At Community College of Philadelphia, many students come from low-income families. Some are homeless and hungry. And some, much to president Donald Guy Generals’ surprise, even have to sleep in their cars.
“Many of our students who suffer these things are hiding in plain sight,” Generals said last week. “I was stunned. There were a couple of students who told stories of sleeping in their cars over the course of their studies here. They just had nowhere to go. I think that’s a tragic statement about the status of education in this country, where we can’t do better.”
The campus also was shaken last month by news of the death of a former student whose sister currently attends the college, part of a violent spree in the city over Father’s Day weekend.
The college in June began a new “wellness” initiative to find and coordinate more help for students. It started with a breakfast meeting with representatives from several social service organizations to begin to strengthen the network and plug gaps in service.
“We want to make the community, our students, well,” Generals said, “both in terms of their educational prospects and opportunity, as well as the lives that they live.”
The new initiative comes as Generals, who is paid $250,000 annually, finishes his fifth year as president. It’s been challenging. The college this spring settled a six-year contract with its faculty and support staff union after a bruising battle that had dragged on for more than half his tenure. Hard feelings still linger.
“I can’t ignore that there’s bad feelings,” said Generals, 63, noting that he has spoken with his cabinet about ways to address that. “I will continue to be open and honest, even through the most difficult of times.”
When the economy is better and the jobless rate is low, enrollment at community colleges tends to dip. That, coupled with a falling number of high school graduates nationally, has meant fewer students. CCP has lost about 18 percent of its enrollment since he started. The college currently enrolls about 27,800.
An initiative to increase the number of higher-paying international students also has proved difficult, with new international enrollment falling around the country. Generals recalled that a group from India canceled a visit at the last minute when President Donald Trump in 2017 announced he was keeping out people from some Muslim-majority countries. Hindu-majority India wasn’t even on the list.
“We were working with a broker, and they said the parents got cold feet,” he said. “They didn’t want to send their kids over here.”
The college had 337 international students last spring.
Generals was upbeat about his overall tenure, which will continue at least through the summer of 2022 under a contract extension. He hopes the college by then will be a contender for a top national award for community colleges.
“We definitely want to be the best community college in the country,” he said.
Generals came to Philadelphia from Mercer County Community College in New Jersey, where he was vice president for academic affairs. His hiring drew pushback from faculty concerned that he had not been a president before, and had once worked for a troubled for-profit college in New York that had closed. But then-board chairman Matthew Bergheiser endorsed him, citing his reputation as “a great leader,” “strong advocate of student success,” and “agent of change.”
Generals touts three Jack Kent Cooke scholarship winners since he arrived and a Rhodes scholar. The college added a new crop of advisers to guide students, he said, and a winter session so students can complete degrees more quickly. In 2015, the school started a scholarship program that he said has spent about $750,000 to support about 900 students.
“We just had our big gala [to raise money for scholarships] and had over 600 people,” raising more than $300,000, he said.
Several new programs, including a degree in black studies that will delve into racism, mass incarceration, and poverty as the continuing legacy of slavery, has energized some faculty, he said. And under the new contract, the college will begin a diversity fellowship, allowing part-time faculty of color to be mentored in a yearlong program to better prepare them for full-time jobs when they become available, he said.
The college’s West Philadelphia regional center will be expanded to offer training in high-demand jobs in advanced manufacturing, automotive technology, and other fields.
But the faculty and support staff union questions the rationale of that initiative — will it lead to better paying jobs for students? — and others.
“There’s a concern that we have conflicting visions for the college,” said Junior Brainard, co-president of the union. “At this point, many of our faculty feel his vision for the college is one in which there is less of us and less resources allocated to students, and more to an ever-expanding administration.”
Brainard said the union would like the president to focus on attracting the best faculty and retaining them.
Generals is proud that the college has raised tuition and fees just once since his arrival. Full-time students, who paid about $5,300 in tuition last year, face no increase for the coming term, he said.
“When I arrived, we were at the top [for most expensive] in the commonwealth for tuition and fees,” he said. “Now we’re closer to the middle.”
He wishes community college were free. He thinks it should be: “Put me up there with Bernie [Sanders] and Elizabeth [Warren] and all the rest.” But he said he’s also a pragmatist.
He’s pleased that the state budget, approved Friday, includes a 2 percent increase in funding for community colleges statewide. The city also increased funding to the college by $1.3 million, not nearly as much as City Councilman David Oh had proposed.
“I think it’s fair,” Generals said of the city funding.
As for the effort to help students struggling with life circumstances, he hopes to make it part of the college’s educational mission.
“You have to have those basic physical and physiological needs met before you can think about mathematics and equations,” he said. “This is really an effort to coalesce all of it, so we can come up with a critical mass of support.”