John Roueche – Community College Renaissance Man

A photo gallery of noteworthy graduates stretches across two walls in the

office of the Community College Leadership Program, or CCLP, at the

University of Texas at Austin. Dr. John Roueche, the director of CCLP,

points to the photos with pride, listing the accomplishments of his former

students. Scanning the portraits, one of his greatest accomplishments also is visible: recruiting a record number of minorities and women into the program.

After 42 years leading the nation’s most highly regarded and successful training ground for community college presidents, Roueche, 73, is retiring this summer. Roueche is set apart from his peers not just for his prolific writing, ground-breaking research and exceptional teaching on community college leadership practices, but also for his uncompromising commitment to diversity and inclusion. CCLP has graduated more women and minority college presidents than any program of its kind in the country — beginning with the recruitment of Paul Meacham, its first Black student. A photo of Meacham, distinguished Regents professor emeritus at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and former president of Clark County Community College, appears in the gallery of notable graduates.

“[CCLP] was a program for White males, and out of his own deep value system he started changing that,” says Dr. Terry O’Banion, former president of the League for Innovation in the Community College and Roueche’s longtime friend and colleague. Of the more than 500 graduates of the program during his tenure, 60 percent are women and students of color.

Roueche created this diverse program through “recognizing excellence and demographic reality,” says Dr. Gregory Vincent, vice president for diversity and community engagement at UT and the W.K. Kellogg professor in community college leadership. He knew that leadership had to be representative of the population.

His achievements extend beyond CCLP and to the community college field in general, one of the fastest-growing sectors in higher education. Dr. Manuel Justiz, dean of the college of education at UT, says the “collective vision [of the program’s graduates] has shaped the community college movement in this country.”

Vincent adds, “We hear President Obama talking about the importance of community colleges. We would not have that infrastructure but for Roueche’s leadership and vision.”

Many of Roueche’s colleagues, friends and former students say his professional achievements are topped only by his humanity and humility. Dr. Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, says, “What people don’t know is that he is even a better man.”

At 31, Roueche became a full professor and the youngest person to lead a national community college graduate program. He has traveled the world promoting community colleges. He has written 38 books, many with his wife, Suanne, also a formidable scholar at the university. He has received dozens of prestigious awards. Yet his professional bio begins: “A community college graduate … .”

During an interview in his office at UT, Roueche, who holds the Sid W. Richardson regents chair in community college leadership, sits in a brown and beige leather chair adorned with images of longhorns, the mascot of the university he loves. The chair is a gift from Bumphus and Dr. Jerry Sue Thornton, president of Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland. Both are former students who are as close to Roueche as siblings. A natural storyteller, he radiates openness and warmth as he recalls his journey from community college student in Statesville, N.C., to leader in the community college field — providing a glimpse into the values and ideas that have shaped his storied career.

A Helping Hand

Roueche received his A.A. from Mitchell Community College in Statesville in 1958. There were four-year colleges nearby, but he chose to stay home, paying for his education with a part-time job and a $100 scholarship from Mitchell. In many ways, he was similar to community college students today. Neither parent had attended college. His father worked at a furniture factory; his mother worked at a hosiery mill.

Roueche did well at Mitchell. He was on the dean’s list with a 3.6 GPA. He was in student government and played basketball, while holding down a 30-hour-a-week job.

One day, Dr. Louis Brown, a history professor, wanted to talk to him. It was snowing, Roueche recalls. “There was nobody around. … Finally he said, ‘I want to ask you a question: Have you seriously thought about being a serious student?’ I said, ‘I thought I was. I’m on the dean’s list. I made an A in your class.’” Brown replied, “Johnny, you can be a straight-A student.”

In 1956, Roueche recalled, “being a straight-A student wasn’t the thing to do or something to talk about.”

But Brown pressed the point: “If you decide to use the talent I think you’ve got, someone will be willing to pay your way.” The encounter had a lasting impact. Roueche started thinking about becoming a teacher.

Brown wasn’t done with the young man, yet. Some time later, when the textile mill where Roueche worked closed, depriving him of the income to pay for his education, Brown interceded to help him stay in school.

“Jobs were hard to come by, and I was so despondent. I remember telling my mother what had happened and that I was thinking of joining the National Guard,” because it paid for education, Roueche says.

