New president and superintendent prioritizes student services, plans to eventually retire from ECC

At 17 years old, Brenda Thames was dropped off in Oakland, Calif. on a Greyhound Bus with a coat in one hand and a borrowed suit case in the other.

Thames was not prepared for the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) where she would have to maintain a heavy course load and a high grade point average, all while working 40 hours every week and commuting out of Oakland.

Eventually, these factors combined with the fact that Thames had almost no knowledge of how tuition and fulfilling credits worked, led her to be dismissed from UCB.

New President and Superintendent of El Camino College and the EC College District, Brenda Thames. (Photo courtesy of El Camino College.)

Now, Thames has two bachelor’s from the University of California, Berkeley, two master’s from the University of Southern California, and a doctorate from Oregon State University. She is also a mother and a spouse, who believes in equality and justice and collects Winnie the Pooh artifacts.

Brenda Thames, former president of West Hills Coalinga College in Coalinga, Calif., was appointed as president and superintendent of El Camino College and the College District during the May 17 Board of Trustees meeting.

Her term follows the retirement of current President Dena Maloney. Some, like Trustee Kenneth Brown on the El Camino College Board of Trustees, are excitedly anticipating Thames’ time in office. However, it will be hard to say goodbye to Maloney who has left such a mark on the college.

“[President Maloney is] kind of doing one of those Michael Jordan’s, right? She’s pulling out on top. [She] ultimately got us through a once in a lifetime pandemic,” Brown said. “She left such a great footprint and such a great legacy of the things that she’s been doing.”

After the retirement of her predecessor, Tom Fallo, Maloney spent nearly six years in office. Thames plans to have a long-term presidency, potentially even retiring at ECC.

“I told both the selection committee and the board that I was hoping that I was interviewing for the last job that I was ever going to have. So for me, that probably looks like 10, 12, 15 years. So if you consider that a long time, then yes, I can hope to be at El Camino for a long time,” Thames said.

As a member of the Board of Trustees, Brown helped in the selection of Thames as the next president of ECC, prioritizing some of Maloney’s traits, especially endorsement for students and student services.

“In [Thames’] career as an administrator, she’s really had a strong record of advocacy for students,” Brown said.

For Thames, this commitment stems back to her earlier days as a college student at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), where she began at 17-years-old with very little knowledge of what it would take to graduate.

When Thames burst into a counselor’s door in the midst of a mental breakdown after being dismissed, she was met with the resources and understanding she needed to be readmitted. Due to this unique circumstance, Thames was a freshman at UCB, and then later a transfer student.

“When they send you that letter, they don’t tell you that you can get readmitted, they just tell you, you know, ‘thanks for trying, you didn’t get off probation, you’re dismissed.’ [The counselor] worked with me to figure out the classes that I needed to take, [how] to go through the steps of reapplying and appealing for readmission, [and] advised me which instructors to take at Laney.” Thames said.

Because of her experiences, Thames said she has a unique understanding of what it’s like to be a student who works for a living and needs help navigating college and university systems.

“When people say life happens to students, I get it. Life does happen to you all. And it can impact in ways that have nothing to do with your potential, your capacity, your intellect. And that is one of the reasons why I love this work because we’re not going to write people off because of life,” Thames said.

Dean Jackie Sims, ECC’s new interim vice president of Academic Affairs and the assistant superintendent was also announced during the May 17 Board of Trustees meeting. Her term comes after the retirement of current Vice President, Jean Shankweiler.

Sims, too, values the premise of meeting students where they are, especially in leadership. She acts sort of as a “cheerleader,” she said, ensuring that faculty and deans are prepared to do so.

“I am there primarily as a supporter, and to make sure that when I see tasks and assignments are not being done appropriately, that I address that sooner rather than later. But again, in leadership theory, they talk about different types of leaders, I call myself a servant leader. And that’s all about empowering others to lead the domains of which they’re working on,” Sims said.

Due to the current pandemic, Thames and Sims have not had much time to meet, but despite that fact, Sims is excited to work with Thames and begin making ECC a more open place.

“I really liked her energy. She reminded me a little bit of me because I’m more of a people person,” Sims said. “I hate this remote learning environment and this remote working environment. And so I could understand [Thames’] emotion as she [said], ‘I wish I could be around hugging people and talking to you face to face.’ So that really sparked an interest in me towards her thinking that she’d be great as a leader, you know, more open and out there, face to face with folks.”

While both Sims and Thames have ideas for the college, Thames would like to mostly continue down the path ECC is on, not interfering unless she feels a need to.

“There are some institutions that are wanting you to bring a bold vision, they want you to bring goals because they want change. And there are some institutions like El Camino, that are solid in and of themselves. There [are] good people, they’re doing good work, you don’t want to disrupt that just for the sake of disrupting because you’re a new leader,” Thames said. “I am not necessarily a disrupter unless I have to be.”

Editor’s note: The headline was adjusted on June 10 for clarity.

A photograph was added on June 13.