Teachers and staff felt decisions had not been made transparently, and everyone seemed concerned about the future of the community college, said Lynn Davis, a former MPC trustee who sat on the board for eight years.
“Doug came in and almost immediately the staff and faculty changed” their perceptions, he said.
Soon after arriving, Garrison announced an “open door policy” instead of a “back door policy,” Davis said.
“It meant anybody could come in and talk, not come the back way and get a deal. Everybody was treated the same,” he said.
Garrison, 62, has just retired from a 38-year career in the community college system, ending with what many describe as a successful run at MPC. During his presidency, Garrison not only mended fences among different constituencies in the college, but branched out into the community. He oversaw the renovation of the Monterey campus and the opening of the Education Center in Marina, all while navigating the perilous waters of California financial storms.
“Despite the unprecedented decline of funding from the state of California during Doug’s tenure, he and his administration have managed to continue to achieve the educational mission of the college through partnership with MPC faculty and staff,” Loren Steck, outgoing chairman of the board, said in a
statement. “Doug has been a star, and he will be greatly missed.”
Garrison said several factors contributed to his inclusive style.
He was raised in Chula Vista, 10 miles from the Mexican border, a place where diversity and respect for other cultures is a way of life.
“It was so common to be around English, Spanish, Tagalog,” he said. “It had an impact on how I saw things.”
When he was 17, Garrison broke his right leg playing in a homecoming football game. His leg didn’t heal properly, so doctors had to break it again, and it became infected. Garrison had to wear a cast for four years, with frequent stays in the hospital.
“That’s why this (leg) is shorter and it hurts all the time,” Garrison said. “What that did give me was a lot of time for introspection and to think about life and what it is. It created a laboratory for watching people, especially people who were in pain and dealing with challenging circumstances. It fine-tuned my care for people and experiences they were going through.”
At San Francisco State University, where he received a master’s degree in teaching English at community colleges, Garrison found his true calling. He was impressed with the way his teachers helped students find their voices, young people who came from challenging circumstances. At his first job at College of the Desert in Palm Desert, he was in charge of setting up remediation programs, something new at the time.
It was at College of the Desert that Garrison experienced another profound influence. A disabled student was placed in one of his classes. Before having a stroke, the student had been a successful chemical engineer with one of the largest chemical corporations in the world. The stroke stripped him not just of his ability to communicate, but also from wife, children and most worldly possessions.
“I don’t know why the college put him in my classes — I didn’t have a clue of what I was doing. But that guy had a huge impact on me,” Garrison said. “You may imagine, a 24-year-old guy with a tenure track job, you’d think I’m pretty hot. He taught me humility, really. He showed me the core humanity of when everything gets stripped from you and you can’t really articulate your thoughts anymore. You really get humble, and you recognize the blessings you have.”
His student regained some ability to express himself after working with Garrison, he said.
“He gave me more than I gave him,” Garrison said. “He taught me humility, patience, the ability to get through really tough challenges. He solidified in me that belief in the dignity of human beings, and that everybody has something to say.”
14 years teaching
Garrison spent 14 years as a teacher, then moved into administration. In 1994, as dean of Santa Rosa Junior College, he was tasked with opening up the Petaluma campus.
“When you go into a facility where there are no existing procedures or policies, and you build it from the ground up, it’s a great opportunity to imbue in everybody a sense of ownership,” he said. “When I left there it had grown to enrolling over 7,000 students. I was really very proud of that.”
In Monterey, Garrison said, it was important to expand MPC into the community and open its doors to underserved students. The new Education Center, which opened in September 2011, should really benefit students from Seaside and Marina, where educational attainment is not as high as in Pacific Grove or Carmel, he said.
“You can call it a gateway center for people who are first-generation college students,” he said. “They don’t know what it is to make an appointment to see a counselor, they don’t know how financial aid works. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed” at the Monterey campus.
Garrison earned the respect of community members and college constituencies for his willingness to listen to all sides and make decisions that made everyone feel they had been included in the conversation.
“I’ve had six presidents, and I would put Dr. Garrison as one of the finest,” said Mark Clements, president of the teachers association. “He’s been instrumental in maintaining our focus, on being able to set priorities for what we need to do. We have not always agreed or seen eye to eye, but he’s always been … willing to listen to all sides. That was extremely important during difficult times, to have a president willing to listen to all sides and keep everyone working as a team.”
Lauren Wash, president of the classified union, also gives him high marks.
“He has a fair and balanced approach to everything that was put in front of him,” Walsh said. “He definitely didn’t take sides. He tried to walk a little line and represent everyone.”
The biggest challenge Garrison sees on the horizon — not just for MPC but for all California community colleges — is the drive to centralize operations and transform the schools into a statewide system such as the University of California or California State University. That will likely result in decreased local control and more homogenization throughout the system, he said.
“I’ll be careful to say that this is not all bad, but it does have some casualties in it,” he said. “Colleges are human organizations, they’re made up of people, and the people who are there were hired because they reflected the needs of the human organization at the time.”
The rules have begun to change. In January 2012, the California Community Colleges Board of Governors approved a master plan set to revamp operations at all 112 community colleges. The most notable shift felt locally is a decreased emphasis on life-enrichment classes such as painting and dance, which many in the community cherish.
With these types of transformations, “you end up with a staffing pattern that no longer matches what you’re supposed to be,” Garrison said. “In the business world, they clean house and move forward and start over. In education, it is not that easy.”
Although he still doesn’t have a plan for what to do in retirement, Garrison said that after nearly four decades in education, it was time to move on.
“One of the things that happens when you are in a position like this, 24/7, is that the time that exists for yourself gets shrunk and shrunk,” he said. “The first thing I want to do is get time to find Doug. I don’t know what that’s going to be. But I’m going to enjoy the process.”
Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at 753-6755 or firstname.lastname@example.org.