Defense and Analysis” would be duplicative of a program that San Marcos intended to build. 

The nearby CSU campuses later dropped their opposition to San Diego City College’s program, but communication hiccups between the CSU and community college administrators led to additional delays to the program’s approval, the Voice of San Diego reported.

If there’s disagreement about whether a community college should proceed with a bachelor degree program, the administrators at each higher education system establish a “written agreement” that explains whether the objections have been resolved, according to the 2021 law. 

The new law stipulates that the entire approval process, including any conflict resolution, should take no more than five months. It ultimately took more than a year for the community college and California State University officials to reach agreements regarding eight of the nine proposed bachelor’s degree programs. 

The agreement that wasn’t agreed to 

The Feather River dispute was never resolved.

“A written agreement was shared with the CSU and we didn’t really get a response back,” said Navarette. 

That’s because the CSU system didn’t agree to it, said Nathan Evans, a CSU associate vice chancellor.

In the legislators’ letter, they take aim at the community colleges’ actions, writing that “written agreements” need to be signed by the “impacted parties.” 

Instead of moving forward with the fire management program, Evans wants to see Feather River College and Cal Poly Humboldt collaborate on a joint degree. He pointed to programs across the state that help students work towards a certain major through two years of school at community college and two years at a four-year university. In another scenario, he referenced how professors from Cal State Fullerton and San Bernadino travel to Riverside City College or teach remotely so that community college students can get a bachelor’s in nursing in less than three years. 

But Trutna doesn’t see those options as realistic. “Our students just can’t move over there for two years,” he said, adding that “this is a hands-on vocational degree, not something you can do remotely.” 

And so, in March, the community college board of governors approved Feather River’s program. The law grants the community college board with the ultimate decision-making authority, leaving CSU leaders to search for a different recourse.

Meanwhile, the 14 colleges that just applied to launch their own bachelor’s degree programs will go on hold as they wait and see what agreements, if any, the two higher education systems can reach.

Adam Echelman covers community colleges for CalMatters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Community colleges reporter for CalMatters in partnership with Open Campus.