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RCC celebrates its 50th anniversary

College honors alumni during Roxbury Homecoming event

Peter C. Roby and Kenneth J. Cooper
RCC celebrates its 50th anniversary
Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson (far left) moderates a panel discussion with RCC alumni. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ROXBURY COMMUNITY COLLEGE

A panel discussion with alumni, commencement exercises and a block party last week punctuated Roxbury Community College’s year-long celebration of its 50th anniversary. The college opened its doors to students in September 1973 in Grove Hall and had several homes before moving in 1988 to its current campus in Roxbury Crossing.

The panel of five alumni included Tariana V. Little, a rare example of a community college student who went on to earn a doctorate. She received hers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where she currently teaches.

“RCC gave me that self-confidence that I could achieve, even though I didn’t know what the path looked like,” she said.


Another panelist, Sauveur S. Jeanty, is a principal scientist at a local biotech company.

“It’s very rare you’ll find a principal scientist without a Ph.D.,” he said May 11 from the stage of RCC’s Media Arts Center. “It started here.”

Growing up in poverty, Monique Paul didn’t think she could go to college. After RCC, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Cambridge College and now works in patient support for a pharmaceutical company.

“If it weren’t for RCC,” she said, “I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

The panel was moderated by former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, whom RCC’s Interim President Jackie Jenkins-Scott credited with pushing for funding in the legislature after the college was founded.

“I took a lot for us to get it,” Jenkins-Scott said of RCC. “And it took a lot to keep it.”

The college’s 47th commencement took place May 12 in the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center, where 157 graduates received degrees.

Jackie Jenkins-Scott, RCC interim president. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ROXBURY COMMUNITY COLLEGE

The next day, the campus hosted a homecoming block party, with nine hours of music, dance, film and discussion at the Media Arts Center. Inspired by the “Divine Nine” — the historically Black Greek-life groups — performances included high-school step squads, Afro-futurist fashion, a drum-line with brass players and a majorette troupe. A rendition of  “Lift Every Voice and Sing” opened the show, portraying RCC’s roots as the product of Black community advocacy.

The anniversary celebration began in February, when Roxbury Community College commenced profiling pioneers.

RCC educators are featured alongside Joyce and Mel King and successive state senators: Royal Bolling, Bill Owens and Wilkerson. A half-century of community contributors were collectively named RCC’s 50th pioneers. An exhibit about the pioneers was first shown at Boston City Hall, and will appear at the Massachusetts State House next.

Threats through the years

Two days after Black History Month ended this year, regional accreditors — the New England Commission of Higher Education — warned RCC is in danger of not meeting the commission’s standard for educational effectiveness.

For some school leaders, external threats are nothing new. History’s lessons had prepared all for adversity today.

Jenkins-Scott said the college’s “institutional saga” parallels Boston’s Black history.

“Social activism has always been part of this community and the life of people of color in Boston,” she said, declaring it part of RCC’s “DNA.”

Jenkins-Scott traces RCC’s history back to the 1960s and cited it as a strength today.

Simultaneous with RCC’s creation, she recalled there were “forces that did not feel that it was needed to have a college — a community college — located in the community, for the community.”

In that era, the Boston Black United Front advocated for Black power. The records of the coalition of community activists are preserved at RCC.

In 1976, student journalist Dollie Varnado authored RCC’s history in three parts. Varnado credited the National Association of Afro-American Educators with developing school plans in 1966. They organized meetings starting in 1967.

Then, a community body, the Roxbury Community College Board, publicly debated a state-appointed advisory board. Chaired by Kenneth Hubbard, the RCCB remained vigilant, refusing to “quietly accept another mediocrity,” Varnado wrote.

In September 1973, RCC opened in a former automobile dealership in Grove Hall.

Early issues of the Banner document RCC’s saga.

For Rev. Ray Hammond, current chair of the RCC Foundation’s board, the college was “born out of the community’s clear sense of the need.”

Ever since, RCC has overcome challenges.

“Over the last 50 years, there have been a lot of brick-and-bracks thrown at RCC,” said Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, who chairs RCC’s board of trustees. “And we are still here. We are standing tall. We’re standing strong.”

Community leaders rebuffed past attempts to rename RCC or merge it with other schools.

In recent decades, too, RCC’s presidents have faced adversity.

In 2012, allegations of financial mismanagement and underreported crime led to Terrence Gomes to resign as president and former U.S. Attorney Wayne Budd to conduct an investigation into mismanagement. RCC’s community rallied together that May “in response to criticisms brought forth by a Boston Globe writer,” according to school archives.

The Goodwin-Proctor lawyer’s 2013 report was published just before President Valerie Roberson’s eight-year stint began. Her tenure was bracketed by two audits of the Reggie Lewis Center. She left mid-pandemic in December 2021.

Between audits, the U.S. Department of Education cited RCC for violations of the Clery Act, which requires colleges to report crimes on or near their campuses.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts community colleges were expected to implement a campus-wide assessment for “The Vision Project.” It was the signature policy of Governor Deval Patrick’s commissioner of higher education, Richard Freeland. The assessment was conceived during Gomes’ presidency and published in 2011.

For Freeland, a former Northeastern University president, Roberson’s era was progress. He said community college presidents only average five years in office.

“The Roxbury job is not an easy job. It’s very political,” Freeland said.

Nonetheless, he recalled Roberson’s “good faith effort to address the basket of issues she was presented with.”

Freeland’s “Vision Project” proposed a partnership between the state’s Department of Higher Education and regional accreditors. It tracked data points across public schools and rewarded top performers with incentive grants. RCC won one in fiscal year 2014.

Accreditation’s stakes are existential. Failing would jeopardize students’ access to financial aid.

NECHE is “responsible for maintaining minimum quality standards,” said Freeland. It rarely denies reaccreditation, except in serious circumstances — typically fiscal. Then, he said, “they can put a school out of business.”

“A fairly common result,” said Freeland, “is a reaccreditation with some questions that need to be answered within the next five years or three years.”

NECHE’s educational effectiveness standard — its most important to Freeland — requires schools to demonstrate understanding of what “students have gained as a result of their education and [have] useful evidence about the success of its recent graduates.”

Roxbury Community College is accredited through 2025. In advance, RCC must undertake a self-study. NECHE accreditors will visit the campus this fall.

Jenkins-Scott plans to open an Office of Institutional Assessment in June. A dean will track key data points on student success.

Asked about NECHE’s standard, she said, “Those are the questions that people always ask, and we have to get better at that.”

Freeland was surprised by RCC’s new assessment program.

“Assessment has been a major issue for the (state) Board of Higher Education for a long time,” he said.

RCC’s Jeff Van Dreason, a data guru, said, “We want to have a more data-centric approach, and this is something we have to do institutionally.”

He emphasized the school’s 80% graduation rate over six years — a testament to RCC’s bond with students. Three- and four-year rates don’t take into account the busy lives of students who also work and may have children.

A hopeful note

For Hammond, RCC’s future is bright, especially “as our economy matures and as more and more becomes dependent on not only training, but retraining.”

He said, “If you have a dream and are willing to work hard for it, we will stand with you.”

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