Taking the Reins

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Dr. Lisa Sugimoto pauses for a photo in front of Pasadena City College’s iconic Shatford Library. Last month, Sugimoto, 55, became the first Asian American woman to assume the duties of president at PCC. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

Dr. Lisa Sugimoto pauses for a photo in front of Pasadena City College’s iconic Shatford Library. Last month, Sugimoto, 55, became the first Asian American woman to assume the duties of president at PCC. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS

Rafu Staff Writer

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PASADENA.–The president’s office at Pasadena City College is trimmed in mahogany, with ceiling-tall windows that overlook the long, narrow reflecting pool on the campus’ north lawn. Dr. Lisa A. Sugimoto appreciates the view, but is fully aware that the demands of the office–especially at this time–are a formidable challenge for herself and the entire PCC community.

“There’s a right person for the time. I feel like I’ve just come off the bench for the team,” said Sugimoto, who was appointed to the post of acting president on Aug. 6, then named interim president on Sept. 16. The previous president, Paulette Perfumo, took a leave of absence in August, then decided not to return.

Sugimoto’s appointment marks the first time in PCC’s 96-year history that the college has had an Asian American woman fill the school’s top office. The 55-year-old Pasadena native is a former PCC student who went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at UC San Diego, master’s degrees in business and education at USC, then eventually a doctorate in educational leadership from UCLA.

Sugimoto said that although hers is the face that the college puts forth as its leader for the time being, her 33 years of experience at PCC and other community colleges has always been a matter of coalition building and teamwork, including the moment she was named to her current post.

“When the board came out of closed session and announced that they were appointing me as interim president, it was a little after 11 p.m.,” she recalled. “I was surrounded by the executive team of the college, plus the academic senate president. It was wonderful to have all the people willing to wait until the board came out with its decision, so when they made that announcement, it wasn’t about my thinking about the position, rather that I was surrounded by incredible people who cared enough about me to stay in that room, however long it was going to take.

“I don’t do this job by myself,” Sugimoto stressed. “This campus would not have been what it is, if not for the wonderful people that have been here. People come in and out of this office, but the core of this campus the people. The core of the college is really the faculty.”

Nationwide, the current economic realities make this an extraordinarily challenging time for community colleges, whose enrollments rise as four-year universities curtail their incoming class sizes, all the while, facing ravaged revenue streams. Sugimoto said community colleges have a singularly daunting task, because they must offer access for all who walk through the door.

“Community colleges are counter-cyclical economic indicators,” she explained. “There’s an inverse relationship between the economy and how well we do. When the economy goes down, we have more people showing up at our doorstep, at a time when we need more revenue to support our increasing enrollment. But we can’t get it because the economy is so bad.”

Sugimoto echoed the anguish of junior colleges statewide, as they struggle to fulfill their educational mission while facing the reality of decreased funding.

“That’s the dilemma, isn’t it?” she lamented. “We are being squeezed and it’s very difficult for me to see, because community colleges are the most democratic higher education institutions. We have open access and anyone who comes through out door, age 18 or older, or a graduate of high school, or has permission from the high school to attend, is welcomed. What’s happening right now is that we’re not getting the revenue for every student that comes through our door. Across the State, the community colleges unfortunately are cutting classes, which is painful, because we should be educating students at a time when the State desperately needs educated residents.”

Sugimoto said PCC is in relatively good shape financially, having been fiscally diligent over recent years, and that the school still has an adequate emergency fund.

“We have it so we can hopefully stabilize the college for a few years, until–fingers crossed–the economy gets better and we start getting the revenue we need to help us continue to support the hopes and dreams of every student that comes through our door,” she said.

PCC has a variety of activities and programs that help supplement its income, including a very popular monthly flea market, the proceeds of which go directly back into general fund.

Obviously, Sugimoto still derives a great deal of joy from her profession. The morning of our interview, she took part in a forum with the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, during which she found herself explaining the meaning of her surname, as written in kanji. The president once again assumed the role of teacher.

“The joy of it is the contact with all the people who want to talk to you, but that’s all part of the strain of it, because there’s not enough time. I wish there were 48 hours in a day, so I could do all the things I want, and do them well,” she said.

Predictably, most of the Asian Americans who have reached the highest levels of college administration are likely to be found in Hawaii. Sugimoto said the number of AA administrators on the mainland has certainly been increasing, but that it’s a process that will time take some time.

Off campus, Sugimoto keeps herself as busy as when she’s working. An avid 5K runner, she was part of a relay marathon team that traveled to Beijing in 2007 as part of a Pasadena junket to its Chinese sister city. She regularly takes fly fishing excursions to Mammoth, and was all too happy to provide the details of her nabbing a nice a four-and-a-half pound rainbow trout on a recent trip. And just for good measure, she’s had some of her watercolor and oil paintings included in exhibitions locally and in China.

In an interview with the PCC campus newspaper, Sugimoto said her motivation continues to be rooted in the difference education can make in the lives of students.

“My father would tell me that education and knowledge was the one thing no one could take from me. My worldly possessions could disappear, but not what I know or I have learned,” the Courier quoted.

The adjoining room to the president’s office is hung with portraits of all who have served as PCC top administrator. Sugimoto said no matter how long or short their respective tenures, the college thrives and endures, sometimes because of leadership, but mostly because of the great people who comprise the campus community. While she has said that she will not be a candidate to become PCC’s president on a permanent basis, she takes comfort and pride in the cooperative atmosphere that will help the school continue to carry out is mission.

“The support I’ve had since taking this office has been tremendous. It’s been an amazing last two months. People around me have been open and caring and very supportive and that’s meant more than anything to me than anything else,” she said.

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