Community colleges

Essay on death of Kalief Browder, a student at Bronx Community College

Kalief Browder -- one of my college’s students -- died June 6, 2015.

He took his own life.

Sadly, he never recovered from the experience of being imprisoned without bail for three years beginning at the age of 16, at Rikers Island, a New York City jail. He awaited a trial that never was because the charges were eventually dropped. Released at age of 19 and deeply scarred emotionally, he came to Bronx Community College of the City University of New York with the intention of becoming a productive member of our society. Enrolled in Future Now, a program for previously incarcerated students, he obtained a high school equivalency diploma and started as a liberal arts major last fall. Kalief completed 11 credits. While he struggled at first, he was doing much better this spring, when he finished the semester with eight credits and term grade point average of 3.562.

He was 22 years of age when he died. For Kalief we represented hope. Our campus served as an intellectual oasis for this fragile mind; his prospects of a good life were becoming defined and real.

Bronx Community College is located in the 15th Congressional District. It currently holds the distinction of being the poorest congressional district in the United States. The correlation between poverty and crime is well-known. The majority of our students are from this district and this neighborhood. They are different and unique from the students at four-year institutions and those at many other community colleges nationwide. If BCC is an emblem of hope in the Bronx, Rikers, as another city-run operation, is an emblem of despair. As a society, we must find a way to help these young people rather than letting them rot in jail until they are so damaged that nothing we do can save them.

Our hearts are broken today for Kalief. He represented who we are as a college, a place where many people who are wounded by the vicissitudes of life eventually find their way. We do save lives. But Kalief’s death reminds us that we may not always be able to resolve the internal struggles that members of our community are facing. We never know what demons lurk within our students’ minds.

Last year, the World Health Organization reported that 800,000 people die as a result of suicide worldwide every year. Forty-one thousand of those suicides occurred in the United States, a number that WHO indicates may be low due to underreporting and misclassification. WHO also reports that there are indications that for each adult who dies of suicide, there are likely to be more than 20 others attempting suicide. It remains the second leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds. Suicides of college students get much attention in the media, but most of the articles are about those at residential, four-year colleges.

Community college students are vulnerable. Many come to us with emotional burdens created by difficult situations. Students who did not do well in high school come to the community college expecting to have a reprieve from the mistakes they made in high school. They believe that coming to a community college is a second chance at doing what they, their parents and perhaps even society expect of them.

Some come believing that they don’t belong but hope that, somehow, something great will happen to them. Suddenly, a light will turn on, and their lives will be changed forever. Others come understanding that they have the ability but that their study habits need to improve. Others come because people in their lives made them attend -- parents, family members or even a court order. Yet others come to save money so that they can afford to finish at their school of first choice. Many, usually adult students, come to be trained for a well-paying job after recognizing that their present lot in life is a dead end. Many students who themselves are children have children. Many are working one or two jobs and attempting to attend college on a full-time basis.

Some, like Kalief, were previously incarcerated. Others are undocumented and afraid. At Bronx Community College, just as is the case at other community colleges, we welcome all who are willing to work for a better life. They are real heroes in our present-day society, for in spite of all the problems they face, their grit, their determination, their willingness to make sacrifices so as to have a better life for themselves and their children drive them to succeed. The American Dream may be lost for some but it is alive and well for this population of students.

The current emphasis on outcomes rather than enrollments at the community colleges is yielding results. People are paying attention to providing effective academic and student support services for these students. The successes of programs such as CUNY’s ASAP, LaGuardia Community College’s learning communities, Queensborough Community College’s Academies and many others have created a flurry of attention on the type of pedagogy needed to move these students more effectively through the curriculum. And, little by little, we are winning the battle against ignorance. Graduation rates are inching up, retention rates are improving.

Concomitantly, when we accept students under our open admissions policy, we accept the responsibility to address their educational and emotional needs. If we are to improve our graduation rates, we must put in place effective programs that address the myriad of problems affecting our students. We must attend to the fragile minds of damaged students. We must turn the academic and student support services upside down. The traditional model works well for selective colleges but not for community colleges. We must spend time and treasure diagnosing students’ problems upon admission and we must create a “prescription” to address them as they progress through the curriculum. The term in loco parentis takes a different meaning at the community colleges.

