The presidential debates and the campaign of Fall 1992 help bring the issues facing America into focus. While Democrats and Perot supporters ask what went wrong with the economy over the past decade or more and Republicans tell us what went right with the economy, the general population believes our national economy is the critical issue facing us today and for the future. Over the past decade real wages have declined, the number of jobs available in the economy has declined, and the distribution of wealth has become ever more skewed with the richest retaining an increasing proportion of the wealth and the middle and lower sectors of the economy losing wealth. Our communities are suffering as this decline in the economy is exacerbated by the decline of the urban areas and the erosion of the rural economies and way of life. Health care has become a major issue as its cost as a proportion of Gross National Product has soared while significant portions of the society remain underprotected or unprotected by any form of health care and increasingly we question the quality of health care afforded our citizens. Issues of equity face us on all sides while at the same time we grapple with the reality of the diversity of our citizenry, our communities, and our nation. Increases in crime, the prevalence of a drug culture, and the existence of homeless citizens across the land all serve as constant reminders of the issues that face this nation, our communities, and our citizens.
These are the issues we as citizens must consider, our political leaders must address, and our institutions must resolve. These are the issues we as community college professionals must consider, address, and help to solve. Where then do we and our colleges fit in this endeavor? What is the community college's role? That is the perspective we must gain. As president of the American Association of Community Colleges, that is the perspective I hope to develop and encourage among professionals like you, among the community colleges, and within the Association I represent.
The starting point for this perspective is in the concept of community. A community is a social entity with certain characteristics. The individuals within a community are bound together by common values and goals, by common benefits from their associations such as protection and stable governance, and by common communication conventions and vehicles. Such communities function to provide environments in which individuals can lead protected lives; can recreate; work; socialize; educate their children and themselves; and can use, acquire, and transfer property in an orderly way. We commonly stress the fact that communities are made up of individuals; it is equally important to recognize that communities are also made up of institutions and that institutions can play significant and unique roles in their communities. Schools, churches, hospitals, clubs, and businesses are all examples of institutions that play significant and unique roles in their communities. Community colleges have their own unique role to play.
Community colleges, real community colleges, should occupy a special place in their community. While I cannot fully define that special place, let me point it out for, like pornography, I do know it when I see it even if I cannot clearly define it. During the recent Los Angeles riots, entire neighborhoods were ravaged. Yet a startling reality was the fact that no community college campuses within those neighborhoods were violated. These colleges were seen as neutral space--space that was not representative of one faction or another within the community but space that was accessible for all and space that was of the community. While much of the neighborhood was seen as a contested terrain, the community college campus was seen as a neutral space, an aspect of the community itself. To push this analogy further, while much of the neighborhood was not seen as part of the community but as part of the problems confronting the community, the community college campus was seen as part of the community and part of the solution the community could use to address its problems. This represents the special place and role of the community college in community; this also represents the special responsibility the community college has to its community.
What specific form does this special responsibility of the community college take? To make an assemblage of institutions and individuals function as a community, the community college can contribute three things. It can serve individuals within the community by providing them a knowledge base to better allow them to exercise responsible citizenship. It can serve other institutions within the community through training, networking, and planning activities. It can serve the community broadly by stimulating the community to see and understand the diversity within it and to appreciate the opportunities that provides. This final integrating activity is at once the most important and the least successful activity of most community colleges.
Increasingly the community college is seen as a major player in the economic and work force development activities of communities, but that is not enough to meet the special responsibilities of community colleges to their communities. They must go beyond mere manpower development to community development--especially to developing and building healthy communities. In many communities today citizens are unaware of the imbalances that exist within the society. Until citizens are educated to the needs of the community, politicians will not move to address the needs. Thus a first task is making citizens aware of the needs and problems of the community so that the political process will be energized to confront the problems. We cannot have a healthy community when there are too few jobs and high unemployment, when too few citizens are aware of the inequities in the distribution of wealth within our communities, and when our social and economic problems have contributed to declines in our productivity and our ability to relate to the global economy. The community college can address these issues through programs to inform and educate the citizens, through activities that provide a forum and a voice for the diverse concerns and interests within a community, and through work with other institutions in the community to ensure the interests of all are represented and heard.
The community college can provide positive input to the community by celebrating the value of work. The community college is seen as an institution with strong ties to the workplace. It provides a base of knowledge and skill needed for work. It provides a source of knowledge about economics and the role of work in the communities in the local area and in the region. It provides the general education and broad knowledge base essential to good citizenship and to continued learning. The community college is uniquely situated to provide occupational preparation and Tech Prep programs for the young, customized training for the employed, and continuing education for all citizens. Through the variety of its programs the community college embodies the communities valuing of work as a central function of participation in a community, as a dimension of responsible citizenship.
Because the community college represents a special space within the community, it can uniquely demonstrate the value of diversity. A primary function of a community ought be to include within it the citizens of the community. As citizens they share common values and goals, benefits, and communications. As individuals they also bring diverse interests, values, and perspectives. The task of a democratic community is to allow diversity within the context of a common whole. This concern for diversity coexistent with equity and community may be the dominant social concern for our nation over the next decade. The community college can play a central role in working through this concern. The open door of the community college is the access point to postsecondary education for all members of the community. This is often the most meaningful expression of equality in a community. This access point must be supported by appropriate financial aid policies. It must be made real by providing meaningful remediation programs, occupational programs, and transfer programs. All programs should have vigorous off-campus components whenever possible to maintain the reality of access within the community. In these ways the community college can model access, equity, and a commitment to bringing diverse components of the community within its borders and providing opportunity to participate fully in the college community and in the broader community of which the college is a part.
Community colleges today are in a position they have never enjoyed before. They are accepted by their communities as special places, they are accepted by their students as points of opportunity, and most legislators understand and endorse the mission of economic and community development. The community college stands as the community institution committed to equity and to confronting our diversity. It is uniquely situated to assist in building communities. But all is not well in paradise. While we have made progress as seen in enrollment increases, and in the emergence of Tech Prep as a major federal initiative, our resources have been shrinking and our abilities to perform limited because of the general economic malaise.
It is more important than ever that community colleges identify their role and their priorities. The colleges and the Association and its affiliates that represent them must develop clear and understandable agendas that can be pursued on the federal and state levels to develop adequate support for programs designed to allow community colleges to be active players in the building of our communities. A reconceptualization of mission around building communities and addressing the economic and social ills that confront these communities is essential. This is the perspective that the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) must represent. This is the perspective I bring to this Council of the AACC. This is the perspective I bring to each community college as its strives to find its appropriate role and set of responsibilities within its community. The AACC will be reorganizing itself to allow these priorities freer expression. Forums need to be developed within AACC to allow the colleges and the affiliated councils a voice in the deliberations of the association. Vehicles need to be created to allow the perspective discussed here an opportunity to be developed and implemented in the communities in which our colleges reside.
In this paper I have attempted to present some basic but important issues in a different light. Usually the way we view an issue will determine our choices and decisions about that issue. Therefore, I have stressed the perspective offered by considering the community college as an institution embedded in its community and committed to building that community in a healthy and democratic manner. Ernest Boyer perhaps said it best when he observed that the purpose of education is to "empower individuals to live competently in their communities." That is an appropriate role for education; it is an appropriate role for the community college.