They traveled from far and near to pay tribute to a community college pioneer.
The list of the attendees at the memorial service read like a who’s who of the world of community colleges. There were former and current community college presidents, thought leaders, former students and colleagues, who, on a Saturday morning in February, arrived at the Renaissance Arboretum Hotel in Austin to celebrate the life of their friend and comrade, Dr. Suanne Davis Roueche.
Roueche — a prolific educator, administrator and researcher — passed away in December after a courageous battle with lung cancer. She was 75.
When it was his turn to speak, Dr. Walter G. Bumphus, the president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges reflected on the years — spanning four decades — that he knew and worked with Roueche.
“I had a front row seat in working with Suanne,” says Bumphus. “Suanne was the difference maker for female [students] and students of color as they were navigating their doctoral program.”
Bumphus would certainly know.
In the 1980s, he was one of Roueche’s doctoral students and would later become her supervisor during his tenure as chair of the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Texas at Austin.
Roueche, he says, was a master teacher, who loved the classroom and was, above all else, firmly committed to her students.
“Suanne Roueche had a profound impact on the nation’s community colleges,” says Bumphus in an interview with Diverse. “There are so many community college professionals that benefited from her research and continue to do so today.”
During her lifetime, Roueche maintained a rigorous and active research agenda, cranking out more than 60 articles and authoring, or co-authoring, 19 books.
An expert on the challenges that “at-risk” students face, she crisscrossed the nation, delivering lectures and workshops at more than 400 colleges and universities on a wide range of topics related to teaching and learning.
By the time the 1970s rolled around, she and Dr. John Edward Roueche became the “most prolific couple in America in terms of focusing on equity, and focusing on the advancement of leaders from underserved backgrounds by offering a pathway for what was possible,” says Bumphus.
John Roueche remembers the first time he met Suanne. She was in the hallway, herding students into her class at El Centro College in downtown Dallas, where she taught writing in the developmental studies program for nine years.
“The first time I visited one of her classrooms, she had a whole bunch of students sitting in the room with ankle bracelets on,” remembers John, who is president of the Roueche Graduate Center at the National American University in Austin. “They were all released from the county jail.”
Suanne — who earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from North Texas State University — later enrolled in the Community College Leadership Program in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Texas at Austin.
Not long after she completed her doctorate, she and John tied the knot, becoming life-long partners and co-authors, publishing their first book together, titled Developmental Education: A Primer for Program Development and Education.
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 told Diverse in a 2012 interview. “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 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.
The two would go on to become ambassadors and fierce advocates for community colleges, all the while mentoring a new generation of leaders who were moving up the ranks.
Commitment to education
Although Suanne grew up in a racially segregated Dallas, she spent her childhood summers with her grandmother in the small, rural Texas town of Itasca.
“Her grandmother was a wonderful, wonderful role model for her,” says John. “She was active in just about everything and Suanne used to say, ‘I watched my grandmother do anything and everything she wanted to do and I grew up believing I could do that too.’”
Having hailed from a family of college graduates (her mother and grandmother were teachers, and her father — who earned an associate degree — served in World War II), Suanne knew the importance of education and decided early on that she needed to give back.
“Suanne developed a real affinity and heart for those who didn’t have much going for them and she took that to El Centro,” says John about his wife’s early years as a community college instructor.
In subsequent years, Suanne not only perfected her teaching as a senior lecturer in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Texas at Austin, but she also honed her administrative skills as the director of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD), an international consortium of more than 750 colleges committed to excellence in professional development for the improvement of teaching, learning and leadership.
She served as NISOD director for 20 years, stepping down in 2000.
In a 2012 interview with Diverse, Suanne credited John with founding NISOD, but acknowledged that their teamwork ultimately sustained the organization.
“Truly, John and I were a team at NISOD,” Suanne told Diverse, “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, “NISOD was born on a breakfast napkin. We laid out [plans for] 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.
During her years as director, Suanne’s 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 told Diverse in the 2012 interview. “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.’”
Under Suanne’s 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 disseminated abstracts to about 100,000 readers weekly through the website.
An effective partnership
There is little doubt that both Suanne and John raised the profile of developmental education and helped establish the importance of community colleges in the nation, say those who’ve followed their career trajectory. Their work 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,” Suanne noted in the same interview with Diverse.
The admiration that the couple shared for one another was obvious to those who knew them.
“There’s never a dull moment; there’s never a day I don’t learn something from him,” Suanne told a reporter in 2012. “[John] is the kindest, brightest fellow I’ve ever known, and he sees the best in everybody.”
In that same interview, John heaped praise on his wife.
“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,” he said at the time. “Any journal would love to have Suanne as an editor. So we have had good fun together.”
Their contributions to the field has not gone unnoticed.
In 2012, the League for Innovations in the Community College named their Excellence Awards after John and Suanne Roueche. And in 2012, Austin Community College named their executive suite in honor of the couple.
“She was not only a great friend, but she had wicked, wicked humor,” says John, adding that she volunteered her time with the Assistance League of Austin, a dedicated group comprising retired women who raise money to buy clothing for low-income students in the Austin public school system. She served two stints as president of the organization. “She was a great advocate for the downtrodden.”
Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at email@example.com.
This article appears in the April 19 issue of Diverse.
Editor’s Note: The Diverse Champions Award recognizes higher education leaders who have shown unwavering commitment to equal opportunity and access for all, particularly at the community college level. The recipient will receive an award (posthumously) at the American Association of Community Colleges annual meeting in Dallas next week.