Brown, who had read about the mill’s closure, called Roueche at home and told him not to quit school. He made calls over the weekend and found Roueche a job at a local drug store. “Well, I finished college working at Purcell’s drug store and saved enough money to go to Lenoir-Rhyne College,” Roueche says.

“It’s what teachers do with students that get students motivated,” he says. “That is what Dr. Brown knew.”

Without Mitchell, Brown and those types of influences, Roueche adds, with a slight grin: “I probably would have gone into televangelism.”

The experience continues to inspire Roueche’s engagement with students and colleagues.

Thornton, of Cuyahoga Community College, says, “He’s always been willing to go above and beyond the normal work of a professor to help his students. … And you never ‘graduate.’ You continue to hear from him.”

Seizing Opportunities

After he graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne, Roueche taught high school English and history for a year before enrolling at North Carolina’s Appalachian State University. After he received his M.A. in history in 1961, he stayed there to teach.

The concept of intellectual history had captivated him. “How in the world does something as radical as the idea that people should be able to govern themselves overthrow monarchs and despots and dictators all over the world?” asks Roueche, marveling at the power of ideas.

As time went on, he began to make the connection between access to higher education and creating opportunities for social mobility for everyone. And a teaching philosophy also began to take root: The trick isn’t to lead the horse to water but to make him thirsty. “It’s the teaching trick, it’s the parenting trick, it’s the leadership trick. That’s what teaching ought to be about,” Roueche says.

In the summer of 1961 a door opened that would change Roueche’s life. Years later, he is still quick to tell his three adult children and his students to seize opportunities when they are presented. The dean told him he was to be a gopher for a visiting professor in the college leadership program at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

After some time together, playing tennis and getting to know each other, the professor asked a 22-year-old Roueche if he had ever thought about being a college president. He told him: “If you are really interested in equity, that’s what community colleges do.”

The idea made sense to Roueche.

“The whole history of this country has been welcoming people who haven’t necessarily done well where they were,” he says. “Community college was the epitomization of democracy in America.”

With their open admissions policies, the schools give people without the best academic backgrounds an opportunity to learn and grow.

When he returned to Florida State, the professor sent Roueche a plane ticket to Tallahassee. Eventually Roueche was offered a Kellogg Fellowship for community college leadership and a teaching assistant position to support him during his doctoral program.

Between 1960 and 1970, the number of community colleges grew dramatically as the demand for higher education increased. According to statistics, there “was one new college every week,” O’Banion says. “And enrollment would double from year to year.”

To help prepare leaders for this burgeoning field, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation gave millions of dollars to 10 universities, including the University of Texas and Florida State.

“We were in the first wave of leadership,” says O’Banion, who also was a Kellogg Fellow at Florida State. The two men graduated from the program in 1964 and started a lifelong collaboration, researching issues including leadership development and diversity in the community college field.

Building Partnerships

At 31, Roueche arrived at the University of Texas to direct the Community College Leadership Program. He was younger than many of his students. But he had honed his skills at two other community college programs: at Duke University and the University of California at Los Angeles. His success in recruitment and retention at Duke, where he created the community college program, was a factor in his selection by Texas, he says.

 

At Duke, Roueche had worked closely with historically Black colleges and universities to recruit graduate students. Duke was the first university in the South to voluntarily integrate, and many other Southern universities were integrated as a result of court decisions, beginning in 1950.

“Duke took great pride in that,” Roueche says. “When I came to Texas, I found out that not a single African-American had gone through [CCLP] and only one woman. Think about that. Courses started in the late 1920s. Here I am in January of 1971, and we had one woman who was a Catholic nun and was already a college president, and one Hispanic, Alfredo de los Santos.”

Meacham soon became the first African-American in the program.

Before he was hired, Roueche told the faculty that “the future [of the program] is going to be based on how well we serve women and minorities because [White males] are going to be in the minority by the time most of us retire.”

Dr. Norma Cantu, chairwoman of the department of educational administration, which houses CCLP, says the program’s diversity is a reflection of Roueche’s pursuit of excellence and strong networks.

“It’s an amazing record of building partnerships with organizations that are trying to break the glass ceiling and a huge network of his alumni,” she says. “He’s been strategic about using his contacts to have the most qualified folks interviewed, and he follows through with excellent preparation and wonderful mentorship.”

Bumphus, who also worked at UT with Roueche, says his friend, colleague and former teacher doesn’t just look at test scores and grades, but at leadership ability. “He holds everybody to the same high standards and looks at the potential of students,” he explains. “He admitted some who did not have extensive experience but were good students and had great test scores. He would always argue on the side of talent and potential.”