Private philanthropy is answering the call. Kalief was part of Future Now, a program for previously incarcerated students that helped him get a high school diploma and provided peer mentoring, internships and individual tutoring. For 15 years, with the generous support of foundations and individuals, we have been helping students between the ages of 17 and 21. This program is a lifeline. But we need more. We must make the case for adequate support to help our students.

May Kalief rest in peace.

Eduardo J. Marti is interim president of Bronx Community College of the City University of New York.

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Image Source: 
Courtesy of Bronx Community College
Image Caption: 
Kalief Browder

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Community college leaders should advocate harder for needy students (essay)

Gooooood morning, San Antonio! A big Texas “Buenos días!” to all gathered there at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center for the 95th annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges. 

A convention hall filled with 1,800 educators? Let’s go Socratic. Questions trump answers.

Raise your hand if you are on food stamps. Nobody? OK, did anyone this morning have an expense-account breakfast or a free breakfast from one of the corporate sponsors? Didn’t the tuition and fees from the nation’s nine million (by President Obama’s count) community college students pay for all the meals here in San Antonio? The plane fares? The hotels? 

Question: How many community college students are on food stamps? I don’t know, either. No one seems to. I’ve asked the AACC. I’ve asked the U.S. Department of Education. No luck so far. Raise your hand if students can sign up for food stamps on your campus. Yes, I see a few. 

Now, break into groups of two or three. Question: What will you say to one of those students from your community college who is on food stamps? What are you doing here at a convention that doesn’t have questions about hunger -- or the euphemism "food insecurity" -- at least anywhere I could find on the four-day agenda?  

Why am I asking? I went to work at a community college to teach College Writing I. I’ve spent as much time, with colleagues, helping students at Bunker Hill Community College sign up for and recertify their food stamps as I have teaching.

Question: What are the big food days at the convention this year? From the schedule I have, it’s a tie -- Sunday, one lunch, nine receptions, and a Latin rhythms dance, and Monday, nine breakfast meetings and a gala dinner. 

Discussion question: Does the number of students on federal free and reduced lunch in your feeder high schools let you estimate how many students on your campus might be hungry? If not, why not? Use evidence to support your argument.

Over to the national scene. Question: Did you visit your state’s congressional delegation to support President Obama’s proposal for free community college? Did you propose a better idea? Did you spend more than one hour trying to figure out how to fund the president’s plan at your institution? Did you ask your congressional representatives what they are willing to do for the nine million voters in community college classrooms?

No, no. That’s not me down at the podium. I’m not on the program. I’ve just hacked into the Gonzalez Center's audio-visual system, up here on the Jumbotron, to shout, to scream, to wail the questions every one of you in San Antonio knows must be on the agenda for community college leaders. What do I know? Every one of you is more qualified than I am to give this speech. 

Question: Is educating the poor the greatest all-talk, little-action topic in our national public policy? 

I’ve hacked into the Jumbotron at the Gonzalez Center to give the keynote address somebody other than me ought to be giving. I’ve hacked into the Jumbotron here at the Gonzalez Center because again the agenda for the AACC annual meeting, sponsored by our students, whose tuition, fees and textbook dollars sponsor the sponsors, ducks the crisis everyone knows our students are in. 

Obama’s proposal? Where were we, community colleges? For the third time, President Obama has given community colleges the podium, the microphone and the spotlight. For the third time, where were we? It’s our job, not Obama’s, to find the funding and round up the votes. 

Question: Does having Bob Reich, one of the most passionate, most eloquent voices on the dangers of poverty, of inequity, of inadequate education as your invited speaker, podium and Jumbotron, mean that everyone in San Antonio is doing enough for the nine million students?  Well, I sent Professor Reich a copy of my speech. Ask Bob what he thinks.  

Question: Why do we expect funding to land in our laps? Compare and contrast. For the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education victory stood on 20 years of targeted previous court victories. Community college leaders in 2015 won’t show up unless a funded plan arrives tied with ribbons and a bow? 

I’m going to read to you the opening of “A Talk to Teachers” that James Baldwin gave in 1963 to New York City public school teachers. Listen. Please, please, listen. 

Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. 

Everyone is this room is one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. So any citizen in this country who considers himself as responsible -- and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people -- must be prepared to go for broke. Or, to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending this won’t happen.

