Former Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Walter G. Bumphus earned many plaudits for his tireless efforts to keep the college system afloat in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. After a stint as chairman of the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Texas at Austin, Bumphus now faces a new set of challenges as president/CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges — the first African-American to hold the position.
Newly ascendant House Republican leaders have pledged to cut $100 billion in federal spending, which is certain to hit education hard. State and local governments across the nation are slashing higher education appropriations in response to unprecedented budget shortfalls. Now, the U.S. Department of Education is preparing to enact new “gainful employment” regulations aimed at cutting federal aid to for-profit colleges whose students default on their federal loans at persistently high levels. It’s a move that many experts predict could have a spillover effect on community colleges.
Diverse caught up with Bumphus in his second week on the job, and, though he was still unpacking, he laid out a series of plans and outlined a number of challenges he plans to tackle in coming months.
DI: What attracted you to this job?
WB: I never thought I would leave the University of Texas. But when I started to think about the opportunity to not only impact leaders but also to work with a talented group of college presidents, chancellors and others in this whole community college movement, it was an opportunity I really couldn’t pass up applying for. It’s such an honor and a privilege to be in this position at this time — the opportunities are immense. I think there are going to be some challenges out there, certainly, but I remain both excited and optimistic about the future of community colleges.
DI: What are your goals for AACC in the coming months?
WB: I’m getting ready to embark upon a listening tour where I’ll be going around to 10 regions of the country, and several of my staff and I will be giving them a brief update on what’s happening in Washington at AACC. But the vast majority of our time in these regions will be spent listening to college presidents, chancellors, state leaders, faculty and students about what’s important to them. Some of the things we want to know about: How are they dealing with the financial challenges they’re having in their state? How are they dealing with developmental education? How are they addressing the completion agenda?
I will be appointing a 21st century commission to study community colleges in April. In the 1940s we had the Truman Commission; in the ‘80s we had the commission that looked at the future of community colleges. This will be the first time it’s been done in about 25 years. And that will be driven by what we learn from this listening tour.
Next, I have a strong interest in perhaps working with the Urban League to see if there might be a role for our urban community colleges in conjunction with the Urban League to really look at this whole issue of jobs and workforce training. We share some similar interests in that regard and maybe there are some things we can do together, perhaps even with the Department of Labor. I’m also meeting now with the representatives [of] our rural college alliance. Are there some things we can do better and differently for our smaller rural colleges?
DI: State and local governments are facing unprecedented budget shortfalls and have responded, in part, with deep cuts in higher ed funding. Is this an area of concern?
WB: I think we have some serious issues in many states in regards to funding not only being cut but being cut almost in draconian measures. We’ve got several community colleges around the country that are even worried about their existence if their state funding continues to be cut at the levels at which some people are discussing it be cut. But presidents and chancellors are being very creative — we’ve had to be. They are used to having to do more with less; now, they have to really draw from some of those experiences.
DI: The $2 billion in community college funding contained within the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act signed into law last year led to a surge of optimism among community college stakeholders. However, House Republican leaders have pledged to cut $100 billion from the federal budget and have signaled everything is on the table. How do you plan to keep the community college mission front-and-center?
WB: I view community colleges as really a bipartisan entity, if you will. The congressman or woman, Republican or Democrat, they still need to have an educated workforce, a highly skilled workforce. To that end, I do believe community colleges are going to be more of a solution than in the past.
I have started to make strategic appointments around D.C. with folks that I hope will be very influential on some of these kinds of decisions. It’s not about necessarily new money, as it’s been in the past, but how do we just keep the money we have. We’ve got to articulate the fact that we are a part of the solution, and I believe folks are looking for solution-oriented answers. The major issue when it comes to presidential candidates, congressional candidates — jobs, jobs, jobs. That’s a part of what we do. That’s not all we do … at the same time we are all about transfer students, we’re all about trying to make sure students get a well-rounded education.
We focused largely for years on access, but now, our focus, and rightfully so, is on completion. Historically, look at the great job we do at bringing students in. But largely today, when you go to graduation, you don’t see those kinds of numbers … the same kind of diversity. We, along with all aspects of higher education, have got to focus more on the completion piece, and that’s been President Obama’s goal. I think you’re going to find most universities and certainly community colleges stepping up to the bar — we’re going to get that done.
DI: Is the open access mission of community colleges in jeopardy as more community colleges start offering bachelor’s degrees?
WB: That’s one of those debates that we’re having within the family of community colleges — I don’t think there’s any consensus reached yet. We probably have close to 200 institutions now across the country that have moved to the point where they’re offering baccalaureate degree programs. I don’t think any of us would disagree that more education is better. That’s the business we’re in, higher education, continuing education, so philosophically, I don’t have an issue with that, if it doesn’t come at the expense of your access part of the mission and that you’re able to serve the students that you currently have enrolled.
DI: The U.S. Department of Education is in the process of finalizing its “Gainful Employment” rules. Will community colleges be affected?
WB: I appreciate the fact that [Secretary of Education Arne] Duncan actually invited me over to provide some input. So the governmental relations staff had the chance to meet with the secretary and give him some concerns about if there were issues related to gainful employment regs that did spill over on us, because I don’t think that they’re necessarily intended for community colleges. The gainful employment regulation will certainly have some impact on us as community colleges but I do appreciate the Secretary listening to our concerns. We’re hopeful that once the law is final, it may not be everything we want but I think we’ve had the opportunity for input.