Dr. Constance M. Carroll

Dr. Constance M. Carroll
Honoring a legend

It was a serendipitous route to great achievement. Chancellor Constance M. Carroll hadn’t planned on a career that would see her rise to the pinnacle of her profession, a visionary at the helm of one of nation’s largest community college districts, the driver of a regional economic engine that has conferred more than 70,000 degrees and certificates during her nearly 17-year tenure, a force who has overseen the physical transformation of San Diego City, Mesa, and Miramar colleges, and San Diego Continuing Education, a trailblazer in the national tuition-free Promise movement, and a leader in bringing baccalaureate degree programs to California community colleges.

“I didn’t set out to become an educator,” Chancellor Carroll said. “I thought I was going to spend my life in art because I’m an artist and enjoy art. As far as a profession, I thought I might go into architecture or something like that. But when I grew up in segregation, those were not options. And so, I sort of stayed with education, went to university, fell in love with the Classics and one thing led to another.”

Even after earning her bachelor’s degree in humanities from Duquesne University and a master’s and Ph.D. in the Classics (Ancient Greek and Latin) from the University of Pittsburgh, Chancellor Carroll knew little about community colleges. At least not until after she began working as Assistant Professor of Classics and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Maine, Portland-Gorham (now the University of Southern Maine), which was creating a two-year college in York County.

“I read a lot about community colleges and became interested in them, but I thought I would continue my work at the university level. That is what I trained for and had prepared for,” she said.

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Let Chancellor Carroll tell the rest.

“When it was time for me to leave the University of Southern Maine, I had two options. One option was to become a Dean of University College at Cal State Dominguez Hills, which is where I thought I was on my way to. And the other was to become President of a small community college (Marin County’s Indian Valley Colleges) in Northern California. But Cal State Dominguez Hills, which was where I was on my way to, hit a glitch in that if you’re going to be an administrator at that level, you have to have faculty retreat rights, and Cal State Dominguez Hills was not authorized for a Classics retreat. They had a History Department, a Foreign Language Department, an English Department, a Comparative Literature Department, they had everything imaginable, but I’m a classicist and didn’t fit in any of those areas. The President valiantly tried to find a way to fit me into this faculty area, but it wasn’t working. And so I accepted the job at the community college, and the rest is history. That is where I fell in love with community colleges, their students, their mission, and everything else.”

Chancellor Carroll grew up — who grew up in a family of educational administrators. Her mother, Dr. Rebecca Evans Carroll, was the first Black woman to earn a doctoral degree from the University of Maryland. Her father, James Carroll, was a high school principal and football coach. At the age of 31, Chancellor Carroll became the youngest community college president in America when she became President of Indian Valley Colleges in Marin County, California. She would later spend one year as Interim Chancellor of the Marin Community College District before being named President of Saddleback College in Orange County. Chancellor Carroll came to Mesa College to serve as President in 1993, continuing — as she did in Marin and Orange counties — to teach courses in the Classics and humanities.

“It was not until I left the university world and came to a community college where I discovered two things: that community college students were not privileged, and that they viewed their education as a great, great transformational gift in their lives,” said Dr. Carroll, who has rightfully earned the nickname “The People’s Chancellor” for dedication to her students and outreach to the community. “You could see that in our commencements; they’re not bouncing beach balls and being disrespectful during the commencement ceremonies. They’re dead serious and proud of their achievements. Community college students are different. Community college faculty are also different. Professors in community colleges love teaching and love students, so much so that some of our faculty members have been known to fly to the graduations of some of their students who have transferred to universities. The faculty members are really all about teaching and all about students.”

Her dedication to the community college mission led to her being hired as Chancellor of the San Diego Community College District in 2004, becoming the first woman and first African American to lead the region’s largest higher education system with more than 100,000 students.

“Constance is a visionary,” said Board of Trustees President Maria Nieto Senour. “She is not only a statewide leader, but a national leader who has rightfully been recognized for getting things done.”

Getting things done has meant working with then-state Senator and former Board of Trustees President Marty Block to introduce and pass into law the groundbreaking pilot program allowing the California Community Colleges system, including Mesa College, to offer a baccalaureate program — at a fraction of the cost of a typical bachelor’s degree — to meet regional and statewide workforce demands.

The Chancellor also led the effort in working with generous local donors and the San Diego Unified School District to establish the tuition-free San Diego Promise program, which is designed to remove the barrier of cost from the attainment of a community college education. This effort has helped more than 6,200 students attend college since its launch in 2016 and is among the largest Promise programs in the state, granting college access to growing numbers of students who might not otherwise be able to afford a higher education.

And, she led the District in joining the successful challenge to the federal government’s attempts at excluding immigrants and international students from Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to help them cope with the COVID-19 crisis, while also joining the fight to protect Dreamers covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Her list of accomplishments also includes being named by President Barack Obama — and being confirmed by the U.S. Senate — to the National Council on the Humanities, which oversees the National Endowment for the Humanities, and working with UC San Diego to create the Preparing Accomplished Transfers to the Humanities (PATH) initiative boosting the number of community college students transferring to baccalaureate and Ph.D. programs in the humanities.

In addition, Chancellor Carroll has led a District with a well-deserved reputation for working with business and industry to make sure career education programs are meeting the needs of today’s workforce, which has led to an economic impact of more than $4 billion being contributed annually to the regional economy. In addition, Chancellor Carroll led the campaign for Proposition N and was also at the helm following the passage of Proposition S, which together provided $1.55 billion for 42 major construction projects that have transformed City, Mesa, and Miramar colleges, and Continuing Education into state-of-the-art, 21st century showcases that have been pivotal in the District’s contributions to the growth of the regional economy.

“I have seen firsthand how Chancellor Carroll has changed the way our community thinks about and recognizes leadership,” said Mark Cafferty, President and CEO of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation. “Her contributions and impact will be felt for generations to come. And I feel both lucky and honored to call her a mentor, colleague, and friend.”

Now, even while preparing to officially retire on June 30, Chancellor Carroll is far from slowing down as she guides the District through what she admits has been her most challenging year with the COVID-19 pandemic, a national struggle for racial justice, and a collapsing economy. In the midst of these events, Dr. Carroll is also preparing to assume a post-retirement role as President and CEO of the California Community College Baccalaureate Association, a nonprofit organization committed to supporting the development and expansion of four-year, workforce-oriented programs at California’s 116 community colleges.

Through it all, Chancellor Carroll has relied on her instincts and lessons learned from the Classics. She points to Plutarch, a Greek philosopher and biographer, and his work “Life of Alexander.” Alexander, Plutarch wrote, not only had a strong vision, but saw himself as a person of the people and erudite leader known for patronizing both the arts and the sciences, and who also respected and appreciated world cultures. “His weakness, of course, was that he went too far in his conquests.”

The Classics, the Chancellor continued, “have messages in the philosophy, great poetry, great art, tragedy, and history that are very, very rich and fertile territory for anyone who is a student of humanistic issues. And certainly, I am a student of humanistic issues.”

Martha Kanter, the former U.S. Under Secretary of Education who now leads the national College Promise initiative, concurred. “Grounded in her love and knowledge of the Classics, Dr. Carroll has worked tirelessly to seek and sustain the best education possible for our students throughout her remarkable career.”

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Thank You, Constance!