A Conversation with Larry Toy

A Conversation with Larry Toy, Founding President and CEO

A conversation with founding President and CEO Larry Toy:
Second generation college student, Harvard and UC Berkeley graduate, astronomy professor, and community college visionary

Dr. Toy, who founded the Foundation in 1998 and served as president and CEO through its first decade of service, shares the blueprints that guided his leadership and the ethos that informs the organization today.


LEARNING THE VALUE OF EDUCATION, FIRST HAND

Headshot of Dr. Larry Toy

Supporting the community college system was always very personal to me.

My grandfather was a laundry man who brought his children from China to the United States when they were young—my father was 12. At this time, no one in my family had even graduated from high school.

My father ended up getting his high school diploma in the United States, then attended Joliet Junior College [in Illinois], which was the first public junior (community) college founded in the country in 1901. He was there in the 1930s, later transferring to a four-year school, the University of Illinois, and went on to achieve a PhD in chemistry. In 1988, he was awarded the first outstanding graduate of Joliet Junior College.

There my dad was, the son of a laundryman who went to community college, goes on to get his PhD, and his son—me—graduates from Harvard. It was a big change and an example of what the community colleges can do.

Years later, after I graduated from Harvard, I started teaching at a community college. I had gone to an elite college, so working at a community college felt vastly different at first. I realized, though, how much more rewarding it was because you could see the value added for the students was higher than at the so-called elite institutions. The idea of universal education, to democratize higher education, was really the heart of the California Community College system—and that was something I got to see first-hand.

After graduating from Harvard, Larry went on to get a M.A. and PhD in theoretical astrophysics from the University of California, Berkeley. He remained a professor of astronomy at Chabot College for the next 30 years, receiving the first Hayward outstanding teacher award for the California Community Colleges in 1989.

He was appointed to the California Community Colleges Board of Governors in 1990.


LAUNCHING A NON-PROFIT TO SERVE THE COMMUNITY COLLEGES

Screenshot of the Foundation's website circa 2000. The Foundation's website circa 2000.

When I came to Sacramento in 1997, I'd been on the Board of Governors for seven years and was president of the board back in the early '90s. Chancellor Tom Nussbaum asked if I’d be interested in starting on a new project—providing support to the California Community Colleges through the creation of an auxiliary foundation.

Our first order of business was to register as a 501(c)(3) non-profit foundation. Roger Schrimp, a member of the Board of Governors, helped us get that status, providing one of the lawyers in his firm to provide legal services.

We had no funding at the beginning, which I think heavily influenced the entrepreneurial spirit of the Foundation that lives on today. There were instances where it felt like a startup. For example, we had no office space. I found an empty office next to the Chancellor’s Office and was able to negotiate a rental agreement for the first six-months, deferring payment until we were earning income.

We then began to own our role as the official auxiliary to the system, supporting the California Community Colleges Board of Governors. We started small: we provided funding for their major awards, including the Hayward Outstanding Faculty Award [which honors faculty with a track record of excellence in teaching and professional activities], then expanded to almost all the awards given by the system. We had little money then, but it was important to us that we supported the Chancellor’s Office in recognizing those individuals across the system that were doing impactful work. The Foundation also began to support the local college foundations through their statewide network, to increase local fundraising success.


DREAMING UP SOLUTIONS

From the beginning we structured ourselves as a foundation that operated programs, one that was not endowed. That meant we had to be entrepreneurial, opportunistic, and initially, constantly reinventing ourselves.

Our inaugural Board of Governors members consisted of three members. Our president was Mario Camara, an attorney and former member and president of the Board of Governors. Alongside him were two people who had started companies that went on to become Fortune 500 businesses. They gave me advice on how to start and grow the foundation and its enterprises.

We also put a lot of trust into the students and the staff we hired in those first years, really giving them autonomy. We were still small and nimble, and I leaned on them to provide new, innovative ideas around how we could successfully operate. I oversaw all our operations, but I fully believed in them to dream up solutions.


HARNESSING THE POWER OF OVER 100 COLLEGES

Our first major success was in procurement through the CollegeBuys program. At this point in time, there were two key parts to our strategy: technology was taking off and the system did not have a central purchasing department—each district had their individual purchasing departments. I thought, if we could corral the purchasing power of the colleges and streamline technology software across the system, this could be big.

