Community Colleges and the Culture War

The abrupt resignation of Broward College’s president stokes worries about a workforce education standout, and raises questions about whether two-year colleges can stay under the radar in a polarized country.

Tension with a new slate of trustees appears to have contributed to the abrupt resignation of the president of Broward College. Observers worry the leadership turnover could jeopardize gains by the Florida community college, which is widely viewed as a leader on workforce education and getting creative to better serve low-income students.

It’s unclear why Gregory Haile stepped down last week after five years at the helm. None of the sources I contacted would comment on the situation, with several saying they lacked specific information about it. Here’s what we know:

  • Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, in February appointed four trustees to the Broward College District’s five-member Board of Trustees.
  • Three of the trustees were new appointments. One of the new trustees, Alexis Yarbrough, is the board’s chair.
  • Yarbrough told the South Florida Sun Sentinel editorial board that Broward’s enrollment is in a “nosedive” and the college has no plan to fix it. She also alleged that the college faces potential budget shortfalls, is unprepared for impending accreditation interviews, and lacks a long-range marketing plan.
  • Haile in his resignation letter pointed to the DeSantis appointments, saying the board as a whole is new. He cited the college’s recent achievements and its $90M in cash reserves, foundation asset growth, lack of adverse financial audit findings, and success with fundraising and grants.

DeSantis has been waging a high-profile culture war with several of Florida’s public colleges and universities. Broward is not the first two-year college in the state to have a leadership struggle that features allies of the governor and raises concerns about political influence.

Yet while politics and power tussles are nothing new for community college boards, the sector tends to fly under the radar in a nation obsessed with partisan bickering. Community colleges are consistently the most popular segment of higher education, across party lines. For example, three quarters of Republican respondents to a recent poll from New America said they are comfortable supporting community colleges with their tax dollars.

That bipartisan backing is reflected in new state dollars, including a huge infusion in Texas and roughly $4B in state funding for short-term training programs.

Likewise, community college leaders can draw on their sector’s strong ties to business and popularity with voters to successfully battle back challenges that have their roots in toxic national politics.

Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, didn’t pull his punches in May when he testified to the state’s legislature about a resolution that would have required K-12 schools and colleges to submit reports on activities related to DEI, critical race theory, and social emotional learning. 

“At its core, this a racist instrument,” and one that had little to do with real accountability, he said, according to news accounts. The proposal was killed when Republicans joined Democrats to vote to defer it.

Broward’s Big Tent

A rift obviously exists between Haile and the board. If it’s about partisan politics, that’s hard to square with Broward’s pragmatic approach during his leadership.

The college in particular has drawn praise for its Broward UP program, which offers free workforce training to students in the huge county’s poorest ZIP Codes. The program has led to $76M in funding commitments from banks, family foundations, and other philanthropists, with the biggest gift being $30M from MacKenzie Scott.

Broward’s backers in the local business community were among speakers who last week urged the board to do “whatever you can” to keep Haile, Sommer Brugal reported for the Miami Herald.

Sandy Shugart has been away from Florida’s community colleges after retiring a couple years ago as president of Valencia College, another top-flight two-year institution. Shugart says Haile is an outstanding, thoughtful, and principled leader who has transformed Broward College in a number of ways. “He will be a huge loss to the college and the community.”

After a three-decade run as a leader in the community college sector, Shugart says the “weak link in all of our institutions is governance.” Trustees too often have an inadequate appreciation for what it means to hold an institution in trust, he says. 

Greg Haile

“When they bring narrow agendas to the role, the institution invariably suffers,” says Shugart, a senior fellow with the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. “More importantly, the mission to the community suffers.”

I interviewed Haile last month. We didn’t talk about DeSantis or the board. But Haile described the college’s “market-driven curriculum” and how Broward was taking on the broad enrollment crisis that has hit community colleges particularly hard. 

The college has bulked up ties with 13 high schools in Broward UP communities. It offers incentives to those schools to help encourage more of their graduates to enroll at the college. In the first year of the program, Broward saw a 26% enrollment increase from those high schools. 

“Woe is me,” is not the right message for community college leaders on the enrollment challenge, Haile said. Instead, the college must embrace bipartisan solutions and new partnerships. “It just comes down to not settling,” he said.

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