A First Generation Graduate, New 4CD Chancellor Bryan Reece Shows What California Educational Success Looks Like


A photo of Dr. Bryan Reece, courtesy of: www.bryanreecephd.com

Cheasanee Hetherington, Editor-in-chief

One sunny winter morning at Haflinger Dairy in southern California, Chancellor Bryan Reece’s life changed. It was the 1980’s, he was nearing his high school graduation and feeling unprepared for college, so Reece asked the dairy’s senior manager, Hank Haflinger, if he could become a full-time cowhand.

Haflinger denied him the opportunity, and instead proposed: “Do you want to go to college?” The dairy manager then helped Reece apply to University of Southern California, where he studied political science before earning a doctorate degree and going on to work for more than 30 years in higher education.

Reece, who on Wednesday became the new chancellor of the Contra Costa Community College District, looked back on that chilly morning at the dairy as a pivotal moment in his career.

“College changed my life, and I really believe that’s the kind of work we’re doing [for students today],” Reece said. 

The oldest of four siblings, Reece was born in Norwalk, a city of 100,000 in Los Angeles County, and became the first person in his predominantly blue-collar family to graduate from college. He had always been attracted to a career in social justice work, but it wasn’t until he reached the university that he found his path.

“I knew then I wanted to do work at the social level that would improve lives,” Reece wrote in an email to The Inquirer. “From an early age, I had a vague sense of equality and inequality in society.”

Due to his family’s modest finances, Reece had to pay for college, housing and food on his own.

“The latter years of high school, undergraduate, and graduate years were particularly difficult for me and my family financially,” he recalled. “I always knew they loved me deeply, but I couldn’t turn to them for help with an academic and professional journey.”

In part because of those early challenges he faced, Reece said he understands the critical role academic support and financial aid play for students and communities. “My experience deeply informed my [current] approach to higher education,” he said.

Initially, academic life didn’t come easy to Reece. His first year at USC proved especially hard, as he found himself unprepared for the rigors of university life and ended his first year on academic probation.

But after that rocky beginning, Reece dedicated himself through disciplined study and excelled in his classes. “It took six years to complete my bachelor’s degree,” he said. Along the way he made the Dean’s list and the USC honors program.

To this day, Reece credits numerous teachers at USC for having a profound impact on his education and life outlook. “They introduced me to ideas that helped reframe the way I see and understand the world,” he said.

“I also noticed that I enjoyed explaining academic ideas to my friends during study sessions. Sensing that I had a talent for teaching, I decided early on to pursue academia as a career.”

After receiving his master’s degree in political science in 1990, Reece returned to his hometown and began teaching political science at Cerritos College in Norwalk. He was successful at teaching and received multiple rewards, including California Educator of the Year in 2003.

In 2009, Reece became the interim dean of humanities and social sciences at Cerritos College, where he oversaw a student body of 17,000.

The next year, he was promoted to dean of academic success and institutional effectiveness, and launched an Assessment Office and Success Center to help provide academic support services to approximately 23,000 students campus-wide and over 600 faculty.

In 2013, Reece left Cerritos College and began working at Crafton Hills College, 70 miles from Los Angeles, as vice president of instruction. After four years in that role, he sought to make a greater impact, believing he could better “benefit students from the position of President.”

He quickly got his wish. In 2017, the Riverside Community College District Governing Board unanimously elected Reece president of a vastly larger institution, Norco College, where he served a student population of around 43,000, with nearly 2,200 employees.

Reece pursued a variety of impact-driven projects at Norco College, including successfully founding a program in 2017 which brought college education to inmates at the California Rehabilitation Center in the city of Norco.


Chancellor Reece, courtesy of Norco College.
Chancellor Reece, courtesy of Norco College.

Reece worked aggressively to deliver progress at Norco College, “because people wanted to move fast” to address students’ academic and economic needs, he said.

As Reece explained to The Inquirer in a previous article, “It’s important that we move with a sense of urgency. We have homeless students who need houses. We have students of color who are not finding academic success.

“We don’t need to move at a pace that breaks us,” Reece said, “but we need to move as quickly as we can to bring success to students.”

Despite Reece’s achievements at Norco, and his fondness for the school, faculty and students, the RCCD Governing Board voted unanimously to terminate his contract in June 2019 for reasons that were not publicly disclosed. More than 100 students, faculty and community members rallied at the board meeting prior to Reece’s termination in an effort to keep him on as president, reported Riverside City College Viewpoints.

That same year, Reece founded the National Policy Agenda for Community Colleges, which strives to attract federal support to social justice and equity issues across community colleges nationwide while conducting faculty and student surveys.

When Reece saw that the Contra Costa Community College District was searching for a new chancellor in late 2019, he quickly submitted his application, excited about the opportunity to work with staff who he believes are passionate about social justice reform and equity in education.

Reece has big plans for 4CD, and hopes to work in the district for at least a decade, if not permanently, to ensure that his long-term leadership can produce tangible results that will change students’ lives. “When you look at the colleges that are generating the most success, it’s at institutions where the leadership has been in place for over 10 years,” he said.

Reece will begin his new role as district chancellor Nov. 1, and said he looks forward to working with students and faculty across the district. “I encourage people to work with me and watch the work that comes out of my office. If it’s work genuinely focused around students, join the team!”