Letting Leno Have It (Gently)

Capping 10-day tour, community college chief asks comedian to ease up on jokes about the institutions.
September 29, 2005

After 2,700 miles of motorcycling and nonstop promotion of community colleges, Betty K. Young got the opportunity she’d been waiting for: to give Jay Leno a little piece of her mind, on behalf of insulted community college officials everywhere.

Leno had perturbed leaders of two-year colleges with his occasional cracks and gibes questioning the intelligence of those who’ve attended the institutions, and by ignoring letters they’d written urging him to stop. So in June, Young, president of Ohio’s Northwest State Community College, hit upon an idea: inviting (daring?) Leno to hop on one of his Harley-Davidsons and ride with the motorcycle-driving Young while talking about community colleges.

The comedian (or, more likely, his publicists) ignored that invitation, too, and so last month, the college announced that Young and some of her aides would head out to Hollywood, where Leno tapes "The Tonight Show," on a seven-day swing in which they would also tout the crucial role that two-year institutions in preparing workers and educating lifelong learners.

The “Lessons for Leno National Tour,” as it was called, made stops at community colleges in Joliet/Chicago, Ill., St. Louis, Little Rock, Dallas and Phoenix before hitting Los Angeles. In each place, Young and local and national community college officials met with reporters, promoted the local colleges’ programs, and did everything they could to promote the two-year-college sector.

But all along the way, Northwest State officials were angling behind the scenes to arrange a meeting between Young and Leno. On Tuesday, Young and others attended a taping of "The Tonight Show" (featuring Jennifer Garner and Stephen Stills), and after it ended, Young was invited on stage for a short, friendly chat with the comedian.

“Leno told me he and his staff didn't think they had particularly offended the community college family,” Young said on the blog she kept during the 10-day tour, which ended Wednesday. “But looking him eye to eye (he is taller than he looks on television), I told him there were several random remarks that were painful and unjust.”

Young said she told Leno about “how his ‘bully pulpit’ can open so many doors for Americans at community colleges, rather than closing doors with negative commentary in the future.”

In an interview Tuesday while she waited in line for the show, Young called the tour an “overwhelming success.” “It’s just a good example of how with a little idea, you can make things happen,” she said. “It’s the kind of approach our students and graduates use every day.”

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