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Adrian Walker

Education vs. turf at Roxbury Community College

Once, when I was new to the Globe, I was assigned to cover a press conference where I had my first encounter with an activist named Sadiki Kambon.

I don’t remember the specific story, but at the time Kambon’s signature cause was the secession of Roxbury and part of Dorchester from Boston. The new city was to be called “Mandela.”

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When I turned my story in, a great veteran editor named Ron Hutson informed me that, in my innocence, I had committed a grievous error.

“Sir, we do not quote Sadiki Kambon in The Boston Globe,” he declared. “Not ever. No.” Kambon was seen as an attention-seeking gadfly with little credibility.

With apologies to my old pal Hutson, I finally have to break that noble policy.

Kambon now spearheads a group called “Friends of Roxbury Community College.” The group has written an outrageous letter to Governor Deval Patrick. Kambon is incensed because the newly appointed chairman of the board of RCC, Gerald Chertavian, is white. This, to Kambon and company, is an outrage.

“[The appointment] is sending a message that although we are a predominantly black institution, it will take a white person to give you the vision and leadership to take the college to the ‘promised land’ of education,” he wrote. “That is the plantation type mentality.”

Kambon, to his credit, has been a regular presence at RCC board meetings and a voice in the selection of the college’s new president. But his criticism of Chertavian, the founder and CEO of the job-training program Year Up, smacks of racism. It’s also genuinely disheartening.

The opening for a new RCC chairman came when Patrick hired the former chairwoman, Kathy Taylor, to help coordinate workforce development in the state's community college system. Taylor was rewarded for stabilizing RCC when it was rightfully under fire for a host of academic, administrative, and legal issues. Under her leadership, the school just hired a promising new president.

Chertavian is a great choice to head the board. After a successful career on Wall Street, he began a highly regarded job training program for young people of color who struggled in traditional educational settings — exactly the constituency RCC serves. He is strategic, thoughtful, and the most unassuming zillionaire I’ve ever met.

It’s tempting to dismiss Kambon’s ravings as empty demagoguery. Yet in this case his view probably does resonate with a segment of the community. But that segment cannot be allowed to stop the school from reforming its culture and its mission.

Throughout the turmoil at RCC, there has been a persistent undercurrent that outside forces are somehow conspiring to deprive Roxbury of control over the college. Obviously, accusing Patrick of racism is beyond ludicrous, but there is still resentment among people who care more about turf than education.

And this is really about turf. The RCC administration — most of which remains in place — has failed at virtually every aspect of running a college. But none of that ever outraged Kambon and his followers — not a graduation rate in the low single digits, not the financial aid problems, not the unreported campus crimes, not the attempt to keep quiet a student’s report of sexual assault by a professor. No protests, no letters to the governor, about any of that.

No, the real focus of their outrage is that this white guy might not view the incompetents who turned RCC into an educational and bureaucratic mess as untouchable. That’s what the “Friends of Roxbury Community College” find intolerable. They have an unbroken record of being upset about everything except RCC’s real problems.

Most of Roxbury wants what anyone would want of the community college down the street: a quality education and career training delivered by a competent administration in a safe setting. For Kambon and his ilk, it’s never been about the students. I would love to ignore them, but they won’t go away.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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