COMPTON — Edison O. Jackson will begin by planting flowers around campus.
But after that, the newly appointed president of Compton Community College plans to sow deeper seeds of change in the minds of faculty and staff members at the struggling two-year school--change that some may find difficult to accept.
If the college is ever to recapture its reputation as a "top-notch" educational institution, Jackson declared, its officials must alter their attitudes toward the students they are paid to serve.
"Our students have to be treated as though they're millionaires," Jackson said. The fact that many come from impoverished backgrounds and need remedial help shouldn't lead teachers to work any less hard to provide them with a quality education, he said.
"There has been some overall decline in the work of many employees for various reasons," Jackson explained. "What we're trying to say is that it's a new day, with new expectations.
"People need to understand that this community wants the best for its children. This is not a second-class institution, so we're not going to put up with second-class standards."
To that end, Jackson submitted a broad reorganization plan Tuesday night intended to instill stricter standards of academic excellence in students and a greater professionalism in the college staff. The plan, approved by the college board of trustees and applauded by faculty leaders, echoed the tough tone Jackson sounded when he arrived in July and told his administrative staff that he would not immediately renew their contracts.
(A college spokesman said Jackson apparently has no firm plan to discharge anyone. Even if he wanted to fire a faculty member, most are protected through this academic year by a collective bargaining agreement.)
"While things are not bad there, they certainly need to be improved," trustee Charlie Mae Knight said. "We wanted an education visionary (as president) who would look at our situation here in a minority belt. We have to provide a different kind of instruction."
For nearly two decades, the college has been dogged by declining enrollments, reduced funding and slumping morale, in part because of social changes that have gradually altered the community it serves. A once-predominantly white student body has shifted "to one in which blacks are the overwhelming majority . . . and whites can almost be counted on one's fingers," Jackson wrote in an inch-thick report.
As the college began receiving more students who were ill-equipped and in need of remedial instruction, Jackson explained, teachers became "frustrated" over either their inability to help or their sense that the school's rich academic tradition was being compromised. From time to time, allegations of racial prejudice within the roughly half-black, half-white faculty were taken to the college board.
"I think with all of the tension that has built up in the last few years there may have been a few problems," acknowledged Prof. Robert Morgan, president of the Academic Senate. "It doesn't take much for some individual to say certain things or do certain things and then think twice. There could be some people who are very irritable to the students, but I think you'd find that at any college."
Good Students Fled
Many good students fled to surrounding schools, some going so far as to lie about their legal residency in the Compton district. Knight said the college was wrongly branded as a beleaguered institution unable to provide the quality of instruction that universities wanted from students wishing to transfer in pursuit of more advanced degrees.
"For a multiplicity of reasons . . . Compton Community College has seen its public support decline alarmingly in recent years," Jackson wrote in his reorganization plan. To change that, the college needs "a fundamental and dramatic shift" in focus so it can better serve students without devaluing the academic degrees they seek.
Trustee President Carl E. Robinson said Jackson has free rein to make changes and, at least for now, enjoys the unanimous backing of the five-member college board.
And even though Jackson is taking hard aim at teachers, faculty leaders such as Morgan praised his back-to-basics program. "We feel his approach is something that has been needed for years," Morgan said. "We are anxiously awaiting the start of the fall semester." In 15 years as a Compton teacher, Morgan added, "I haven't said that too many times."
Some of Jackson's changes will be immediately visible--groundskeepers have been directed to plant flowers, mow lawns and generally spruce up the 38-acre campus in time to greet students when fall classes begin Sept. 4. Now that the college has begun to emerge from years of serious financial trouble, Jackson believes that it can afford to make those and other "aesthetic" improvements that can transform a stark campus into a more inviting place.