Editor’s Note: An Ode to John Roueche

Soon after I first began writing about community colleges in 2005, I was introduced to Dr. John Roueche, who, by then, had reached the pinnacle of his fame within community college circles. By all accounts, Roueche had built the Community College Leadership Program (CCLP) at the University of Texas at Austin into the premier producer of community college presidents over the past 42 years.

Dr. Roueche was one of my first calls when seeking commentary for many stories, and I always found him to be very easygoing and patient, as he schooled me from his wealth of knowledge on community college issues, going back to before 1958 when he graduated from Mitchell Community College in Statesville, N.C.

However, at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) conference last month in Orlando, Fla., I had the opportunity to speak with many of Dr. Roueche’s former students, who informed me that his laid-back persona belies his tough-as-nails approach to academics.

“He has high expectations and has been able to help us all understand that that is how people succeed. When you have high expectations of people and hold them to those high expectations, then they tend to rise to the occasion,” says Dr. Belle Wheelan, a CCLP graduate who now serves as president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Dr. Cindy Miles, a CCLP graduate who serves as chancellor of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District in El Cajon, Calif., puts it more bluntly.

“He was very hard on us. I was 40 years old when I went in that program. I was an adult, and I left that classroom crying, there were times. It was very challenging.”

Yet, affection for and loyalty toward Roueche run very deep among his graduates who all cite the care and concern he shows for them as individuals, which extends far beyond the confines of the classroom. Dr. Richard Rhodes, a CCLP grad who now serves as president of Austin (Texas) Community College, waxed emotional when talking about how Roueche looked out for his son as a doting father would when he arrived on the UT-Austin campus as a freshman.

“Dr. Roueche takes him under his wing and gives him a job and watches over him and mentors him and makes sure that he’s got other people from CCLP to do the same. … Once you graduate, you’re still a member of the family and he treats you like a member of the family.”

Miles, a biologist by training, says Roueche’s effect on people is transformational, that he radiates success and optimism in all he does.

“To learn actually changes your cells, so there’s a physical change. John touches us, and we are transformed in a profound physical, spiritual, mental way. He’s opened doors, connected us, opened our minds, challenged us,” she says.

Roueche tells me that a key ingredient to CCLP’s success hinges on its admissions criteria, and a high GRE score is not what CCLP is looking for.

“We are really trying to gauge the quality of the person. Do they have a good heart? Do they want to make a difference? Do they believe they can make a difference?”

What’s most striking about John Roueche’s legacy are the epic battles he fought, and won, to recruit women and minorities to CCLP. Growing up in segregated Statesville, N.C., Roueche tells me that, when his father was overseas serving in the military and his mother was working long hours at a hosiery mill “to keep bread on the table while he was away,” an African-American “surrogate mother” helped raise him and he played with her children as a young boy.

One day, Roueche asked his father why he went to one school, and his African-American playmates went to another. His father told him he was lucky, saying, “You had nothing to do with being born with white skin. You had nothing to do with having blue eyes. You had nothing to do with being born in this country.”

“My father had a great sense. He didn’t finish high school, but he really understood social justice and cared about it greatly. And I thought, boy, how unfair that is.”

The rest is history.

“CCLP has graduated more female college presidents, more Hispanic college presidents, more African-American college presidents, than perhaps the next five programs combined,” said Dr. Walter Bumphus at a reception in Roueche’s honor at the AACC convention last month. Bumphus, an African-American and one of CCLP’s most accomplished graduates, now serves as the president of AACC.

Bumphus added that, when Roueche admitted the first Hispanic and African-American students to CCLP, “it was not a very popular thing to do at all, and John got a lot of criticism for that. And for many of us, we wouldn’t be standing here today, were it not for John’s courage.”

It has been my great pleasure to cover John Roueche over the years, and it suffices to say I jumped at the opportunity to prepare this tribute, having worked so closely with NISOD, CCLP’s outreach and service arm, over the years. I believe that Cindy Miles has it right in echoing the words of Dr. Terry O’Banion, a community college pioneer himself, in saying “that probably, in the history of the American community college movement, there’s never been anyone nor will be again, who has made such a difference to this field, as John Roueche.”

Dr. Roueche, this one’s for you. As always, keep fighting the good fight.