Compton College was in serious trouble. Because of significant financial problems and reports of corruption on its governing board, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges revoked the institution’s accreditation in 2005. It took 12 years to get it back. There’s a real chance that reaccreditation wouldn’t have happened had its trustees not hired Keith Curry in 2011 to serve as the College’s 12th president. This proved to be a really smart business decision.
“What Dr. Curry and the Compton College community accomplished in regaining ACCJC accreditation isn’t a miracle – it’s instead a testament to what excellent, focused leadership and a dedicated college that wants to serve its community can do when they work together,” says Pasadena City College President Erika A. Endrijonas.
Since Curry became its CEO, Compton has completed nearly $118 million in renovations and new building construction projects. He also has secured over $250 million for additional construction projects and student success initiatives. In impressive fashion, Curry has drastically improved the institution’s business affairs while simultaneously establishing it as a nationally-recognized leader on equity in higher education. “Racial Equity is essential for me as we change the policies, practices, systems, and structures of Compton College,” he explains. “We can’t continue to do business as usual because the student population we serve today is different than the one that was here in 1927 when Compton Junior College was founded.”
Losing accreditation is painfully consequential. It’s a serious business problem. When this happens, colleges and universities are no longer eligible to receive student financial aid, grants, or other sources of funding from the federal government. It also means that some students can’t get jobs in professions and roles that explicitly require prospective hires to have earned certificates and degrees from accredited institutions. Some colleges and universities ultimately close when their accreditation is stripped. Fortunately, this worst-case outcome didn’t occur at Compton.
Much of the College’s survival is attributable to Curry’s extraordinary leadership. But some of it is also due to a legislative bill that California State Assembly member Mervyn Dymally, a Black and Indigenous man, introduced shortly after the institution lost its accreditation. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 318 into law in 2006, which resulted in $30 million in emergency funding that enabled Compton to continue operating as part of another nearby community college district. The year it was reaccredited, Curry secured $11.3 million from the state to transition Compton back to an independent college. He convinced state legislators of the institution’s importance.
Compton College is in the community where tennis megastars Venus and Serena Williams spent most of their childhood years. Lots of other well-known Black entertainers and leaders grew up there, too. Them, a 10-episode Amazon horror series, is about a Black family that was terrorized after moving into Compton during the 1950s when the community was overwhelmingly white. The racial demographics shifted in subsequent decades, at one point becoming predominantly Black. Today, only 1% of its residents are white. Hence, Compton College plays a vital role in offering educational opportunities to more than 90,000 people of color who call that community home.
“Compton College is a phoenix, a magnificent example of rebirth and ascension, and an inspiration for us all in higher education who work at the intersection of access and equity,” asserts Francisco C. Rodriguez, Chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District. “This remarkable rise of the College is marked by more than President Curry’s boundless energy and infectious charisma – it’s fueled through his keen leadership capabilities and adept execution of a clear, strategic vision to provide educational services that uplift his neediest students out of poverty towards boundless opportunity and success.”
Regaining accreditation and continuing to provide access to racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse people in the community where he was born and raised have been just two dimensions of Curry’s presidential agenda. Ensuring that students’ basic needs are met, that conditions are created to facilitate their success, increasing the number of students who transfer to four-year institutions, and transitioning graduates to rewarding careers have also been consistently high priorities of his. Student homelessness and food insecurity are among the most vexing challenges confronting community colleges across California. Compton has been a standout leader not only in the state, but also in the nation in strategically responding to these problems via innovative programs, policies, and partnerships. The College recently secured $80 million in the 2022-2023 California budget to build a 250-bed student housing facility.
Some notable figures have publicly praised the institution’s survival and applauded its leadership on equity. One of them is First Lady Michelle Obama who proudly wore a Compton College sweatshirt to the 2019 national College Signing Day event. “We are fortunate in this country to have an amazing community college system, and Compton College has a great story to tell,” she exclaimed to the audience of more than 10,000 students. “The school fell on some tough times a few years ago, but they buckled down, they worked hard and now they’re back on their feet and providing an excellent, affordable education to thousands of students every year.”
California Governor Gavin Newsom also recognized Curry’s leadership in 2020 by appointing him to a statewide taskforce on higher education, equity, and COVID-19 recovery. Walter G. Bumphus is president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, an organization comprised of more than 1,000 degree-granting institutions that collectively enroll nearly 12 million students. “Dr. Curry has worked tirelessly to ensure that Compton College is well positioned to serve its students and the community,” he asserts. “A true phoenix, Compton has risen from the ashes to become one of the most student-centered colleges in the nation. Dr. Curry’s continued work to elevate under-resourced students is a model for all community colleges across the country.”
In addition to leading racial equity on his campus, Curry is one of 30 commissioners working to address racial inequities across all of California’s community colleges. He co-founded Black Student Success Week, an annual series of events and legislative activities for community colleges throughout the state. He is also presently leading a national group of experts who are developing solutions to declining Black student enrollments at community colleges and four-year institutions. Last year, he received the Equity Champion Award from the California Community Colleges Chief Instructional Officers.
Compton College Trustee Sharoni Little has spent more than two decades teaching at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, has worked with hundreds of executives, and has served as a corporate chief diversity officer. Among their vast array of governance responsibilities, she and the other trustees have to make tough, extremely consequential business decisions on behalf of the institution. Little says of Curry, “his unapologetic commitment to ‘walking the talk’ of equity and excellence implores all stakeholders to hold each other accountable for fostering and sustaining an inclusive institutional culture.”
Naming Curry president 12 years ago is the best business decision the Compton College trustees at that time could’ve made. He’s an inspiring example for all CEOs in higher education (as well as those in corporate contexts) of how to lead in tough times, establish an excellent national reputation for the right things, and raise millions of dollars to advance an institution, while concurrently keeping equity at the top of one’s executive leadership agenda.