Merced College president retiring

Growing up in a migrant camp, Duran worked and studied his way to the top.

mtharp@mercedsunstar.comOctober 20, 2011 

The local boy who made good — some say great — is retiring.

Merced College Superintendent and President Ben Duran, 63, said he's stepping down at the end of the year. Duran, who grew up in a migrant camp in Le Grand, has spent 13 years overseeing the community college campus, one of the longest-tenured presidents in the system. "The time has come for me to move on to the next phase of my life," Duran wrote in a note to "friends and colleagues" in the Merced Community College District.

Aside from the years he spent getting his bachelor of arts degree at California State University, Stanislaus, master of arts from Chapman College and doctorate from the University of Southern California, Duran has spent his entire life and career in Merced County. "For the last couple of years I've contemplated doing something other after my career," he told the Sun-Star, "when I was still relatively young and healthy, and to have an opportunity to do other things that might come down the road."

Specifically, he said he wanted to remain engaged with the local high-speed rail committee, the Merced County Office of Economic Development and the Mercy Medical Center board of directors. Politics? "I'm not sure I'm particularly well suited to go into politics," he said, wearing a suit coat in his office. "But I'd never close the door."

Duran's mother lives near San Diego, a daughter who's a teacher lives in Ontario with two sons, and his two youngest children, Alex and Juliana, are at Merced College and USC. His wife, RoseMary Parga Duran, is superintendent of the Merced City School District, "and I want to support her any way I possibly can."

Forty years ago he walked into a classroom at Le Grand High School, where he himself had sat, as a new teacher. He then worked at the Merced County Office of Education before returning to Le Grand as superintendent and principal. Eight years later, he moved on to Merced College as vice president of Human Resources and then became vice president of District Administrative Services.

He became superintendent and president in 1998.

Although he has insisted that his role has been to support and teach all students, the fact that he's Latino has motivated him. "I understood early on that as a Hispanic educator, I was in a role that would give me an opportunity to serve as a role model to Hispanic students who might aspire to do anything," he said.

He also said he's worked at the local, state and national levels to help Latino students. "There were under-represented groups who weren't getting their fair share," he said. "I hope I provided an opportunity to open doors."

When he taught and was principal at Le Grand, he instituted the tradition of graduating seniors putting the name of the college they would attend on their gown — and he's proud the practice continues to this day.

Duran cited three highlights of his time at Merced College:

• Creating a college "that is stable financially, even in the economic downturn" so classes and programs for students could continue and mass layoffs avoided;

• Creating an atmosphere on campus "where student success is the overarching and superordinate goal of the institution — kind of a cultural climate."

• Collaboration with local communities that passed bond issues that let Merced College campuses in Merced and Los Banos add buildings and services. "It's not brick and mortar," he said. "It's an institution respected enough by the public to pass a bond."

Second thoughts, regrets? "I don't think there was anything so negative that I wish I'd done that differently," he said. "I look around and I'm pretty happy with where we are now."

The college faces several challenges. Besides an economic recession that has forced almost universal budget cutbacks, higher tuition fees and reduction in some courses, it's engaged in a redistricting process that must be done after every national census. It's a process in which area populations are equalized and boundaries are adjusted in compliance with state and federal law. Several public comment and outreach sessions have been held and more are planned.

More troubling is accreditation process. In July, the college was placed on "warning status" by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges after the commission met and reviewed a comprehensive evaluation of the college in June.

Earlier this month, an analyst with the commission released a report on how the college was doing in correcting some of the defects that led to the warning. The analyst concluded that "the clock is ticking, and to convey a sense of urgency to the college community ... Merced has made progress since the team's visit, but much more work is needed in numerous areas before the college is back in the commission's good graces."

Keith Law, president of the Merced College Faculty Association, said Duran had been "a poster president for the college, a Latino who made good, which shows it's possible for a lot of students to do so." But he criticized Duran's management style, saying "today the world requires a nuts-and-bolts style of manager, but his style was more personal — but give him a lot of credit for all those years of service."

Paradoxically, Duran would agree with that assessment of his style. "I've always depended on my intuition," he told the Sun-Star, "and had absolute confidence that human beings are going to do the right thing. If you invite people to participate, you empower them."

How does he hope to be remembered? "As a local guy who went to school, was blessed to go to Merced College and left this a better place than I found it. Did I matter? Everything else is just trappings. Ultimately, that's what really matters."

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or

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