Roxbury Community College Experiencing Renaissance

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by DANA FORDE

RCC has transformed itself from scandal-plagued to a college of choice.

Before moving from Rhode Island to Massachusetts, Amanda Schaefer diligently researched colleges in the Boston area. She eventually selected Roxbury Community College (RCC) where the academic experience has exceeded her expectations.

“The location, the courses and the fact that their program was way more intense than CCRI (the Community College of Rhode Island) … I just decided this was the school for me,” says Schaefer, 25, who is studying criminal justice at RCC.

Her enthusiasm for the institution is symbolic of a renewed sense of optimism that has descended upon the Boston campus in recent months.

By all accounts, RCC — which, with an 87 percent Black student body, boasts being one of the largest minority-serving community colleges in the Northeast — is steadily emerging from a difficult history. Past allegations of financial mismanagement and a federal student aid scandal plagued the school and its administrators for several years. In 1996 and 2001, school officials were accused of channeling federal financial aid to ineligible students as a guise to fatten enrollment numbers. The school’s former president, Dr. Grace C. Brown, resigned in 2001 amid reports that the college had mismanaged millions of dollars in tuition. And in 1996, the U.S. Department of Education reported that RCC officials had wrongfully given federal Pell Grants to hundreds of students.

But college authorities say implementing of reliable financial mechanisms, committing to new academic guidelines, and playing host to various community-based projects have transformed the college into a treasure. In the years since the scandals, the college’s retention rate has steadily increased and now reaches just over 55 percent, says Dr. Brenda Mercomes, Roxbury’s vice president of academic affairs.

“Every year for the last four years, we have had an increase in our fall-to-fall enrollment,” says Mercomes, who adds that the college reached a high point of about 2,600 students last year.

The secret to RCC’s renewed success, Mercomes notes, has been the institution’s newfound pledge to a culture of inclusion.

“The president and the cabinet have worked diligently on being inclusive and transparent,” she says. “By doing so, we have gained the trust of faculty and students. Further, we have encouraged the efficacy of the faculty governance process.”

Many credit RCC’s president, Dr. Terrence A. Gomes, for leading the transformation by guiding the institution out of a looming deficit and restoring the presence of leadership at the college.

“My vision was to have an institution that is recognized for serving both students and the community and becoming people’s first choice college in Boston and the surrounding region,” says Gomes. “I really think it (the transformation) is a testament to the real fine faculty and staff who have been working with me in moving the college forward over these years.”

Since being appointed president in 2003, Gomes has led the execution of several initiatives, which include the creation and enforcement of a strategic plan with regular faculty and staff input, improving the college’s managerial style, accurately documenting financial output and spending resources more wisely.

The turnaround did not come without sacrifice. Gomes recalls that one of the most difficult decisions he had to make came at the beginning of his tenure when he proposed cutting staff salaries by close to 20 percent in an effort to help balance the school’s budget. Workers subsequently agreed.

“It was a sacrifice on their part, and it really said something about the institution and its commitment to wanting to work together and with me in order to move the institution forward,” says Gomes.

Meanwhile, a sense of institutional responsibility has been coupled with the organization of regular campus events that invite both the college and surrounding communities. The college regularly hosts various artistic and musical events, while its Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center is the site of many athletic contests throughout the year.

Mercomes adds that the college is proud of its relationship with Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, a national program designed to help improve colleges’ academic performances. The initiative’s grant funding has allowed RCC to develop learning communities: programs that allow for a small cohort of students to take classes together in which participating faculty plan courses collaboratively.

Sterling Giles, a school coordinator with Achieving the Dream and co-president of RCC’s faculty assembly, adds that the initiative has been beneficial to the college and says he is impressed by how far the college has come.

“The strategic plan is not just an empty document. It actually guides things, and people’s energies are used more wisely,” says Giles, who has taught at RCC for the last 15 years. “Just having basic solid management practices has been great. There is an environment to work in or rather a foundation for our being able to work productively every day.”

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