Edison O. Jackson, the new president of Compton College, delivered a sobering message to his administrative staff recently.
"I told them that being here is not a right," he said in an interview later. "Each one has to earn the right to be here by quality performance."
To underscore his point, Jackson said, he informed the administrators--gathered officially for the first time since he took office July 1--that their contracts, which expired June 30 and are normally renewed for a year at a time, had been extended only until late August.
"It's not a witch hunt," Jackson said, adding that he had no specific plans to terminate anyone. "I simply wanted to get their attention, to tell them that it's a new day and what we're about is building and strengthening this institution. It can't be business as usual."
'A Very Quiet Room'
Recalled Charles Cropsey, present at the meeting both as campus director of public information and because his own contract was affected: "It was a very quiet room" when the president finished.
But the silence was temporary. Afterward, said Cropsey, "what I heard was very positive. He got a good reception."
Thus the 49-year-old educator from New Jersey managed, within two weeks of his official arrival, to set a definite tone for his administration. Those who like him describe it as positive, gutsy and firm. Those who don't are hard to find.
"He's a go-getter," said Marilyn Ball, a secretary on the campus. "And he's got firm convictions about how the college should be."
Added Pieter Van Niel, an English instructor and chairman of the college drama department: "He's acting like a leader."
Many on the campus say that leadership is precisely what the college has needed for some time.
After the 1984 departure of president Abel B. Sykes, who resigned to head a community college in Northern California, Compton College went for a year without permanent leadership. When Jackson, formerly executive vice president of Essex County College in Newark, N.J., emerged from more than 150 applicants to fill the Compton post, he inherited a campus with serious problems.
During the past three years, the college--which has a predominantly minority student population--experienced a drop in enrollment from 6,500 to 3,800 (it is now 4,500), suffered a three-week teachers' strike and borrowed about $1 million from the state to balance its budget.
Jackson, who says he played a major role in solving similar problems at Essex and who will be paid $65,000 annually, sees the current situation as a challenge and an opportunity. "I have completed my assessment of where we are right now," he said, "and am making a blueprint for the future."
In an interview in his office Wednesday, just two days after the dramatic meeting with administrators, the new president outlined some of the features of that blueprint, which, he said, provides for major changes in the areas of academic assessment, curriculum, community outreach and recruitment.
Emphasis on Basic Skills
First and foremost, he said, he plans to revitalize the campus through a "restructuring" of programs and priorities aimed at re-emphasizing the basic skills and cultural experiences necessary for students to succeed in college and later in life.
Academically, he said, this will be achieved through a "comprehensive assessment program" designed to determine which incoming students need special help in basic skills such as reading, writing and mathematics. Those found deficient, he said, will be given special instruction to eliminate the deficiency.
In addition, he hopes to bring to the campus a wide array of cultural events which will broaden the students' outlook and deepen their appreciation for what Jackson considers some of the finer aspects of life. One idea, he said, is to institute a required course that would expose them to such things as music, theater and art. "These are what make us whole as human beings," he said. "Many of our students wouldn't choose these experiences, but we have the students who need them."
Jackson said he plans to address the enrollment problem by, among other things, initiating an aggressive recruitment program aimed at elements of the community whose needs, he believes, have not yet been adequately met. One example, he said, is the area's large Latino population, which he hopes to reach through a series of "outreach centers" in Spanish-speaking areas.
In addition, he said, he hopes to provide Spanish translations for much of the college's instructional material and encourage teachers and staff to learn Spanish. "I'll be one of the first people in the class," he said of the special conversational Spanish courses to be offered on campus.
Enrollment at Compton College is currently 75% black and 15% Latino. The Latino enrollment stood at only 10% a year ago.
Financially, Jackson said, he plans to continue the policies of "sound fiscal management" instituted by his immediate predecessor, Jean Larson, who was acting president during the 1984-85 academic year. "She did a superb job of bringing solvency to this institution," Jackson said. "Already there are structures in place that bode well for the (financial) future of the college."
All in all, he said, his is a vision that he hopes will make Compton College a model in its field within two years.
"This can be one of the best institutions in the state and in the country in dealing with minority education," Jackson said. "My goal is to prove to the world that it can be done--that it is possible and achievable. The bottom line is that the purpose of education is to liberate minds and we have a golden opportunity to do that here in Compton."
According to English teacher Van Niel, the faculty--which he described as "very demoralized for a long time"--is already responding positively to the new president's energy and optimism. "I think he's the best thing to happen to this campus in a long, long time," Van Niel said.
Others are adopting a wait-and-see attitude.
"He is in a good position to make a name for himself in higher education," said William A. Stowe, a teacher of psychology. If the new president can succeed in restoring Compton College to its "former position of respectability," he said, Jackson's reputation will be made. But, he said, "it will be a very difficult task."
'I have completed my assessment of where we are right now, and am making a blueprint for the future.'