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Interim Chancellor Brings Healing Touch to

Interim Chancellor Brings Healing Touch to

Embattled Dallas Community College District
By David Pluviose

Chancellor of the 84,000-student Dallas County Community College District for just three years, Dr. Jesus “Jess” Carreon abruptly resigned during a May 2 meeting of the DCCCD’s board of trustees. Though both sides issued platitudes following a contract buyout agreement, Carreon’s tenure had been fraught with clashes over a governance style many say was autocratic.

Carreon’s supporters say some of the opposition to the district’s first Hispanic chancellor was raced-based, although critics and supporters alike acknowledge some of his administrative successes. Among them, Carreon orchestrated the passage of a $450 million bond initiative to update the district’s seven colleges and to support plans for five new community education campuses.

Dr. Wright Lassiter, president of the district’s El Centro College since 1986, has been named interim chancellor — a move applauded in many
corners because of his reputation as a consensus-building leader with deep academic experience. Previously, Lassiter served as president of Bishop College in Dallas and Schenectady County Community College in New York. He has also held top administrative posts at Morgan State University and Tuskegee University.

Lassiter, the DCCCD’s first Black chancellor, spoke with Diverse recently about the circumstances surrounding his predecessor’s sudden departure and his mandate for the DCCCD.

DI: How has your background prepared you for this position?
First and foremost, when one has been associated as long as I have with historically Black colleges, one develops an understanding for the kind of student that is the typical community college student — individuals who require nurturing, individuals who may need remedial and developmental education.

Community colleges struggle for our place at the table. Historically Black colleges have that same challenge to convince the external world as to the relevance of those unique and special-purpose institutions. So that is what I bring to this new task.

DI: Why did you decide to take this job?
Our district is at a pivotal time in its history. This is the first time that we’ve had a short-term chancellor, and there were some relationship issues, I believe. So my task is to be a healer, a restorer and a leader. I was encouraged that [the board of trustees] thought that I was the person who had the background, who had the standing in the community and who had the goodwill of the larger community in the district to do this. So I said yes, with one condition. The one condition was that I would not be a short-term interim, but I would be the interim chancellor for the duration of my existing contract (with the District through El Centro). By doing this, you send a message to the larger community as well as to the internal community that I’m not a placeholder. That you are giving me the full mantle of authority and leadership for this district and we’re going to go forward.

DI: Dr. Carreon was heavily criticized for having an autocratic governance style that demoralized the faculty. Was this the main reason Carreon was pressured to resign?
I would not characterize the set of circumstances here as being totally one of governance. I believe it would be a more adequate description to say that it was the change process. Change agents have to be extremely sensitive to the culture and the setting when they come into an organization. Pace is extremely important. And I believe that was a foundation piece in the dilemma that occurred.

DI: Some Carreon supporters say opposition to him was race-based, as he was the DCCCD’s first Hispanic chancellor. What role did race play in this leadership crisis?
I will be the first to say that my predecessor was truly committed to diversity. Every senior appointment that he made, with one exception, was a person of color, which is laudable, but the race issue is still very much a front-burner issue everywhere. We, who are persons of color and who have the appointing authority, have to be extremely sensitive to the environment that we’re working in, because sometimes our laudable actions can be interpreted as if we are one-sided.

DI: How will you seek to raise faculty morale?
I would describe the setting here as one where we have somewhat been running in place for a little over a year, because of the challenges between the CEO and the board.

When I decided to make a personal visit to every college in our district, and have a conversation with them, it was designed to one, get them to really know me better. Second, to tell them why I accepted this appointment and what I hope to achieve during this period of time with their support. And third, to set forth initiatives that we’re going to be pursuing. And fourth and finally, to reinforce core district values — mutual trust, honesty, fairness, considerate open communication, cooperation, creativity and responsible risk-taking. I’m getting all kinds of e-mails from people saying, “We know you’re going to be the kind of comforting, forward-looking individual that we need at this point in time.” So I think the injection of me personally into the fabric of our district is going to go a long way toward dealing with morale and feelings of the community.

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