“A very dangerous time”? Question: We have nine million community college students. Community college professionals agree that no more than 50 percent are likely to complete their degree or certificate. What life in the land of the free and the home of the brave is left to the other 50 percent, to those who don’t complete their degree or certificate? Poverty. That’s 4.5 million human beings in our community colleges today who we know are condemned to poverty.

Crisis? Question: Why does everyone seem to think this 4.5 million is OK, an unfortunate fact of life? Where’s the plan to remedy this?

Look at history books. Half the U.S. went to war to free the four million slaves. What will we do for these 4.5 million? Relative to the wealth, to the potential of everyone there in San Antonio, relative to the wealth and potential of this nation, by the standards of what’s possible in 2015, what does it mean about us that we will let these 4.5 million students slip into a life of poverty?

I’m looking for someone, anyone in the Gonzalez Center this morning who also can’t believe that condemning 4.5 million students to a life of poverty is an inevitable fact of life. 

“A very dangerous time”? How many reports do we all need spelling out that federal and state higher ed funding is least for the neediest students? Walter Bumphus, AACC's president, you were on the task force, a signatory of the excellent "The Report of the Century Foundation Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges From Becoming Separate and Unequal." Why isn’t a fix to those inequities the only agenda item in San Antonio today? 

Question: Who said achieving equality and social justice is easy? 

Let’s listen again to James Baldwin: “You must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending this won’t happen.”   

Funding? Under our noses. What about the tax policies that subsidize Yale, Princeton, Harvard and Williams students, on financial aid or not, to the tune of  $20,000 or more per student, depending on your assumptions? When the most from the federal government for our students is a $5,500 Pell Grant, only if the students and their families have filled out the forms correctly. Will the Pentagon or those colleges give up their funding for our students without a fight? Of course not. Again, we didn’t even try. 

Crisis? Question: What exactly are the skill levels community colleges must deliver in reading, in writing, in math? How do those skills compare with those of freshmen and sophomores at Yale, at Harvard, at Princeton, at Williams? Impossible to say? We can’t set national standards! Make my day. We can start. 

“A very dangerous time”? Raise your hand if you know that your intro biology course would transfer to Mount Holyoke, Smith or Amherst. Raise your hand if you know that MIT would give credit for your courses in calculus and in differential equations. Of course this doesn’t cover all nine million community college students. It’s a start. If we’re not matching skills with top students, how do we know about the rest? 

Question: Could your students with, say, 40 or more college credits write an essay in 40 minutes analyzing the rhetorical strategies President Lincoln used in his second inaugural address to achieve his purpose? (I’m failing here. My students need a week at least and many drafts.) That’s a question on an AP exam in English and Expository Writing. 

If you have a better proxy of the skills required for freshman writing at a top college, let me know. If you think community college students deserve only lesser skills in basic thinking and writing for any 21st-century job, if you think community colleges can educate worthy citizens who don’t know, understand, cherish Lincoln’s words, I’d say, “Step outside,” but I’m 1,767 miles away, in Boston.

Time to return your Jumbotron to AACC control. While you’re down there in San Antonio, remember our students who don’t have food waiting at receptions.

What do I know about the 1,800 there in the Gonzalez Center? I know you can do James Baldwin proud, and go for broke. Why are we waiting? 

Question: Why not close with President Obama? “Yes, we can.”

Wick Sloane, an end user of a selective-college education, writes “The Devil’s Workshop” for Inside Higher Ed. Follow him @WickSloane.

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Essay on the thoughts of community college curmudgeons and how to engage them

Curmudgeons prosper in every sector of higher education. And every seasoned faculty member and administrator can identify at least one curmudgeon at their institution.

I recently conducted a study on this group, based on survey responses from 77 community college presidents. The study’s starting point was to define the campus curmudgeon in negative terms, because ultimately we were interested in their negative impact on colleagues and colleges. When I started reporting on the results of the study and began listening to the feedback from self-identified curmudgeons, though, I learned some valuable lessons about curmudgeons and their potential in helping our colleges improve.