The approach to recruitment is consistent with Roueche’s early experiences in higher education when Brown saw his talent and pushed him to fulfill his potential.

Thornton says Roueche does the same thing with his students. “He is drenched in all of the pedagogy. He is a teacher of the content,” she says. “He demands, through tough love, that you meet his expectations. And he has the willingness to help you get there.”

His background is just one reason for Roueche’s rapport with all of his students. “A lot of people have come from a humble background, and it did not necessarily make them understanding of people of different backgrounds,” Thornton says. “His approach to life is one of being inclusive of others, from his friends to his students.”

A 1988 graduate of the program, Thornton says Roueche understood the gender and racial barriers students would face in their careers, and that became part of classroom discussions. “It wasn’t that it was ignored,” she says. “They would discuss those challenges because it’s reality.”

 

The program featured much of the “same nurturing environment” Thornton says that she experienced at the segregated Black schools she attended growing up in Kentucky, where teachers were engaged in all aspects of their students’ well-being. The effectiveness of the approach is in the results: At a time when so many Ph.D. students don’t finish their programs, CCLP’S graduation rate has been consistently above 80 percent, more than twice the average for doctoral programs, Roueche says.

The program’s success has enhanced the image of the university as a symbol of excellence and diversity.

“The College of Education in U.S. News and World Report is ranked three and we’re first among publics. A central reason for that is the CCLP, and a significant part of that ranking is academic ranking.  There’s no doubt that because of the CCLP we are seen as an elite institution and [Dr. Roueche] is so fundamentally responsible for that,” Vincent explains. “Community colleges are about access, about giving people opportunity, and he has made that a legitimate part of the academic enterprise. His genius, his commitment to this over time has made it a legitimate, respected part of who and what we are.”

The Next Chapter

As he prepares to retire in August, Roueche still speaks of the importance of accountability and performance — key areas of research in his career — even as state budget cuts have community colleges scrambling for funds.

The colleges’ mission to let in people who don’t have the class privileges and academic preparation of many of the students who attend elite four-year institutions must continue, Roueche says. So must the work to graduate them and move them on to universities.

“For 45 years, I’ve been trying to identify programs that are working,” he says, adding that now there is renewed emphasis on increased transparency about performance — not just community college enrollment, but how students do while there.

Open admissions policies have made it possible for thousands to get a taste of postsecondary education. “Come on in the water’s fine. It doesn’t matter how you did in high school. You can take any class you like,” has been the attitude, Roueche says. “But what if the student works full time, has three babies at home? How do you make sure they don’t bite off more than they can chew?”

Bowling Green College in Kentucky has one of the highest completion rates of any community college in the state — and perhaps the nation — with a 38 to 39 percent completion rate, he notes, because faculty members have focused on “helping make students successful.” This approach must be driven from the top down — from trustees to instructors, Roueche says.

And as higher education is battered by a decline in public support, community colleges have to become more innovative, financially and in terms of how they offer courses. “Community colleges are looking more like emergency rooms,” he says, “yet we’re getting less and less funding from the state.”

The level of public support may never be as it was years ago, Roueche says. Innovation is the subject of his new book with his wife. The book, Rising to the Challenge: Lessons Learned from Guilford Tech Community College, explores how the college in Greensboro, N.C., is partnering with local companies to do more on-site training, thus avoiding the cost of constructing new college buildings, and other initiatives.

“I think it will take a whole new model, including teaching at churches,” Roueche says, adding that Cuyahoga College in Cleveland has classes in churches and corporate offices. “This is what the community college of tomorrow is going to be doing.”

Though he is retiring, Roueche will continue to help shape the future of higher education. He is heading the National Community College Advisory Committee for National American University.

The university has a long history of partnering with community colleges to facilitate student transfer to baccalaureate programs. And he will research and write.

“It’s unfair to try to put him in a box and call him a professor, teacher, researcher or leader. The interesting thing is that he is all of that,” says Bumphus. “And not many people are able to master that.”

O’Banion echoes the sentiment, describing Roueche as “the last renaissance man in the community college field.”

“We’ll never see his like again,” he says. “In the 110-year history of community colleges no one has come close to equaling the record he has established. And I can’t imagine anyone in the next 110 years reaching that.”