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Adrian Walker

A resurrection at Roxbury Community College

Dr. Valerie Roberson has had a busy first six months at the helm of Roxbury Community College, long one of the city’s most tragically wasted resources.

Just a couple years ago, the school was nothing short of a mess. Its graduation rate was stuck in the single digits. The advisory system that was supposed to help students navigate college was little more than a rumor, which was one of the reasons so few students managed to graduate. Financial aid — which most of its 2,500 students rely on — was an administrative nightmare. Legally mandated reports on campus crime were either missing or clearly incomplete. The allegations against faculty and staff included, incredibly, sexual assault.

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Among the missteps: A group of high-powered business leaders who wanted to finance a job training program were unceremoniously turned away in 2012 by then president Terrence Gomes. The program went to Bunker Hill Community College.

The problems came to light partly through the work of a brave group of internal whistle-blowers. After a series of Globe stories and columns, Governor Deval Patrick replaced most of the board of trustees and forced Gomes into retirement.

That was the campus Valerie Roberson agreed to take over last summer, arriving from Olive-Harvey College, in her native Chicago. Since arriving, she has removed or reassigned most senior administrators, with the majority resigning or retiring. She has begun to rebuild the school’s student services and to try to build relationships with local high schools, which for years have steered their students elsewhere.

Roberson said it was the challenge of turning around a troubled school that attracted her to the job.

“I think the opportunity to give back in a community this diverse is something that really attracts me.” Roberson said. She said she liked the idea of “coming to a place where there is support for change, there’s a need for change and me feeling confident that I have the skills to make the changes that are necessary.”

The consensus for change at Roxbury Community College came about gradually, as even die-hard supporters realized the school wasn’t working. Roberson is refreshingly candid about the need to fix basic programs and services, even as she maintains that some areas of the school function well.

In essence, she has learned that many of the original criticisms of the school — long denied by administrators and apologists — were true. She said financial aid and student advisement are already improving, aided by investments in software that the previous regime deemed too expensive.

The bid to overhaul RCC comes at a critical time. Community colleges are being pressed to play a greater role in preparing students for thousands of entry-level jobs that are going wanting. Just a few blocks away sits a world-class medical community whose jobs RCC students have, through no fault of their own, been largely denied.

Roberson said she supports the notion of expanded job training but insisted that there is still an important role for traditional liberal arts education.

There is, she said, no need to make it an either-or choice. “We have a faculty that understands that a student can be prepared for work or to transfer [to a four-year college], and then that student has options,” Roberson said. “I don’t think there's any conflict at all.”

One of the strengths of RCC is the deeply committed neighborhood around it. Roberson said she regularly encounters residents who want the college to play a bigger role in the community by sponsoring lectures, art shows, and other functions. Roberson said she is eager to find the money for that.

That may take a while to accomplish. But already the campus feels more open, after years of insularity. Whatever its flaws or challenges, they are being addressed in public. That alone is a striking and welcome change.

“Everyone I’ve met in the community is excited abut the possibilities,” Roberson said. “And I’m excited, too.”

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