Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie on Monday announced plans to retire in 2018. Leslie’s career in education has spanned four decades with 34 years as a community college president or chancellor.
“Inevitably, this accumulation of years is cause to announce my retirement, effective September 30, 2018,” Leslie stated in a letter to the Alamo Colleges board of trustees.
“My family has wanted me to do this for, like, five years,” Leslie told the Rivard Report Saturday. The 71-year-old delayed the decision until now because “there’s always another thing to do.”
After consulting with Alamo Colleges Board Chair Yvonne Katz, Leslie said he decided the time had come.
Leslie’s 11-year tenure with the community college district has been marked by both improved student outcomes and faculty resistance. Leslie also has brokered industry, higher education, and K-12 partnerships across the city to raise the Alamo Colleges' profile and add value for students who list one of the five colleges on their résumé.
In 2006 Alamo Colleges awarded 3,707 degrees. In 2016 it awarded 12,003, a 224% increase. Over the same period enrollment went from 50,166 to 59,910, an increase of 19%. Some faculty members have contested the significance of these numbers, claiming that over the decade, the district changed the way degrees were conferred and counted. For instance, retroactive degrees were granted to students who have already transferred to four-year universities. While enrollment over that 10-year period showed an increase, enrollment over the past five years has been flat for most of the district's colleges and is declining at San Antonio College, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Alamo Colleges also has increased the number of graduates in those demographics least likely to complete their course of study. Veterans, males, and Hispanic students are all statistically less likely to graduate, especially as non-traditional students who work and support families. “We’re closing the gap in those key areas,” Leslie told the Rivard Report, but it has required deliberate effort.
In the letter announcing his retirement, Leslie attributed these gains to the board’s commitment to the “Alamo Way,” a set of priorities that guide the district. They are student success, principle-centered leadership, and performance excellence.
Community colleges have a responsibility, Leslie said, to create a cost-effective conduit between high school and careers for students, whom he views as “customers.”
The colleges have come a long way, he added, but his letter to the board indicates that he feels the district has a ways to go.
“…We must not ignore the reality that too many students are still not achieving their goals, too many under our responsibility are not prepared for their intended careers and desired lives, that talent is lost because many students are still not well served by us,” he wrote.
In his remaining months Leslie plans to oversee "Alamo Confidence," an initiative aimed at making the district’s “guided pathways” model more useful. Guided pathways are general courses of studies tailored to maximize either job qualifications or transferable credits to a four-year university.
Alamo Colleges eliminated subject majors in 2015 – a move that increased tension between Leslie and some faculty members. Eliminating majors in favor of the guided pathways and more general "pre-majors", he told the Rivard Report, was a way to reduce the number of competing prerequisites filling up student course loads. Instead, Alamo Confidence will work with various employers and four-year universities to determine which classes students should take to either qualify them for a job or to allow them to transfer to a four-year institution without losing credits. This requires highly specific counseling, which is why the district hired 47 new guidance counselors in 2016.
Such a pipeline works best if students begin thinking about their goals as early as possible, Leslie said. For many, college is too expensive to spend multiple semesters “finding yourself,” he explained. If students can work with counselors to determine their interests and opportunities as early as middle and high school, a guided pathway or meta major can help refine that. During their time at one of the Alamo Colleges, students might explore various specializations or majors within a field of study – such as health, humanities, or advanced manufacturing – but the credits they accumulate would be broadly applicable in the field and useful to any eventual specialization or major at a four-year university.
This is a move away from the traditional model of higher education, which focused on faculty culture and the advancement of academia itself, Leslie said. Such a model catered to those who could afford to go to college for personal enrichment, he said, a shrinking population as university costs rise. Now, Alamo Colleges is part of a growing number of institutions that see themselves as a means of economic development, with an obligation to serve all students.
“What we must emphasize now is not just whether our students are ready for college, but whether we are ready for our students,” Leslie wrote in the letter.
However, on more than one occasion, that pursuit of efficiency and alignment has also put Leslie at odds with faculty at the colleges. Faculty members have continually criticized Leslie’s approach to governing the colleges as overly centralized. In 2009, 2010, and 2016 groups representing full-time faculty issued statements of no confidence in the chancellor.
The problems have not been entirely internal, either. Three district campuses – St. Philip's College, Northwest Vista College, and San Antonio College – currently have a warning sanction on their accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the district’s accrediting agency, citing insufficient autonomy for the individual colleges in hiring and curriculum. The sanctions specifically cited the prescribed use of self-help and management theorist Stephen Covey’s leadership curriculum as an overstep of administrative purview. The Covey curriculum serves as the primary implementation of the Alamo Way’s “principle-centered leadership.”
Alignment was necessary for the district to accomplish its mission, Leslie said, as the district emerged from ineffectiveness and corruption in the early 2000s.
The streamlining may have gone too far for accreditors, making it seem as though the independent sister colleges are simply satellite campuses of one institution. In 2009, an internal review determined that pursuing that model would be cost-prohibitive. Leslie and some board members, however, have spoken in favor of consolidation in the past.
“In today’s constantly changing environment with increasing demands for greater performance at less cost, organizations must act in a united, efficient, and high performing ‘systems’ manner to achieve the outcomes expected by our students and stakeholders,” Leslie stated in his letter. “We’ve made great progress to this end and the beneficial results to our students and community, especially compared to our dismal outcomes prior to 2006, are clearly evident.”
The ensuing criticism, he stated, is part of the job. Quoting Aristotle, Leslie wrote, “There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”
It was outcomes, in spite of faculty resistance, that led the board to renew Leslie’s contract in 2016, Katz told the Rivard Report at the time.
The charges laid out for Leslie during his tenure have been ambitious, Katz said in 2016, and Leslie had met them by improving graduation rates, course completion, and student grades.
“That’s hard work. And that’s messy work,” Katz said in 2016. “You have to roll up your sleeves and work, work, work.”
The community gave Alamo Colleges another vote of confidence when it approved the district’s $450 million bond in the May 2017 municipal election. Included in the bond package were expansions at Northwest Vista, Northeast Lakeview College, and Palo Alto College; renovations at San Antonio College and St. Philip's; and land acquisitions on the City’s Northside and near Boerne. Not included in the bond was the $45 million administrative campus Alamo Colleges plans to build on the site of the former Playland Park on Lower Broadway.
Prior to Alamo Colleges, Leslie served as chancellor of the Houston Community College System, chancellor of the Connecticut Community-Technical Colleges, and as president of Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, New York. Over the years his career has required sacrifice from his wife and three children, Leslie said.
The immediate future holds fly-fishing and grandchildren, Leslie told the Rivard Report. He would also like to further develop his other interests, such as environmental stewardship and music, and possibly consulting work with education boards.