As arguably the two people most often associated with community college leadership, Drs. John and Suanne Roueche have enriched the lives of thousands of administrators, faculty and staff at community colleges, thereby strengthening their institutions and students.
Before Dr. Evelyn Waiwaiole entered the Community College Leadership Program, or CCLP, at the University of Texas at Austin 12 years ago, she, like many young people, wasn’t yet sure what she wanted to do with her life.
“I was actually in another program, and I went to talk to John,” she recalls. “He was good at helping you think through what you really wanted to do.” By the time the conversation ended, Waiwaiole realized the doctoral program that has produced numerous top college administrators would help fulfill her career goals. “It was one of the best decisions of my life, right up there with getting married and having kids.”
Unlike Waiwaiole, Dr. Brenda Hellyer knew exactly what she wanted to do and where she was headed when she enrolled in the leadership program in 2007. She had been vice chancellor for fiscal affairs of the San Jacinto College District in Texas, and she was interested in becoming chancellor. “When I began the program I was a little scared, really, but John and Suanne were tremendous role models and mentors.”
“You end up feeling that you’re just part of the family,” says Hellyer, who achieved her goal and was appointed chancellor shortly after completing her Ed.D. in CCLP.
Waiwaiole went on to become director of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development, or NISOD, the outreach and service arm of CCLP, with more than 700 community colleges worldwide as members. She is now program manager at the Center for Community College Student Engagement.
For the Roueches, their marriage and first professional collaboration began almost concurrently. “The first year we were married, 1976, the [Southern Regional Education Board] was doing a big study in the South of what colleges were doing with students who needed remediation,” John explains. “And there had never been a study on that. I wrote the first book on remedial programs in 1968 when I was on the faculty at UCLA. So they asked us if we would take a look at what was happening with developmental ed, then write a report. So she and I took that project on, and that was our first collaboration as an author team.”
A dozen more books, a national organization and numerous training and staff development programs have emanated from their partnership. They are especially known for co-writing the groundbreaking 1993 book Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The At-Risk Student in the Open-Door College.
Hellyer praised the couple’s partnership on a professional and personal level: “Drs. John and Suanne Roueche have made a profound impact on higher education. They have been personal mentors to me and many others through their work. … Together, they have set the bar high for educators in championing student success both in the classroom and in the operations of the college.”
Dr. Gerardo de los Santos, president and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College and a CCLP graduate, says that the Roueches’ successful partnership stems from the core values they share. De los Santos relates how Suanne famously tracked down wayward students in the hallways and dragged them to class, reflective of her commitment, which her husband shares, to do everything possible to ensure “that everybody has an opportunity to be educated” and to serve “those who have traditionally been underserved. … They have been just a great team. But it all stems, I think, from having that same dedication, that same understanding of what they are working toward.”
Suanne credits John with founding NISOD, which she later directed, but she acknowledges their teamwork. “Truly John and I were a team at NISOD,” Suanne says, “although NISOD was John’s idea in 1978. We were having breakfast at the American Association of Community Colleges with a Kellogg program fellow. He asked if we had ever thought about getting information about best practices into the hands of teachers in community colleges.”
As a result, she continues, laughing, “NISOD was born on a breakfast napkin. We laid out bringing colleges in as members, having an annual conference, a weekly teaching tips newsletter written by practitioners for practitioners.” Those plans came to fruition in publications such as Innovation Abstracts and Celebrations, as other ideas also blossomed into programs and practices that have been implemented in the organization.
Suanne retired as NISOD director in 2000 and serves as the organization’s editor of publications and senior lecturer in UT-Austin’s Department of Educational Administration. But during her years as director — when she reported directly to the dean, not to her husband — Suanne says her greatest satisfaction came from honoring outstanding practitioners at NISOD’s annual conference.
“It was a stunning and remarkable experience the first time we recognized teachers,” she says. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was probably the first time in a long time, or ever, that many of those teachers had been recognized for excellence or anyone had said, ‘You’re doing a good job.’”
More than 13,000 educators, all selected by their individual institutions, have been honored by the organization. The awards ceremonies also have impressed Waiwaiole, who considers the events the couple’s crowning achievement. “They really lit up the community college world with fireworks by celebrating faculty, staff and administrators at the conference.” She notes the “people weeping with joy that somebody finally recognized them, and you see the joy of the faces of their families standing behind them. It’s more than 30 years old, and it’s still wonderful and fresh every single year.”
Under Suanne’s 20-year leadership, NISOD’s membership went from 50 institutions to 750, and the first conference had 152 participants. When she retired in 2000 there were about 2,000 participants. And, as publications editor, she has disseminated abstracts to about 100,000 readers weekly through the website.
Overall, Suanne says she thinks she and John have succeeded in raising the profile of developmental education.
Both have emphasized the needs of underprepared students and the importance of helping them succeed. “The idea is that developmental education or remedial education can be a deciding factor in college success. … There are just so many students who, without that, will not have a future in higher education,” she says.
But working in the same environment, raising a blended family — three children who have all earned graduate degrees — and writing 13 books might be a bit too much togetherness for many couples.
No so for the Roueches, who have combined marriage and work for more than three decades. “Amazingly, working down the hall from each other all these years seemingly has worked for us, and we’ve had a good time with it,” Suanne remarks, indicating that she is her husband’s biggest fan.
“There’s never a dull moment; there’s never a day I don’t learn something from him. He’s the kindest, brightest fellow I’ve ever known, and he sees the best in everybody.” Their mutual admiration is evident as John describes his wife in equally superlative terms. “Suanne is probably the best writer I have ever been around. And we fuss over titles; we fuss over the way the sentence is going to be written and so forth. But she is a gifted writer and a brilliant editor. Any journal would love to have Suanne as an editor. So we have had good fun together.”
And, like Suanne, he views their 24/7 association as a plus. “I think sometimes when a husband and wife are in different fields, it is really hard to pull together enough common ground to talk about. … So it is really fun to be in a field where you both are involved and interested in the same thing because, in our case, it has made our relationship and our marriage a lot stronger.”
David Pluviose contributed to this article.