Diversity Deferred in AACC Presidential Choice
After a nine-month search for the person who will lead community colleges in the new millennium, the American Association of Community Colleges here announced last month that Dr. George R. Boggs had been tapped to fill the organization’s top spot.
Boggs, 55, has been a leader in the two-year college world for nearly three decades, the last 15 years of which he spent as president of Palomar College in California. He is credited with bringing that school out of a financial crisis, as well as helping to make it a pioneer in distance education. He is well-known and respected among his colleagues as a quiet and effective leader, a prolific and thoughtful writer and a respected proponent of community colleges nationally.
He also is White.
When the current president, Dr. David R. Pierce, announced last fall that he was stepping down from his nine-year stint, several community college experts predicted the association would select a minority to serve as its next leader.
All of the association’s leaders in its eight-decade history have been White men — despite the fact that the nation’s 1,250 two-year colleges today enroll 45 percent of African American students and 55 percent of Hispanic and American Indian students in higher education. Even members of the association’s board privately muttered that the two-year college world is ready for a woman or minority to take the helm.
Several higher education experts pointed out that there are a number of nationally recognized Black community college leaders who would have done quite well in the position. Many wonder why the two-year college association, which many say should represent the very paragon of open access and inclusion that its member institutions profess, didn’t choose a person of color as its next president.
With only six Blacks, one Hispanic and one Asian/Pacific American among the heads of the 42 associations that comprise the Washington higher education secretariat, does this latest selection say anything about the people who represent postsecondary issues in the nation’s capital and their commitment to diversity?
The Best Candidate
The answer to that question is an unequivocal no, maintains Dr. Carolyn G. Williams, the Black woman who chaired the search committee.
“Our overriding charge was to find the best candidate,” says Williams, also president of Bronx Community College in New York City. “It was an open search, we had some excellent candidates when we went into it, and we selected the best one.”
But many observers say Jacqueline Woods, the current community college liaison to the U.S. Department of Education — who is Black — would have been a perfect fit for the job. A woman who knows her way around Washington and a two-year college campus, Woods had the support of several community college officials who say privately that they were bucking for her to get the position.
Woods was one of the three finalists considered. Rumor has it that her chances were dimmed because she has never been a community college president and she doesn’t hold a doctorate, two things that might have softened the level of respect she’d have enjoyed from other presidents.
But Williams says those were not deciding factors.
“The fact that she was in the pool signifies that we felt she was a very strong and likely candidate. She wouldn’t have been in the final three otherwise,” she says.
For her part, Woods — who has served in leading administrative posts at two-year colleges in Philadelphia and Chicago — has no comment except to say that she wishes Boggs well.
Still, others feel certain she would have served the 80-year-old association perfectly.
“There’s no question. Male, female, Black or White, Jackie would have been one of the most dynamic presidents,” says Dr. Ronald Temple, president of Peralta College in Oakland, Calif. “Which is not to take anything away from George. I think he is highly qualified, very competent and will give good leadership.”
Certainly, no one is questioning Boggs’ ability to deliver exactly what the position and his members will require of him. But many still can’t help wondering what happened to the seasoned and diverse group of potential minority candidates that had been circulated from the very beginning of the search: Dr. Jacqueline M. Belcher, president of Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta; Dr. Belle Wheelan, president of Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Va.; Dr. Jerry Sue Thornton, president of Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland; Dr. Joshua Smith, director of the Center for Urban Community College Leadership at New York University; Dr. Donald G. Phelps, professor of higher education at the University of Texas at Austin’s Community College Leadership Program; and Dr. Zelema Harris, president of Parkland College in Champaign, Ill.
Harris says the job just wasn’t her style. So although several people nominated her, she never applied. “I don’t want a national job at a bureaucratic level,” Harris says. “I like having some hands-on experience with faculty and students.”
The same applies to several other prominent African American candidates who were considered viable contenders but never threw their names in the hat, either because they weren’t available or simply weren’t
The Right Time?
Even if the association had selected an African American for its next president, higher education experts say, it might not have been as big a boon for minorities as some might have hoped. When Blacks assume such national positions, they can’t always speak for Black people all the time, says Dr. Freddie Sandipher, president of the National Council on Black American Affairs, an AACC affiliate.
“When people of color take that kind of position, their voice becomes a lot broader,” says Sandipher, who also has served on the association’s board.
She adds that no one person could speak for all minorities anyway.
“There may have been a time where there was one monolithic agenda among people of color,” Sandipher says. “I think we’re moving away from that now.”
Still, Temple says it was the right time for a person of color to assume the position.
“Considering that community colleges represent the most diverse part of the higher education community, I think it was time that we had someone who would symbolize all those principles of diversity that we always talk about,” he says.
Sandipher says she can’t disagree with that.
“I think it would have certainly communicated some things. It would have communicated a certain boldness. I think a person of color would have brought a certain sensitivity to the issues,” she says. “But that’s not to say that Boggs won’t have these agenda items in mind.”
Williams says that second-guessing on who could have done what undermines the honest process that the board undertook. And still others say they are just happy that the board chose the best person for the job.
“I am glad that the board was able to transcend the politics of diversity,” and select the best candidate, says Dr. Terry O’Banion, a senior fellow and president emeritus of the League for Innovation in the Community College.
The decision-making process, O’Banion says, was an equitable one, given the diverse membership of the association’s board of directors. Of the 32 members, 17 are women and at least 8 are members of minority groups.
Besides, says Sandipher, Boggs is well esteemed among minorities.
He is recognized as an “honorary elder” of the Council on Black American Affairs and has served nearly a decade on the board of BECA, a nonprofit Hispanic student scholarship foundation.
The Challenge for Boggs
Boggs did, however, face his own challenges over diversity in 1993 when minority students led an 11-day protest challenging Palomar’s record on minority hiring. He ended the standoff by signing an agreement with student leaders to beef up recruitment efforts and diversity training.
But Boggs told Black Issues that’s all behind him now.
“I’ve been pretty proud of the progress that we made at Palomar with respect to diversity hiring,” he says, adding that he hired the college’s first African American dean and its first Hispanic vice president.
He says that many Black two-year college presidents supported his bid for the position, including Belcher and Wheelan.
He also says that he is concerned with matters of diversity and plans to address them as the association’s new chief, “since community colleges are the most inclusive part of higher education.”
And through the years, he has proved himself as “a scholar entrepreneur,” says O’Banion, who nominated Boggs for the position. “He is thoughtful and analytical and has tremendous ideas, but he also knows how to put them into practice.”
Boggs says he does not intend to change the direction that the association has been heading over the last several years, but will continue to focus on the challenges the institutions face with access, faculty turnover and meeting the comprehensive mission.
“I don’t think we should focus on one part of the mission to the exclusion of others,” Boggs says. “We have to maintain the focus of the comprehensive college.”
But observers say Boggs’ challenge may indeed include shining a brighter spotlight on one part of that mission: the community college’s academic and transfer function.
Community colleges’ intense focus on work-force development, for example, has in many ways overshadowed the quality of the academic program, according to Dr. John E. Roueche, who heads the community college leadership program at the University of Texas at Austin.
Boggs has devoted much of his own career recently to that very concept, holding conferences on “The Learning College” and writing about the contributions community colleges make to student learning.
A native of Ohio, Boggs also has been an administrator at Butte College in California. He serves on the board of the American Council on Education and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and is a member of the Inter-Regional Accreditation Committee for the Western Governor’s University. He has been a member of the board of the American Association of Community Colleges and the National Science Foundation, and a member of the President’s Work Group on Accreditation for the National Policy Board.
— BI correspondent Kathleen Kennedy Manzo contributed to this article
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