Metro

New president putting Roxbury Community College back on track

Aggressive turnaround plan paying off

Roxbury Community College
David L Ryan/Globe Staff
Roxbury Community College

Two years ago, Roxbury Community College was mired in controversy. Whistle-blower complaints prompted a federal investigation into troubling lapses in reporting campus crimes, while the state auditor’s office launched a review of financial mismanagement at the college's athletic center.

The financial aid program was in such disarray the US government refused to distribute funds directly, forcing the school to cover grants, then seek federal reimbursements. Under siege on multiple fronts, the college seemed to be coming apart at the seams.

But president Valerie Roberson, who arrived last summer, has led an aggressive turnaround plan, paring a budget that was millions in deficit, cutting administrative staff by about 20 percent, and taking a hard look at the entire academic operation.

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Roberson has begun to reach out to area high schools in hopes of boosting enrollment. She is also seeking to strengthen relationships with area colleges, hospitals, and businesses to help students land internships and jobs.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff
Valerie Roberson
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Roberson said she took the job with the understanding that the school had plenty of problems. But over the past year, the full extent of its troubles became clear, she said.

“It was just the tip of the iceberg,” she said in an interview. “You find out the challenges are much more systemic, and we had to start at the foundation.”

Gerald Chertavian, chairman of the college’s board of trustees who was appointed by Governor Deval Patrick last year, likened Roberson’s first year to a kind of triage, given the host of immediate problems the college faced.

Despite the sweeping overhaul, Chertavian and Roberson agree the college, long plagued by poor management and low graduation rates, has substantial work ahead. It remains under federal investigation for violating campus safety laws, while its financial aid program remains under watch. And rebuilding the college’s reputation will take time.

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Roxbury Community College is among the state’s smallest, and enrollment has dropped by more than 300 students since 2011. But in the past year, it climbed 3 percent, a welcome sign of progress.

The college has also made strides in resolving the crises that roiled the campus two years ago, gradually regaining the trust of federal monitors. “We’re a few innings into a longer game,” Chertavian said. “And we need to hold ourselves accountable.”

The stakes are high, education officials say. Community colleges are vital training grounds for so-called middle-skilled jobs, a growing segment of the employment market that often requires associate’s degrees, and as springboards to four-year colleges for students from low-income backgrounds.

At Roxbury Community College, where the average student is 29 and is usually balancing classes with work and family responsibilities, classes can provide a path to a better-paying job or a career change.

Yet skepticism about the college has sent many students, even those who live nearby, to other schools, particularly Bunker Hill Community College. In response, RCC is trying to improve student services — making it simpler for students to find the right classes and receive financial aid — and reaching out to area high schools to rebuild a sense of trust.

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“The college has to have a stronger relationship with college counselors and principals,” Roberson said.

‘It was just the tip of the iceberg. You find out the challenges are much more systemic, and we had to start at the foundation.’

The college has begun distributing an informational magazine called “Career Focus,” which highlights specific academic programs and their potential jobs. For example, a feature on the nursing program notes that licensed nurses earn more than $50,000 a year, while nursing assistants earn close to $30,000.

Richard Freeland, the state’s commissioner of higher education, said Roberson moved quickly to address the repeated shortcomings that had drawn state and federal scrutiny, and made sweeping changes to the staff. “She cleaned house,” Freeland said. “I’ve never seen a broader set of personnel changes.”

A longtime community college administrator, Roberson came to Boston from Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Ill., where she was vice president for academic affairs. She was formerly president of Olive-Harvey College, a community college in Chicago.

Upon arriving, her most immediate problem was the financial aid department, which had come under scrutiny for violating federal policies.

“The federal government had totally lost confidence in their ability to manage this money responsibly,” Freeland said. “There were problems almost across the board.”

To remedy the problem, RCC now offers a support system that can guide students through the tricky process of applying for financial aid. The college retrained financial aid staff on the latest federal regulations, and has been in daily contact with the US Department of Education.

While the college must still handle some costs up front, the speed of reimbursements has accelerated, she said.

“We’re making significant progress,” she said. “They are gaining confidence.”

The college was also facing a substantial deficit, with little money left in reserve. In the spring, the Legislature authorized $3 million to shore up the school’s finances.

Roberson said the college was not spending efficiently and she tried to cut costs without hurting academics.

The college’s administration is aggressively seeking more grants, and is working to bolster fund-raising, she said. Chertavian said financial stability is crucial to the college’s success.

“This college both deserves and needs resources,” he said.

The newfound sense of progress stands in stark contrast to recent years, when the college faced a series of controversies that led to president Terrence Gomes stepping down in June 2012.

The state auditor’s office found a range of financial lapses at the college’s Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center, and Roberson found the facility had been run with little oversight from the college. Under a new chief financial officer, the center has been brought into the fold, she said.

RCC had also come under investigation for failing to investigate and report sexual crimes on campus, including allegations against two employees.

In March 2013, the college released a report that found that senior administrators had not properly reported allegations of sexual assault and in one case had apparently paid a student to keep quiet.

Now, all mandatory reporters have received training on the proper procedures for handling allegations of sexual assaults and reporting them as required under federal law.

“We’re in full compliance,” she said.

In its most recent information required under the Clery Act, RCC said it had received no reports of sexual offenses on campus in 2013. As a commuter school with a small campus, the college will typically have fewer reports of crimes than a residential campus, Roberson said.

Students and recent graduates say they largely felt removed from the controversy swirling around the school, and that they didn’t believe it affected the quality of the classes. Kevin Small Jr., 20, who graduated in the spring with a degree in business administration, said his overall experience at the school was extremely positive.

Small grew up in Dorchester and chose Roxbury Community College to help him adjust to college academics. He initially thought he would take just a few classes before transferring to a four-year school, but wound up staying the full two years.

“I didn’t want to leave because the experience was so strong,” he said.

Now a student at Suffolk University, Small said his time at RCC prepared him well.

Roberson said that while handling immediate problems has consumed much of her time, it gave her greater insight into the college's inner workings.

“It’s been a tough year,” she said. “But in a strange way, it helped. It forced me to get into the weeds.”

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.