BOSTON — Roxbury Community College (RCC) is looking for a new president who will restore integrity to the school. The college is under investigation by three separate entities:
- The state auditor is looking into the school’s internal controls over financial management;
- the U.S. Department of Education is looking at how the school failed to report crimes on campus;
- and the school’s new board of trustees has asked a former U.S. attorney to look at allegations of unreported crimes and financial misconduct by the former president.
The shuttered cafeteria is an example of how RCC has faltered over the past few years.
A couple of years ago the school closed the cafeteria and temporarily rented the space to the U.S. Census Bureau. It hasn’t been reopened. Instead, earlier this month an outside caterer started selling hamburgers, fries and other food out of what looks like an old office. Two nearby classrooms serve as makeshift dining rooms.
RCC opened in 1973. Some say the fact it doesn’t have a cafeteria or large lounge for its 2,700 students is indicative of the problems it needs to correct. Among the problems: a slightly declining enrollment at a time when other community colleges have seen growth; a local community that feels alienated; and a faculty that’s nervous about the future.
Its past two presidents resigned in disgrace. Terrence Gomes stepped down in June and is accused of improperly dispersing financial aid checks, not reporting crimes on campus, and giving administration pay raises at the expense of other campus needs.
RCC’s interim president, Linda Turner, says the school is working to fix the problems.
“This fall the checks will go out on time,” Turner said. “It’s important we correct this. Some 67 percent of our students come on some sort of financial aid.”
Turner added: “We have completely revamped our crime reporting system” since the problems were discovered.
Turner has a background in higher education and new product development in companies such as Whirlpool. She’s drawing on her business experience to turn around the school.
“Let us go out and sell us on what we do well,” she said. “OK, the anticipated growth with the new life sciences areas, partnerships with industries and corporations. There’s a lot starting to really get kicking.”
RCC is planning to build a life sciences center so it can double enrollment in related courses. In April it received $20 million in state funding for the center and for upgrading two other academic buildings. RCC has a strong nursing program, where 100 percent of its graduates pass the practical nursing exam.
RCC is spread among several buildings along Columbus Avenue and connected by outdoor paths. Taynequa McDonald started there when she was still in high school as a dual-enrollment student. She says this college environment doesn’t feel different than high school.
“It’s more welcoming and open to people in the community to feel comfortable coming here,” she said. “A lot of people don’t feel comfortable coming here because of the environment.”
The school plans to build more places for students to hang out with their laptops and meet in small groups.
“We felt like the students were the least-valued individuals on the campus,” said Sadiki Kambon, who runs the community group Friends of RCC. He says the culture needs to be overhauled, starting with the student center.
“The student center is virtually vacant and we think that that’s symbolic of the treatment of the students there,” Kambon said. “If you go to [the University of Massachusetts Boston] they have a gleaming facility that lets the students know how important they are.”
Kambon adds that the school’s neighbors feel excluded.
“The biggest piece that’s been missing is what we would consider to be community,” he said. “There’s been a real sense that the ‘community’ quote-unquote in many respects was not even welcome over there.”
Tension Over Workforce Training
Interim President Turner says she’s addressing this issue. Boston-area businesses really want RCC to succeed because they need trained workers, says Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council.
“Because we are going through such a transformation in our Boston economy, where we are looking for not merely high skill in the workforce, but very specific skills,” Sullivan said, “only community college at the higher education level is positioned to do that education and training in a way that is swift and nimble enough to meet the needs of employers.”
Workforce training is one focus for the school, but many of its students come to get an associate’s degree and then transfer to a four-year college. That’s where there’s some tension. The state is pushing to make community colleges concentrate on certificate training programs, and that doesn’t sit well with the faculty, according to Eric Entemann.
“Those students who graduate, most of us like to see them transfer to another school to finish up a bachelor’s degree, rather than try to get a job right away,” said Entemann, who has been a professor of math and physics at RCC for more than 30 years.
Entemann is concerned this focus could be lost amid the school’s current problems and ongoing investigations.
New legislation allows the state to have more oversight and authority over its 15 community colleges, including RCC. But Sullivan sees the school’s problems as an opportunity.
“This is really a blank slate and it needs to be elevated,” he said. “This has to be among the top five priorities for both the governor and the mayor and it’s hard to get on both of their lists.”
The state will play a role in picking the new president of RCC, as well as a new leader for Bunker Hill Community College, whose president is retiring at the end of June.
In the past there have been murmurs of merging RCC with the much larger Bunker Hill. But those closely involved with RCC say that’s not on the table. Instead, they say the state wants to turn the school into a model for all community colleges.