In the original survey, the following definition was created with assistance from 14 national community college leaders:

Every community college has a curmudgeon; most colleges have more than one. They are highly visible on campus and can be identified easily by faculty, staff and administrators. Curmudgeons are contrarians who take enormous pleasure and pride in thinking otherwise. They can be cantankerous naysayers acting as self-appointed gadflies to the president or other leaders, including leaders of their own constituencies. Collaboration and civility do not seem to be values they hold in high esteem. They are quite vocal and opinionated and appear to prefer heated debate and prolonged circular discussion to solving problems and reaching consensus. Curmudgeons can be memorable characters with a certain flair or style, often using humor and sarcasm to play to their audiences.

Using this definition, the study found that:

  • Ninety-seven percent of the respondents indicated they had known a curmudgeon who fits the definition in the study. Fifty-eight percent indicated that the curmudgeons they had known were male, while 2.5 percent said they knew female curmudgeons. However, 38 percent of respondents indicated men and women were equally represented.
  • Full-time faculty members were identified by 82 percent of the respondents as the primary group representing curmudgeons.
  • Twenty-seven percent of the respondents who selected faculty indicated humanities/arts as the most representative disciplines of curmudgeons, and 27 percent selected social science. These two areas represent 54 percent of all curmudgeons in the study.
  • Eighty-six percent of the respondents indicated that the impact of curmudgeons on the college was either negative (49.3 percent) or highly negative (36.3 percent).

In addition to surveying the characteristics of curmudgeons, the study also asked presidents to describe the behaviors, motivations, damage caused and strategies used to mitigate the damage created by curmudgeons. Details on this part of the study are reported in a monograph, Community College Curmudgeons: Barriers to Change, which is available here.

The views of curmudgeons on leaders and their behaviors take on increased meaning when they speak for themselves, as they do in the italicized quotes below.

Curmudgeons Have a Point

Some curmudgeons distrust leaders who are constantly introducing the next big thing. It is not uncommon for some leaders -- especially presidents -- to always be chasing the flavor of the month or the innovation du jour. Whether this behavior is motivated by self-aggrandizement or by the desire to improve the college to better serve students, the behavior is viewed by some curmudgeons as negative, time-consuming and costly.

What if “curmudgeon” is simply another word for “not ready to get breathlessly enthusiastic for the current flavor of the month”!

I am proud to be one of those curmudgeons mentioned in this article. During the past 10-plus years, I have lived through layer upon layer of the Next Big Thing foisted upon faculty by an administration consisting of layer upon layer of folk who have never set foot in any classroom in a faculty role….

When my institution is among the first to adopt whatever latest snake oil is being peddled by Gates, Lumina, et al., over the objections of experienced faculty and in the face of any and all plain common sense that should tell us to run the other way, it is my duty to my students and to the taxpayers who fund this school to be that curmudgeon. If that hurts the feelings of Mr. O’Banion et al., too damned bad -- somebody has to say it when the emperor has no clothes, and I’m happy to be the one to do so.

The comments also reveal frustration with or disdain for administrators who have not been in the classroom or who do not understand the challenges classroom faculty face. Leaders who do not understand the very difficult challenges of teaching in a community college and who launch new initiatives without taking those challenges into consideration contribute to initiative fatigue and failure.

I take real pride in my role as a curmudgeon and sometimes introduce myself as our campus curmudgeon. I believe in the importance of separation of powers and checks and balances. When administrators know they’re going to be asked to explain themselves and the reasons behind their initiatives, they are at least a little more prone to stopping and seeing things through the eyes of those upon whom they’re foisting them. I realize that from an administrator’s point of view, we gadflies seem like pains in the butt, but as we know, power does tend to corrupt, and any sort of friction to slow this process down is worth hanging onto.

Some curmudgeons have been given a raw deal. Curmudgeons are not shy folk and speak out on many issues. Some do so because they have something important to contribute to the college conversation; some do so because they want to be visible to leaders who might support their aspirations to become a leader. If they take positions outside the comfort zone of the president or other leaders, or if they are not members of the internal network of leaders, they are often treated as outcasts. Their only choice to be heard or visible may be to become a curmudgeon. The following quotes from presidents in this study support these observations:

Curmudgeons should never be confused with whiners. It is easy to mistake their independence for hostility or simple negativism. Yet they can be reliable friends and forceful allies.

