Pandemic and Racial Reckoning Reframe Equity Imperative for Community Colleges

Dr. Curtis L. IveryDr. Curtis L. IveryCOVID-19 has changed the nation and its community colleges forever by shining a spotlight on the racial, social, gender, economic, and technological inequities that accelerated during the pandemic. Community college leaders learned many lessons from their experiences, one of which was that the basic needs of our students went greatly unfulfilled.

Colleges responded with food pantries, transportation vouchers, emergency financial support, expanded mental health services, and other basic-needs programs. As they hastily transitioned to remote learning, several addressed the disproportionate lack of digital resources in African American, Latino, Native American, and other households by using federal COVID relief funds to provide students with free laptops and internet access. At the same time, college leaders found that we must effectively anticipate and adapt to rapidly changing demographic, educational, economic, and cultural changes by becoming more innovative and entrepreneurial at all levels.

I love the closing line of a poem about the pandemic published by retired teacher Kitty O’Meara in 2020: “And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses and made new choices, dreamed new dreams, and created new ways…” Based on lessons learned during the pandemic, community college leaders are now “making new choices, dreaming new dreams, and creating new ways.” We are grieving our losses and reframing the very nature of our institutions. We are learning to see our colleges through different frames or lenses more suited to the new realities brought about by COVID, the related healthcare and economic crises, and the national social reckoning. This reframing of our perspective includes seeing equity as an overarching imperative. It means becoming truly student-centered, more innovative and entrepreneurial, more collaborative both within the college and with community partners, and using technology as a force for institutional transformation. 

As we reframe based on our COVID-19 experiences, we build on the firm foundation of the time-tested open-door philosophy of the national community college movement. The open door is not an admissions policy or specific program, but the institutional soul of “democracy colleges.” It is a condensed expression of the democratic and egalitarian principles that guide our daily decisions and actions. The pioneers of the movement envisioned a liberating role in the lives of those who might otherwise be disenfranchised and unconnected to the mainstream. Now, the current generation of leaders is called to renew this unwavering commitment to the open-door philosophy as we adapt to new educational and societal realities and build the equity-driven community college of the future. If community colleges fail to provide such leadership in creating a multiracial democracy, they forfeit their irreplaceable value to society.

I have a soft spot in my heart for students who overcame financial, educational, and other life barriers to achieve their academic and career goals. I think often of the African American women from low-income backgrounds who are courageously and successfully combining the roles of single mom, student, and provider even during the pandemic. These are the students at Wayne County Community College District (WCCCD), and they motivate me as chancellor to view every improvement effort through an equity-driven lens. Based on lessons learned during the pandemic, WCCCD is giving the highest priority to removing all personal, academic, and societal barriers so that every student has the opportunities and resources to succeed and thrive. Actions include our equity-driven student success strategy and our Reinvent Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative.

Because of the ravage brought on by the COVID pandemic, I have been taking a personalized look at the changing role of community college leaders who are going beyond traditional educational functions to serve as champions for social progress. Urban Voices: Racial Justice and Community College Leadership – African American CEOs of Urban Community Colleges Speak Out (Ivery & McPhail, at press, 2022) collects many of these perspectives and is to be published by Rowman & Littlefield in July. The book focuses primarily on the imperative of merging racial equity and community leadership strategies with the passion of civil rights activism.

The future of community college is deeply interwoven with the future of those disenfranchised and impoverished groups that live in the shadows of our cities, suburbs, and rural areas. For them, the community college is the primary – and often the only – gateway to the economic mainstream and social justice. I am so proud of my colleagues as they publicly, unapologetically, and courageously take actions within their colleges and in the communities they serve. As fierce advocates for social justice, they are partnering with other organizations to proactively dismantle policies that perpetuate disparities in areas such as wealth, income, education, employability, and economic opportunity.

A keen observer of the American condition, my friend Cornel West states in the foreword to Urban Voices that the transcendent power of community colleges is essential to the next phase of the democratization of higher education. Indeed, as racial and ethnic minorities become the new majority, I cannot imagine another time in our history when our open-door philosophy and equity-driven commitments have been more vital to the success of our nation.    

Dr. Curtis L. Ivery serves as chancellor of the Wayne County Community College District (Mich.).

The Roueche Center Forum is co-edited by Drs. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis of the John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University.