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Exit Interview

Stepping down as president of Prince George’s Community College,
Dr. Ronald Williams talks about his future plans and the state of community colleges.

By David Pluviose

Dr. Ronald A. Williams

Current Position: President, Prince George’s Community College

Previous Position: Vice President for Academic Affairs, Acting President, Community College of Philadelphia

Education: B.A., History; M.A., English; Ph.D., Literature, Lehigh University 

The construction projects at Prince George’s Community College certainly represent a physical obstacle, but they also represent signs of progress largely credited to the leadership of outgoing president Ronald A. Williams. From the day he arrived on campus in 1999, Williams’ mission was to bring prestige and prominence to the college, both locally and nationally. All the construction suggests that his efforts have borne fruit.

In 2001, PGCC was named one of 16 nationwide models for undergraduate education by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The next year, the college won the Theodore M. Hesburgh Award for Enhancing Undergraduate Teaching and Learning in 2002. PGCC has also launched its honors academy under Williams’ leadership, which allows a select few of the college’s top students to enter dual-enrollment programs with four-year schools while on full scholarship.

Williams’ detractors say his emphasis on the small percentage of students who fall into the honors realm has been to the detriment of the rest of the student population, who are just trying to “get a job,” as Williams terms it. However, the strides made by the college since Williams’ arrival have been substantial: Total enrollment has grown 14 percent — from 35,519 to 38,405 — and is poised to grow by another 5,000-6,000 when PGCC takes over adult basic education, GED and ESL instruction from the public K-12 system in January. PGCC has  also launched a major gifts campaign that has raised more than $25 million. The college’s endowment has grown from $932,193 in 2000 to $2.5 million currently.

Ultimately, Williams says, he plans to return to his native Barbados, but he was just recently named vice president at the College Board. In a conversation with Diverse, Williams discusses his experience at PGCC and the state of community colleges overall.

DI: In assuming this presidency in 1999, one of your major goals was to raise the profile of PGCC. Why the heavy emphasis on image?

RW: I remember the headline in [The Chronicle of Higher Education], and the word that was used was elitism. A lot of my friends in community colleges called me to commiserate when the word was used, and I thought about it, and I thought they were dead right. I am intuitively an elitist, and the institution I wanted to create was, in fact, an elite institution. But what I wanted to do was to find a way of providing an elite education for people outside the elite economic structure. And so when they said, “elitism,” I think that’s exactly what I’d like to do.

DI: In focusing on the small fraction of elite community college students, where does that leave the rest seeking the traditional vocational education? Even prominent thinkers like former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan say the economy needs less four-year liberal arts degrees and more workers with functional, though less glamorous, vocational credentials.

RW: I recognize the importance of all of that, and it’s not surprising at all that people with very strong liberal arts educations and Ph.D.s will say we need more vocational people. Alan Greenspan, who’s brilliant, will tell you we need more vocational people, or [U.S. Secretary of Education] Margaret Spellings will say the same thing. Everybody needs workers. But if I provide only the opportunity for students to be workers, that’s all they’re going to become, because there’s no where else that they’re going to go find a vision. I think this is, for many of our students, the last stop to develop a vision for themselves.

DI: The rising number of community colleges now offering baccalaureate degrees has led to concerns about “mission creep,” as community colleges could move away from being open-access community resources to more exclusive four-year schools. What’s your take on this issue?

RW: I would point out that Harvard University is no longer educating priests. So in a sense, it’s almost inevitable that colleges designed to be flexible will respond wherever they see that flexibility taking them. If

there’s a need, the instinct of the community college leader, is to pursue a way of solving the problem, satisfying the particular need. If that need happens to be four-year degrees, in some areas of the country, it makes a lot of sense. If you look at where it’s really developed, it’s developed in rural areas where the university may be 100 miles away. It’s happened in Florida, but if you look at the degrees they’re offering, they were encouraged by the Legislature to offer degrees that in fact were in great demand, and limited supply.

To the extent there are no institutions turning away developmental students to create more capacity for four-year degrees, I think there’s no problem at all with mission creep. To the extent you start to eliminate the people at the bottom of the intellectual preparedness spectrum, you’re also eliminating people on the bottom in the socioeconomic spectrum, which is my concern, too. To the extent  community colleges have the capacity to begin to correct some of those social ills, we’ve got to stay focused on the mission of helping the poor at least to gain access to the lower-middle class.

Presidential Memoirs

Dr. Ronald Williams often finds himself giving advice to young academics considering going into community college teaching or administration. He says opportunities to shape young minds abound at community colleges, albeit often under the radar. Long an educational haven for Blacks and other minority students, Williams says Black intellectuals on the speaking circuit have virtually ignored an important population.
“We’ve got the so-called public intellectuals — Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson and Henry Louis Gates and those guys — but one of the things that has been really intriguing for me is the audiences for those people. The audiences are not the people I work with. My kids don’t know them. Again, it’s a capitalist country, so when Cornel can charge $30,000 to show up, he ain’t coming to me. He’s going to Brown [University],” Williams says.

He adds, however, that while at the Community College of Philadelphia, he in fact was able to persuade Cornel West to come and speak to his students, but it certainly was no easy feat.

“I think Cornel was at $15,000 then, around 1996. I called [his agent] and I told him, ‘Will you tell Dr. West for me that he’s going to see more Blacks in my school than he’s going to see all year in all those schools he went to.’ I got the call back in like 20 minutes, and he told me that if I could figure out a date when he’s in the area, he would come and do it for $5,000,” Williams says.

“I’ve got to give props to Cornel. But the truth is most of them are not really talking to my audience,” he says. “They’re not talking to poor kids, they’re talking to middle-class kids, so we don’t really see them as much. And I think my kids need to hear that story, I think they need to hear that kind of intellectual discourse,” Williams adds.

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