At the Community College of Aurora (CCA), Colorado, President Dr. Mordecai Brownlee has big plans.
This month, the school will embark on a capital campaign to build its first new building in 23 years. They have already received a $1 million donation, the largest single gift in the school's history. Brownlee said he hopes to open the building in 2023 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the institution.
But Brownlee isn’t just expanding the campus. Since the beginning of his tenure in August of this year, he has been working to overhaul and adjust aging programs to meet the needs of Aurora’s diverse community and workforce. Under his leadership, CCA will build healthcare, renewable energy, and construction management courses, and offer hybrid, online, and in-person instruction outside the typical working hours to accommodate their students’ varied schedules.
Getting more students through the classroom and into successful careers, is the mission closest to Brownlee’s heart. Like institutions, Brownlee has created his own mission statement: empower the lives of people and develop systems that empower the lives of people.
Brownlee is what Dr. Michael A. Baston, president of Rockland Community College, calls a “new school” leader.
“Many of us who are in this space are grateful to stand on the shoulders of the practitioners of the past,” said Baston. “But we understand it’s time for a new generation of leaders to step up to the plate to say that what was, isn’t sufficient for what’s coming. And [Brownlee] joins our ranks in that regard.”
“New school” leaders are characterized by their front-line activity, said Baston. They think creatively about how to build relationships that can help students succeed on their educational journeys. They reach out to the surrounding community to solve local problems together. Baston met Brownlee at an American Council of Education (ACE) conference in 2017, and the two bonded immediately over their shared passion for equitable student access.
Baston saw promise in Brownlee from the beginning, and he became his mentor, urging him to continue on the pathway toward a college presidency. According to a study of college presidents by ACE in 2016, only 8% of presidents of any gender identify as Black. Of the over 1,100 community colleges in the country, only about 65 are led by Black men.
“There’s not enough of us, and Brownlee represents some of our best and brightest,” said Baston. “We need more of us in this seat.”
Brownlee never imagined a career in higher education, but that changed during his years as a student at North Harris Community College in Houston, Texas, now known as Lone Star Community College. While there, he was embraced by a community of Black male professionals who answered his questions, validated his experiences, and guided him through completion.
“When I realized the impact of the transformation through mentorship in higher education, the lightbulb went off,” said Brownlee. “I wanted that magic to happen for everyone.”
Making that magic happen is often easier said than done. In the past, Brownlee said he felt frustrated by administrations that would talk about ways to improve educational access, but ultimately made no concrete changes to achieve equitable outcomes for students. That’s when one of his mentors gave him a piece of lifechanging advice: systems will only do as they are designed to do.
“That means that, no matter what impact we intend to make, unless the system itself is redesigned, it will never change,” said Brownlee. “That became my charge point. We’re redesigning these systems so students can succeed.”
Those redesigns include finding ways to accommodate student needs on a 24/7 schedule, something Brownlee is currently developing at CCA. Over 60% of students at CCA are students of color, and over 40% are first generation. CCA qualifies as a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI), meaning that at least 25% of its student population identifies as Latinx.
“Being an HSI, it’s imperative that we embrace institutionally what that means,” said Brownlee. “It’s changing the culture of the institution to be service first, to understand the importance of creating educational experiences that honor the cultural backgrounds of students.”
Brownlee said he fell in love with CCA’s vision, which is to be a place where every student succeeds. Since taking the helm in August, Brownlee has seen enrollment at CCA, which dropped 12% during the onset of the pandemic, climb back seven percentage points. But Brownlee said he won’t stop until he’s regained the missing five percentage points and then some, as enrollment has been declining since before COVID-19. Next month, Brownlee will lead development of the school’s first strategic enrollment plan.
Brownlee said that he has great empathy for the irregular schedules of many community college students. While in college, he worked many different jobs to keep the lights on. One job he had was as a police dispatcher. His shift began at midnight and ended at 8:00 A.M. He would head home, clean up, and then go straight to his 9:00 A.M. class.
“I really believe that there was a belief in higher education that you couldn’t serve students high-quality, high-impact education though hybrid and remote opportunities. COVID has proven that is false,” said Brownlee. The flexibility of online courses provides new opportunities to engage with new students.
“As we look around our world, times are changing, things aren’t the same, realities and hardships are getting worse in many cases,” said Brownlee. “I just want to continue seeking opportunities to transform lives, to make the changes our great world needs.”
Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].