A gathering of hundreds of area residents at Roxbury Community College one night last week offered a glimpse of what the school means to the neighborhood and why its current woes have left many people so rattled.
US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren appeared there Wednesday at the invitation of a coalition of civil rights groups. Her opponent, Scott Brown, was invited but he declined. That left Warren to take questions from an onstage questioner and, later, from the audience.
The event was, well, uneventful, a pep rally filled with now-familiar talking points and platitudes. But the school shone as a gathering spot for community engagement. Its faculty and student body were well represented in the audience. It seemed in every sense a normal college campus, and a vital piece of its neighborhood.
Unfortunately, the reality is more complicated. A two-part series last week by the Globe’s Mary Carmichael detailed the management and legal issues that have landed the school in such a precarious position. Among the issues: self-serving management decisions, longstanding problems with student advisement, and now, declining enrollment as students go elsewhere.
The worst thing about the mess at RCC is that it doesn’t need to be a mess. The school boasts a desirable campus, a dedicated faculty, and a community that is passionate about the school and its future.
Some connected to RCC have reacted with denial to months of revelations about its problems. But others recognize the opportunity presented by this crisis, a chance to remake a college that has struggled for years. Even before the public knew about unreported crime allegations or undisbursed financial aid, there was a gnawing sense that something was missing at RCC.
The next few months probably won’t be easy. Three investigations are underway —
The first test of the trustees will be to find a replacement for Terrence Gomes, who resigned as president in June. Sources say that process will probably not begin in earnest until Budd completes his investigation, which has barely begun and is expected to take months. In the meantime, interim president Linda Turner, whose first steps have been encouraging, will remain at the helm of the school. The best guess is that Turner will be in charge until the end of this school year.
It doesn’t take an investigation to figure out some of the changes the next president will have to make. Just as the board has been overhauled, the senior administration will probably need replacing. The sheer scope of RCC's problems indicates that many people have fallen down on the job. The administration’s failure to properly respond to a student’s complaint that she was sexually assaulted by a professor indicates that the mismanagement runs several layers deep.
The next president will also have to develop a compelling vision for the school’s mission. Even before investigators began looking at RCC, Gomes was criticized as being a caretaker president, a veteran bureaucrat of the community college system who didn’t really think in broad terms.
That won’t be good enough now. The old notion of community colleges as feeders into four-year schools is evolving into something more complex. Pressure is mounting on them to better prepare students for a quickly changing workplace, and RCC is lagging behind.
And it goes without saying that the next president is going to have to be unequivocally and firmly committed to providing a safe environment for students, and to doing so with transparency.
For all its woes, RCC has potential, and is a needed resource for the community and the city. Its problems, while extensive, are fixable. The tragedy would be to let this opportunity slip away.