"It was a good feeling," said Gene Brown Jr., 46. He paused. "It felt great, the best. It was something I didn’t think was ever coming, but it came."
Brown is talking about the moment the Compton Community College diploma was placed in his hand last month, after a course of study in business management that began in the late 1970s and continued as Brown cared for four children. "It’s something that’s really hard to express unless you’ve walked in my shoes."
"Along with finishing [Army] basic training, it was the best day of my life," said Denise Malveaux, 34, who just got her bachelor’s degree in business from California State University at Dominguez Hills, after earning an associate degree at Compton. “I’m the 9th of 15 kids, the first to go to college. I have five younger sisters who are in college now who took after me,” she added. “I have a niece who had a baby at 13, and she’s at Compton now. Now a guy I know who used to be in gangs a little bit is getting ready to play football here.”
Brown likes to think he could have gotten his degree at another college, but between work and children, he said, it was invaluable “to have it right there in my backyard. It gave me a chance.” His father graduated from Compton, which is just under 60 percent African American, and about 40 percent Hispanic, and he would like to see his children attend. Malveaux now works in personnel at Compton, and is studying for the GMAT. She plans to one day open rehabilitation centers for homeless people. She would like to see more of her relatives and friends follow her path to college.
But there may be no followers in Brown’s or Malveaux’s footsteps across the podium. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges announced this week that it plans to take Compton’s accreditation away, following summer courses, citing poor governance and lack of student support services, among other things. The association acknowledged improvements in recent years, but said that overwhelming problems remain.
The state's community college chancellor plans to appeal the decision, but if Compton loses its accreditation, it will no longer receive state funding and its students will not be eligible for federal financial aid.
Compton is a poor, largely minority city, and faculty members and students agree that losing the college would be a devastating loss for the community. Only about 1,898 of the 46,604 residents over 25, according to the U.S. Census, have bachelor’s degrees. But faculty members and administrators said the college is finally on the right track, with new leadership, increasing enrollment, and improved services. In the last year, registration, which one professor said "used to seem like it was coordinated the night before," has opened online; transferring to local four year institutions has been made easier; and faculty members say inefficient micromanaging occurs less than ever.
"I feel like we’re a football team who has fought back to where we can win, or at least tie,” said Pieter Van Niel, a theater professor who has taught at Compton for 34 years. "And the referee blows the whistle and says, ‘Guess what, game’s over.’ "
Last year, Marshall (Mark) Drummond, the chancellor of the community college system, took over the college and removed adminstrators who many faculty members say were ineffective or even corrupt, and began remedying the institution’s financial problems. Press reports said that the Los Angeles district attorney’s office was investigating charges of fraud, including suspect contracts and phony classes.
Drummond cleaned house in parts of the administration, removing the chief business officer and the president, among others. On Tuesday, in a move supported by the faculty union, Drummond asked the locally elected Board of Trustees to resign, in hopes of regaining the trust of the accreditors. Trustees have not formally responded.
Drummond has said one option, if an appeal to keep accreditation fails, is to have students attend community colleges in neighboring towns. "If I have to hire shuttle buses to get them to class, I will do it," he told The Orange County Register. But, while most support the chancellor’s fervor, some say that busing to other colleges would miss the point. "A lot of the instructors live in Compton, many grew up in Compton. They see the struggles of the residents. They show that they care," Brown said. "They take more time to explain things than other places I’eve [taken courses]."
"We realize that in every classroom, more than other institutions, we are probably looking at 16 distinct learning styles, multi-ethnic, multi-age, multi-economic," said Van Niel, who earned his doctorate at Stanford. “It’s a challenging and magical place. There’s so much healing and good that is going on in that classroom.” Van Niel briefly served as dean at San Bernardino Valley College. “It would take a while for teachers [at San Bernardino] to adjust to the style of a Compton classroom, unlike those we have here now that are experienced.”
Aaron Youngblood, the athletics director, was excited about the coming year, having rallied community support around teams, including a basketball squad that was ranked fifth for a while last year among all California community colleges. If Compton loses accreditation, current and incoming athletes, like Malveaux’s acquaintance, will have to sit out. “They wouldn’t even be able to participate,” Youngblood said. “They probably wouldn’t have time to [transfer and take enough credits to compete] at another college.”
Joseph Lewis, who manages the career center, said the “professionalism has been knocked up several notches” since Drummond made the administrative changes. “The difference just this year has been tremendous.” About 300 people, including members of Concerned Citizens of Compton, attended the Tuesday meeting with the Board of Trustees. Drummond noted that the community put its money where its mouth was a couple years ago by approving a $100 million bond to improve college facilities.
Cheryl Fong, a spokewoman for Drummond, said that the chancellor knew reforms would take a few years, and personally asked the accreditation commission to hold off. If it does not, though, one likely option is that he will push to help Compton continue to operate under the accreditation of a neighboring college. “He would do this for any district,” Fong said. “But I think his heart is touched by the importance of this college to the Compton community.”
“The doors of this institution will not close,” Lewis said.
“It’s a special place,” added Rodney Murray, associate business professor and president of the local faculty union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, which is readying to help professors maintain seniority if they come under the control of a neighboring institution. “Some kids can take courses here while in high school, then they go to college here, and we try to give them jobs and day care here, too, if they need it.” Murray said he thinks the family feel of the college is essential to serving students that might not otherwise go to college. “They see their friends and neighbors working here, teaching here, learning here, and they identify with it.”
Malveaux agreed. “The professors understand that a lot of students are from broken families, or drug families, and they care and they show that,” she said. She credits Murray with teaching her the lingo of business and helping her gain the confidence to continue. “Also Ella Stewart, my public speaking teacher,” she added. “She always told us we were Harvard or Princeton students, and you start to believe that. I owe a lot to her.”
Both Malveaux and Brown have made it, but, like many Compton alumni, they haven’t forgotten where they came from. “They need to keep this institution for the other students-to-be. They need a place to go. You send them out in the street, you’re asking for chaos,” Brown said.
"I have the corporate look,” Malveaux said. “I’m smart, experienced. It’ll be easy for me to find another job. I’m worried about my community.”