Dr. Reagan Romali is set to take on the challenges that lay before her as the new Superintendent-President of the Long Beach Community College District. Photo: Jason Ruiz
Growing up, Dr. Reagan Romali did not envision herself as the superintendent-president of a community college. There were no aspirations of presiding over board of trustees meetings or fantasies of collaborating with faculty to craft pathways to graduation and transfer degrees
No, she longed for a much simpler life, one that she acted out with her toys in an Indiana basement.
She wanted to be a teacher so badly that she would set up her dolls and Barbies in chairs and use her chalkboard to conduct imaginary lessons. Romali then became heavily involved in music, playing four different instruments (clarinet, piano, percussion and the oboe) while in college. That piqued her interest in fronting the orchestra pit as a conductor.
Now she says she does a little of both.
“It’s funny how what I wanted as a child, to be a teacher and a symphony conductor…it’s really exactly what I’m doing,” Romali said. “You are a teacher, you are a conductor. It’s a blend of the two.”
Romali became the newest superintendent-president of the Long Beach Community College District in March after a months-long search to replace her predecessor Eloy Oakley, who moved on to Sacramento when he took the spot as California Community College Chancellor.
She also became a mother to a 15-year-old foster child. Her motherhood, she said, plays as much a role in her new job as does her background in teaching in music.
But what does a college president do anyway?
Well, they do a lot of things, and none of them include orchestra batons—except that one time that Romali stood in as a guest conductor for a summer concert at LBCC.
But they do require the nimbleness and organization of a conductor Romali explains. Her job, as she explains it, is to take everyone’s ideas on how to make the school better, and make sure that it can actually be implemented.
“I work with faculty and staff on a daily basis on how to figure out how to do this,” Romali said. “It’s then up to me to administratively make it happen.”
If the math faculty wants to speed student progression through the math sequences by using software, she has to then relay that to a variety of departments to ensure that the proper materials are available, the schedules line up properly and the rest of the faculty’s needs to accomplish that are actually met.
In today’s America, they [college administrators] also spend nights worrying what new policies might be coming down the Twitter pipeline from the White House.
This week, Romali, like many leaders in the city released a statement in support of the approximately 1,500 DACA students that the school estimates it has, reaffirming the school’s belief that everyone is entitled to a higher education no matter their income level or immigration status.
“As an administrator it’s my job to anticipate what might be coming, because if I know what might be coming down the road I can prepare the institution for it and be ready to be at the best service for the students,” Romali said. “We had smelled that this DACA issue was coming, but it was certainly a surprise when it happened. Of course the institution was devastated but we have a very strong belief system here that all students are entitled to an education.”
Romali took her position at LBCC after serving in a similar capacity at Harry S. Truman College in Chicago. While the two campuses are about 2,000 miles apart, she said they have similar challenges.
She said that food insecurity, homelessness, the ability to progress through core course work and trying to balance life in general are issues that can be found nationwide, not just in California and Illinois.
A movement to recalculate which courses a student needs to take to transfer dependent on their field of study is one form of innovative approaches the school is signing onto to try and help students get off of LBCC’s campus faster, and into a job or four-year university.
Changing the math requirements for non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) majors has garnered some criticism that it may dumb down future college graduates. However, Romali said that it’s not about removing math, just ensuring that students are taking the appropriate courses for what they want to do in life.
“There’s different maths, for different paths,” Romali explained. “If you’re going to be an engineer, that could be a different type of math. If you want to be a psychologist, you’re not going to use calculus in your job, but you might use statistics. What they’re trying to do is customize the math depending on the career path you’re on.”
One struggle that the college is currently having is low enrollment which is affecting its bottom line. The school is staring down a $5.4 million budget deficit and with recent enrollment declines, the prospects of reversing that outlook will depend on the school’s ability to attract more students.
Romali said that the school is in the middle of a full-court press when it comes to recruiting students, something that has resulted in the school enrolling 300 more students this fall than it did last fall. While that may seem like a small number, she pointed out that the school had been down some 1,900 enrollees when accounting from previous years.
Sound financial decisions will be at the base of Romali’s “lean model” to address the school’s financial situation, with the school “putting money where it drives success for students.” However, she said the success of the city—its unemployment rate of 4.4 percent is the lowest ever—has contributed to the decline in students enrolling.
“The economy of Long Beach bounced back,” Romali said. “Unemployment is at one of its lowest rates. What that means for community colleges is—when the economy’s bad people go back to school to retool and get a higher paying job, or back into the workforce—when the economy bounces back and people are back to work you see community college enrollment decline. This is a nationwide phenomenon.”
While her team of recruiters is trying to draw more people in, she’s confident that she can help change the recent trajectory of graduation rates once they do arrive on campus. She pointed to her successes in the Windy City where her administration was able to triple graduation rates, but demurred from saying she inherited a bad situation
She said that LBCC is the single best community college in the state of California, but it can be better. To do that, her goal is to fully implement the school’s strategic plan which will create clearer pathways to student success. That task will certainly demand a lot of conducting.
While she is admittedly humbled to serve as the college’s next superintendent-president, that doesn’t go to say that she won’t be tenacious in fighting for students’ achievement. Romali’s resolve is as a tough as a Chicago winter, but she’s a listener, with a keen ear for symphonies—New World Symphony by Dvorak is her favorite—and for policies to strengthen the future of LBCC.
“I don’t have all the answers,” Romali said. “I just spent six years in Chicago, I didn’t spend the last six years here. I’m not the expert, but I am the expert listener in figuring out how people here think of their future and what advice they have to give me on how we should get there.”