When Dr. Jesus “Jess” Carreon, the first Hispanic to head the 84,000-student Dallas County Community College District, abruptly resigned last month, the board of trustees quickly turned to Dr. Wright Lassiter, who had been president of the district’s El Centro College since 1986.
Carreon’s tenure has been fraught with clashes over a governance style many said was autocratic, although some supporters say opposition to Carreon — the district’s first Hispanic chancellor — was raced-based.
Wright, who became the district’s first Black chancellor, spoke with Diverse about the healing touch he plans to bring to the embattled community college system.
DI: Why did you decide to take this job?
WL: Our district is at a pivotal time in its history. This is the first time that we’ve had a short-term chancellor and there were some relationship issues, I believe. So my task is to be a healer, a restorer and a leader. I was encouraged that [the board of trustees] thought that I was the person who had the background, who had the standing in the community, and who had the goodwill of the larger community in the district to do this, so I said yes, with one condition. The one condition was that I would not be a short-term interim, but I would be the interim chancellor for the duration of my contract (with the District through my position at El Centro College.) By doing this, you send a message to the larger community as well as the internal community that I’m not a placeholder. That you are giving me the full mantle of authority and leadership for this district which I accept and we’re going to go forward.
DI: Dr. Carreon was heavily criticized for having an autocratic governance style that demoralized the faculty. Was this the main reason Carreon was pressured to resign?
WL: I would not characterize the set of circumstances here as being totally one of governance. I believe it would be a more adequate description to say that it was the change process. Change agents have to be extremely sensitive to the culture and the setting when they come into an organization. Pace is extremely important. And I believe that was a foundation piece in the dilemma that occurred.
I was on the chancellor’s cabinet, and also a confidante of sorts with my predecessor. We both talked about the need to adjust the pace and to also reaffirm with the governing board [his] perceived mandate.
DI: Some Carreon supporters said opposition to him was race-based as he was the DCCCD’s first Hispanic chancellor. What role did race play in this leadership crisis?
WL: I will be the first to say that my predecessor was truly committed to diversity. In fact, in one of our private chats, I indicated to him that he is clearly one who is committed to diversity but one also who is an unquestioned risk-taker — every senior appointment that he made, with one exception, was a person of color, which is laudable, but the race issue is still very much a front-burner issue everywhere. We who are persons of color and who have the appointing authority, we have to be extremely sensitive to the environment that we’re working in, because sometimes our laudable actions can be interpreted as if we are one-sided.
DI: How will you seek to raise faculty morale?
WL: I would not attribute the morale as being at a questionable point. I would describe the setting here as one where we have somewhat been running in place for a little over a year, because of the challenges between the CEO and the board.
When I decided to make a personal visit to every college in our district, and have a conversation with them, it was designed to one, get them to really know me better. Secondly, to tell them why I accepted this appointment and what I hope to achieve during this period of time with their support. And thirdly, to set forth initiates that we’re going to be pursuing. And fourth and finally, to reinforce core district values — mutual trust, honesty, fairness, considerate open communication, cooperation, creativity and responsible risk-taking. If I can assess how this has been received — I’m getting all kinds of e-mails from people saying, “We know you’re going to be the kind of comforting, forward-looking individual that we need at this point in time.” So I think the injection of me personally into the fabric into our district is going to go a long way toward dealing with morale and feelings of the community.
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