Compton College is in serious trouble. The Accreditation Council for Community and Junior Colleges revoked the institution’s accreditation in 2005 due to serious financial problems and reports of corruption by its governing board. It took 12 years to recover. If its trustees hadn’t hired Keith Curry as the college’s 12th president in 2011, reaccreditation likely wouldn’t have happened. It turned out to be a very smart business decision.
“What Dr. Curry and the Compton College community have achieved in regaining ACCJC accreditation is no miracle – rather, it is a testament to the work together of excellent, dedicated leadership and a dedicated college that wants to serve the community what can be done when you’re at it,” said Pasadena City College President Erika A. Endrijonas.
Compton has completed nearly $118 million in renovation and new building construction projects since Curry became CEO. He also received more than $250 million in funding for additional construction and student success initiatives. Curry has dramatically improved the institution’s operations in impressive fashion while establishing it as a nationally recognized leader in equity in higher education. “Racial equity is critical to me as we transform policies, practices, systems and structures at Compton College,” he explained. “We cannot continue to do business as usual because we are serving a different number of students today than we were when Compton Junior College was founded in 1927.”
Losing certification is a painful consequence. This is a serious business problem. When this happens, colleges and universities are no longer eligible to receive student financial aid, grants, or other funding sources from the federal government. It also means that some students are unable to pursue careers and positions that explicitly require prospective employees to obtain certificates and degrees from accredited institutions. Some colleges and universities ended up closing after their accreditation was revoked. Fortunately, Compton didn’t have that worst-case outcome.
Much of the academy’s survival is owed to Curry’s extraordinary leadership. But it’s also partly due to a legislative bill introduced by California Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, a Black and Indigenous man, shortly after the agency lost its accreditation. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 318 into law in 2006, resulting in $30 million in emergency funding that will allow Compton to continue operating as part of another nearby community college district. The year it was reaccredited, Curry received $11.3 million from the state to transfer Compton back to an independent college. He convinced state lawmakers of the agency’s importance.
Compton College is located in the neighborhood where tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams spent most of their childhoods. Many other famous black entertainers and leaders grew up there as well. themis a 10-episode Amazon horror series that follows a black family who are terrorized after they move into Compton in the 1950s, when the neighborhood was overwhelmingly white. In the ensuing decades, the racial demographics shifted, at one point predominantly black. Today, only 1 percent of residents are white. As such, Compton College plays a vital role in providing educational opportunities to the more than 90,000 people of color who call this community home.
“Compton College is a phoenix, a model of rebirth and upliftment, and an inspiration for all of us in higher education to work at the intersection of opportunity and equity,” said Francisco C. Rodri, president of the Los Angeles Community College District Francisco C. Rodriguez asserts. “The Academy’s remarkable rise is not just reflected in President Curry’s boundless energy and infectious charisma—his astute leadership and skillful execution of a clear, strategic vision to deliver educational Serving and helping his students who need it most out of poverty and into unlimited opportunity and success.”
Re-accrediting and continuing to provide access to people of different races, nationalities and languages in the community in which he was born and raised are just two sides of President Curry’s agenda. Ensuring that the basic needs of students are being met, creating conditions that foster their success, increasing the number of students who transfer to four-year institutions, and transferring graduates into rewarding careers has also been his top priority. Student homelessness and food insecurity are among the toughest challenges facing California community colleges. Compton is a preeminent leader not only in the state but nationally in strategically addressing these issues through innovative programs, policies and partnerships. The college recently received $80 million in the 2022-2023 California budget to build a 250-bed student housing facility.
Some prominent figures have publicly praised the agency’s survival and praised its leadership on equity. One of them was First Lady Michelle Obama, who proudly wore a Compton College sweatshirt to the 2019 National College Signing Day event. “We are fortunate to have an amazing community college system in this country, and Compton College has a great story to tell,” she marveled to an audience of more than 10,000 students. “The school had some tough times a few years ago, but they caved in, they worked hard and now they’re back on their feet to provide quality, affordable education to thousands of students every year.”
California Governor Gavin Newsom also recognized Curry’s leadership in 2020, appointing him to statewide higher education, equity and COVID-19 recovery task forces. Walter G. Bumphus is President and CEO of the Association of Community Colleges of America, an organization of more than 1,000 degree-granting institutions with nearly 12 million students. “Dr. Curry has worked tirelessly to ensure that Compton College serves its students and community well,” he asserted. “A true phoenix, Compton rose from the ashes to become one of the most student-centered universities in the nation. Dr. Curry’s continued efforts to educate underresourced students are a model for all community colleges across the country.”
In addition to leading racial equity on campus, Curry is one of 30 commissioners working to address racial inequity at all of California’s community colleges.he co-founded Black Student Success Week, an annual event series and legislative event for community colleges across the state. He also currently leads a national panel of experts who are developing solutions to address the decline in black student enrollment at community colleges and four-year institutions. Last year, he received the Equity Champion Award from the California Community College Chief Instructional Officer.
Compton College trustee Sharoni Little has taught at the USC Marshall School of Business for more than two decades, worked with hundreds of executives, and served as a corporate chief diversity officer. Among their many governance responsibilities, she and other trustees must make difficult and critically important business decisions on behalf of the institution. Little said of Curry, “His unwavering commitment to ‘walk the talk’ of fairness and excellence implores all stakeholders to hold each other accountable to foster and sustain an inclusive institutional culture.”
Appointing Curry as President 12 years ago was the best business decision the trustees made at the time. He is an inspirational role model for all CEOs in higher education (and CEOs in corporate settings) on how to lead in tough times and build a strong national reputation for doing the right thing, And raise millions of dollars to advance an institution while keeping equity at the top of the executive leadership agenda.