WASHINGTON -- Looking at the current environment for higher education and the state of the U.S. economy, it's hard not to think that community colleges are poised for a period of increased influence and visibility. With sharply rising unemployment and the growing recognition that the country needs to radically ramp up the number of Americans with at least some college credential, two-year institutions' career focus and open-access mission are likely to give them a central role in many state, regional and local policies.
"This is our time," Jerry Sue Thornton, president of Cleveland's Cuyahoga Community College, has taken to saying of the sector.
President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan seem to think so, too, judging by their decision to nominate  a community college leader, Chancellor Martha J. Kanter of Foothill-De Anza Community College District, as U.S. under secretary of education, which is the second- or third-highest ranking position in the Education Department. The nomination was made official Wednesday evening, hours after Duncan, apparently prematurely, let slip news of the nomination during a speech to a meeting of Ohio college presidents  convened by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown.
"I hope I'm not making news," the genial education secretary said after saying he "thought" Kanter's nomination was to be announced Wednesday. Welcome to Washington ...
If confirmed, Kanter would be the first community college official to reach such a high rank within the U.S. Education Department. Community college officials have headed the agency's vocational education branch, and Diane Auer Jones, assistant secretary for postsecondary education in 2007, had been a two-year college faculty member and administrator. But the idea of having a community college leader in such a high profile position elated officials in the sector. The under secretary oversees policies, programs, and activities related to postsecondary education, vocational and adult education, and federal student aid.
"This appointment ... speaks to Dr. Kanter's tremendous reputation as a leader and community college change agent," said Gerardo de Los Santos, president and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College, on whose board Kanter sits, and of which she is vice chair. "But in the broader scope, it also says something important about the meaningful role that community colleges are playing in our society to step up and provide economic development, revitalization, and educational access."
Kanter, who holds bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from Brandeis University, Harvard University and the University of San Francisco, respectively, has spent more than 30 years in California's massive community college system, which educates 10 percent of the country's undergraduates. She has been chancellor of the widely respected Foothill-De Anza district since 2003, following a decade as president of De Anza College, one of the district's two campuses.
In her previous 16 years in California, which followed work as a teacher at several schools in and around New York City, she set up a program for students with learning disabilities at San Jose City College, and then worked in several positions in the statewide office of the California Community Colleges. In addition to those positions, she's been active in the League for Innovation, the Community College League of California, and the Association of California Community College Administrators.
Reached Wednesday evening, Kanter said she was honored and enormously excited by the opportunity to continue her "life's calling" of public service. She described her goals as "really simple": "fixing financial aid, once and for all, so students from poor families can go to college," and strengthening a "broken" academic system in which too few young people move through the educational pipeline to get meaningful certificates and degrees and into the "right careers." Simple as those goals are, she acknowledged, it is "so complicated to make change."
Kanter described the federal role as being "about leadership, the right incentives and accountability." Might there be a better time than during a terrible economic downturn to try to bring about change? she was asked. "People do their best work at times of crisis," she responded. "It's when we most need people's imagination and commitment."
Colleagues describe Kanter as a hard worker and an inclusive leader, and particularly cite her interest in and passion for using technology to make educational resources freely available, spearheading the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources  and the Community College Open Textbook Project. 
Those who've worked with her describe her as completely dedicated to the mission of community colleges, as evidenced by the educational philosophy statement  on her Foothill-De Anza Web page. Asked if she saw her appointment as affirmation of community colleges' role, Kanter gently demurred.
"Community colleges are the middle child, between elementary and high schools on the one hand, and colleges and universities on the other, and oftentimes the middle child does not get enough attention," she said. "But this is a time for the whole system to be thought through in a meaningful way, with a holistic look like President Obama and Secretary Duncan are talking about. Every part is important, not one more than the other."