Our biggest curmudgeon on campus (nearly everyone can name him), has often ended up in leadership roles (such as chair of the faculty council). A few years back I had the opportunity to speak with him one-on-one about a topic, and during that conversation he shared with me that he had been at the college for nearly seven years and during that time he had reported to seven different supervisors with a different person conducting his performance evaluation each year. I believe that lack of effective leadership for these individuals is a key contributing factor to their behavior or should at least be considered.

Some curmudgeons identify problems that some leaders do not want to address. There are many challenging issues in the contemporary community college and many points of view on how these issues should be addressed. Leaders have their plates full in addressing the most pressing problems, but curmudgeons often identify problems that lurk under the surface and that influence campus culture. While leaders may sometimes dismiss these problems as gripes from a disaffected group, the issues, nevertheless, exist for those who are willing to register their concerns. For example, leaders in general accept the reality that many community college students are underprepared and very challenging. When some faculty complain about having to deal with the “toughest tasks of higher education” (as Frank Newman identified the challenge many years ago), they are met with some disdain and accusations they do not support the open-door philosophy. Instead of covering over these differences, leaders should make them more visible by listening to faculty concerns.

Here are some quotes from concerned faculty members who responded to the presentation on curmudgeons at the League for Innovation in the Community College’s recent conference in Boston:

Maybe if they’d listen to us curmudgeons once in a while, rather than trying to shut us up, community colleges wouldn’t be in the shape many of us are today: taking unconscionable amounts of students’ loan eligibility and seeing them leave when it runs out, as illiterate/innumerate as they were when they got here. No one wants us to talk about that, though.

I get so tired of administrators, who seldom step foot in a classroom, dissing faculty for resisting change. As soon as I question the notion that more technology in the classroom is the solution to every problem in higher education, their eyes glaze over and they stop listening.

Hey, I have initiative fatigue! I’m an adjunct who’s worn to a snot by administrators who keep coming up with crappy time-wasting boondoggles that add to my workload but not my paycheck.

Curmudgeons of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but bloated levels of directors, deans and deanlets whose understanding of education is limited to the marketing techniques of an M.B.A. and who lie supine and servile at the feet of the corporate interests, which are committed only to churning out indebted graduates with “employability skill sets.”

These comments come from only a few who responded to the reports, but they are spirited and are probably only the tip of the iceberg of how many faculty, including those who are curmudgeons, really feel about some of the issues facing community colleges. These comments touch only briefly on such key issues as student loans, student failure, technology as a silver bullet, adjunct faculty, overemphasis on career and technical education, colleges as bureaucracies, not listening to faculty, and tension between faculty and management. What would this list include if disgruntled and concerned faculty were honestly asked to identify the issues and challenges they would like to see addressed in the open? And what might be the outcomes of improved communication and problem solving if leaders and faculty were to engage in an open conversation about some of the challenges that are seldom addressed in a rational way?

What I Have Learned About Curmudgeons

In the sections above, I have tried to reflect points of view of a few curmudgeons regarding issues they care about. In summary, I have learned that some curmudgeons:

  1. Have legitimate and rational responses to perceived injustices and incompetent leadership.
  2. Have become cynical because of broken promises and constant changes in leadership.
  3. Have been passed over for promotions and recognition they deserved.
  4. Are very knowledgeable of college issues, policies and programs and are very articulate about sharing that knowledge.
  5. Would like to see improvement and change in the college and because of resistance from leaders and others have become more aggressive and belligerent as the only strategies open to them.

In education we do not like to give up on our students -- and maybe on our curmudgeons. If we could find a constructive way to engage curmudgeons directly, we might open up new ways to involve them, with more positive results for everyone. Not every curmudgeon, of course, wants to engage in such conversations; some really are destructive and want to do everything they can to slow and block change.

Fortunately, this group is a small minority. The great majority of faculty, joined by concerned curmudgeons who care, can have a very positive impact on a college and its students. Leaders need to learn to listen to the concerned curmudgeons and to hear what they are really saying over the static of the spirited language they sometimes use to vent their frustrations and their passions.

Terry O'Banion is president emeritus and senior league fellow at the League for Innovation in the Community College. He is a distinguished professor and chair of graduate faculty at National American University and a senior adviser for higher education programs at Walden University.


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