Roxbury Community College has always been close to Bruce Bolling’s heart. His father, former state senator Royal Bolling Sr., played a major role in founding the place, and as a longtime public official and lifelong resident of the neighborhood he has watched its development for four decades.
It’s close to Shawn Reed’s heart, too. He graduated from RCC two years ago and is at the University of Massachusetts Boston. They don’t know each other, but they share the belief that the search for a new president of the embattled institution represents an opportunity to fulfill a dream long deferred.
The retirement of president Terrence Gomes, driven from office this week by allegations of underreported crime on campus and administrative mishaps, is less an ending than a beginning, they say.
“We are at a milestone, and that milestone gives us an opportunity to look at where the institution is, where it’s going, and how we’re going to get there,” Bolling said. “I’m hearing very little negative.”
Reed, who was a campus activist in his two years at RCC, offered high praise for the education he received there. But he said the administration was too remote, dominated by an insular inner circle that he said paid too little attention to students.
“The school is great, but it needs an open-door policy,” Reed said. “The Administration Building is a penthouse.”
Reed was at the college a couple of years ago when Boston police arrested a teenager on campus after handcuffing him on the ground, an incident that was criticized as an example of excessive force. A video of the arrest quickly went viral, but administrators, he said, did little to calm the worries of students. For him, that moment symbolized the distance between the administration and its students.
The people who will pick Gomes’ successor will have no shortage of issues to ponder. The next president will have to build a relationship with the community, rebuild the confidence of both current and potential students, and address a growing debate about what, exactly, should be the mission of a community college in 2012.
These would be daunting anywhere, but they are especially sensitive in Roxbury, where the establishment of the college was a hard-fought political victory, and the sense of community ownership is strong. Already, there is grumbling that the community — which, frankly, probably kept Gomes from being fired outright — needs to have a louder voice in preparing for the college’s future.
“It isn’t a community college if the community isn’t involved,” said former state representative Doris Bunte, among the school’s founders and a Gomes supporter. “The community should be involved in every aspect.”
Anita Crawford, chairwoman of the board of trustees, said earlier this week that the school should be open to a president from outside academia. Others I spoke to expressed the same view, that having a vision for the future is more important than having taught Chemistry 101.
Gomes came to the school with a long record in community college management, much of it at RCC. But he leaves amid a palpable sense that change was too incremental, too slow. As much as anything there is a hunger for things to begin to move.
I have written before about the migration of Roxbury students from RCC to Bunker Hill Community College and other institutions. Students have more choices than they did a generation ago, and they are making them.
“This used to be the ‘gateway to a dream,’ ” one RCC administrator told me, referring to the school’s slogan. “Now there are many gateways. We haven’t adapted to that.”
RCC offers a key to the future for thousands of people, and its mission has ramifications far beyond Roxbury. The question now is how to fulfill it.
“It’s had so many challenges, but it’s still standing,” Bolling said. “People want Roxbury Community College to succeed, and they want it to succeed in a major way.”