Riding the storm out

New president Diana Van Der Ploeg takes over at Butte College

Photo By Tom Angel

She’s got a great job, but really bad timing.

Dr. Diana Van Der Ploeg [rhymes with rogue] has just started working as the president/superintendent of Butte College smack dab in the middle of the California budget crisis. The former Colorado resident admits many of her colleagues raised an eyebrow about her coming to California to run a college in a system experiencing major financial difficulty, but Van Der Ploeg isn’t fazed at all by their skepticism.

“Budgets are bad everywhere right now with community colleges,” she said. But Butte “had a good record of academic success,” and “an atmosphere that was team oriented. When you find that underlying value of excellence and quality you can get past the budget issues.”

Van Der Ploeg will have a chance to prove her leadership abilities in the coming months and onlookers will have opportunity to see if her cheery optimism endures through the penny pinching semesters looming on the horizon.

Describing the condition of the community college system as a worst-case scenario is not completely far-fetched, with tuition prices barely escaping a 118 percent hike earlier this spring. Instead the increase was closer to 60 percent, with tuition jumping from $11 per unit to $18. Butte’s tentative budget states that the outlook for the 2004-05 year is “not a pretty picture.”

Though she’s not completely oriented to the area or the college, Van Der Ploeg does have a plan to survive and thrive amidst the budget crisis.

Sounding like a motivational speaker, Van Der Ploeg explained it is her strategy to “get people’s best thinking,” to help solve problems.

“My style is collegial and team-oriented,” said the former softball player, “I’m part of the team.”

Don’t be fooled, Van Der Ploeg is not all fun-and-trust-building exercises. During her life she’s played field hockey, basketball and softball as well as coached. The animation she employs to describe her past endeavors, makes it clear that she didn’t just engage in sports to play, but rather to win. And though she claims that she won’t rule Butte College with an iron fist, she won’t exactly be a passive president.

Van Der Ploeg says that Butte College will examine all aspects of the school and look to where it can fine new sources of revenue. Entering into this new environment, not yet aware of the sacred cows, Van Der Ploeg may be just what the college needs. She said she thinks the school will benefit from a concerted “look at everything with a fresh set of eyes,” and she plans to do just that for Butte.

Despite her new perspective, she’ll have big shoes to fill as she assumes the position of much-loved ex-president Sandy Acebo. Van Der Ploeg said she has enjoyed becoming acquainted with Acebo and other employees of the college. At the groundbreaking of the new Butte College Chico Center earlier this month, she told the crowd, “I’m convinced I came to the right place.”

Van Der Ploeg has experienced college as a student, faculty member and administrator, which should help her from multiple perspectives during campus disputes. Van Der Ploeg gives away a little hint about her East Coast upbringing when she refers to eating with students in “lunch rooms,” as opposed to the cafeteria, to get to know them better.

“Everywhere I’ve been I get to know students,” she said. “I’ve worked closely with student governments; we’ve always worked well together.”

Van Der Ploeg said she is familiar with the community college mindset and the wide assortment of students who earn educations through schools like Butte. Her advice to students struggling with their schooling is plain and simple: “Stay with it. It’s so well worth it; nobody can ever take that away. It opens up so many opportunities.”

Van Der Ploeg’s three college degrees certainly have opened up a lot of doors for her. Her starting salary at Butte will be around $145,000 per year. She is looking for a house to buy and even with her salary Van Der Ploeg described going through “sticker shock” when she saw the prices of houses in the Chico area.

However, Van Der Ploeg is accustomed to adapting to new circumstances. While playing softball at a young age, left-handed Van Der Ploeg injured her throwing arm. She learned how to use her right hand in everyday skills, including writing. Though she confesses that it takes her about three times as long to write with her right hand, she’s almost ambidextrous.

Her dexterity may come in handy as she tries to navigate the rough seas that lie ahead for Butte College.