A previous iteration of the CollegeBuys logo. An early version of the CollegeBuys logo.

We started with computers because we knew that was going to be a very important piece of technology for our colleges. We negotiated an agreement with IBM, where they provided a significant discount to the system. Maybe 10-15 colleges bought in. A portion of the proceeds from that agreement were returned to the Foundation and, again, we used this to start funding our initiatives.

Our next attempt was software discounts. We established an agreement with Microsoft, providing licensing to the colleges so they could buy the programs at a much lower price than normal, and could do so through an annual licensing fee, which worked better than previous models with the college budgets.

We thought at the time that maybe 20, 30 colleges would sign up out of 100 or so. But we ended up getting 70 [now increased to almost all the colleges], proving to be a huge success for all parties involved: the purchasing agents, the technology people, and the colleges. The success of the purchasing program not only provided the benefit of cost savings, but, in a time where technology was rapidly changing, we established a standardized software system that ensured colleges were always up to date.

We then expanded our purchasing programs by working with the college and district purchasing directors, tailoring programs that lowered their costs and made purchasing easier for them by creating competitive bids that colleges could “piggy-back” on, saving them both time and money.


POISED FOR EXPANSION

Our purchasing program had worked in the sense that it was providing us funds to use in supporting the Board of Governors. But, this entrepreneurial spirit remained and there was opportunity to do more, and we expanded in four additional directions.

The Foundation's annual report from 2002: Supporting Gateways to the Future. The Foundation's annual report from 2002.

The next area was grants, beginning in 2002 with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who expressed interest in building early college high school sites in California. We received a $9 million grant from the Gates Foundation and created 19 high schools across the state. These new schools targeted disadvantaged students who weren’t succeeding in large, impersonal high schools and allowed them to earn either college credits or an associate’s degree, streamlining their path to educational success. After the Gates grant came other major grants from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (for nursing education), Hewlett Foundation, Packard Foundation, and many more.

The third area was state contracts. This includes many of the programs that you still see housed at the Foundation today, such as the Smog Check Referee Program in partnership with Bureau of Automotive Repair and the Career Catalyst work-based learning program.

The fourth was in providing services to the colleges and the system, through programs like FUSION, where we created the first computerized statewide inventory of all buildings at all the colleges, including an ongoing analysis of their utilization and condition. The Centralized Clinical Placement System also falls under this category; it is an online tool designed to increase healthcare education capacity by streamlining the clinical placement process and maximizing internship placement opportunities, and is now used by over 400 colleges and hospitals across the country.

The fifth area was providing funding for colleges and students through our endowments, provided by Wellpoint inc. (for health care education) and the Bernard Osher Foundation (for student scholarships).

As the Foundation experienced its own growth during Larry’s decade of leadership, four new community colleges opened across the state. This established the California Community Colleges as the largest system of higher education in the nation and, as they continued to grow, so did the Foundation.


CHANGING LIVES

Today, the California Community Colleges represents more than 2.1 million students across 115 campuses, making it the largest system of higher education in the United States. The system serves a broad and diverse student population, and aims to provide more affordable, accessible opportunities in education for all. Dr. Toy shares one example of how the community colleges provide opportunity for adult learners:

The California Community Colleges, for some, provide a second chance in so many ways. The colleges serve people who are looking to return to school to gain occupational skills that can be used in real jobs. But they also give opportunity to people who may have not done well in high school or maybe didn’t go immediately to college right after graduating.

I had a student early on in my career who was actually older than I was—she was 28 when I was only 25. This student had married when she was 18-years-old and went on to have three kids, then chose to return to school later in life. She had this intellectual curiosity, and she followed it.

The community colleges were there as an option when she wanted to return to school ten years after she had graduated from high school. And guess what? It changed her life. She transferred to a four-year after receiving her Associate’s Degree and went on to become a superior court judge in California.

Her story isn’t one in a million. The California Community Colleges have plenty of success stories like that.

Dr. Larry Toy is now retired and resides in Orinda, CA.

Story Archive

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