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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 May 3 - 12:00 am

Promoting the Equity Ethic

The educational career of Martha J. Kanter long has been defined by a devotion to access and equity.

From her days as a college undergraduate volunteering to teach impoverished third-graders in Boston’s South End, to her founding of a landmark program for students with learning disabilities, to her stewardship of one of the country’s largest community college districts, Kanter has championed the mission that guides community colleges — opening the door of education to all, regardless of income, race, gender or physical status.

Now, Kanter has an opportunity to bring her equity ethic to the highest reaches of the federal government.

The 60-year-old chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in California has been named by President Barack Obama as undersecretary of education, the federal government’s top postsecondary education job. If confirmed later this spring by the U.S. Senate, Kanter would become the first community college leader to ascend to the number two job in the U.S. Department of Education.

“Education is my life,” she said in a recent interview. “When I attended college at Brandeis, it was very much an activist institution. It was a time of great change. Equity and access was a part of my life then, as now. My early years teaching at the South End House threw me into education in a way that has stayed with me.”

Her appointment to a position overseeing all policies, programs and activities related to postsecondary education, including the troubled federal student aid program, is the latest evidence that community colleges are shedding their second-class status in the eyes of prominent policy makers.

Deborah Cochrane, program director for the Institute for College Access & Success, said Kanter’s nomination sends a strong signal that the Obama administration is embracing the importance of community colleges as a critical component of the nation’s education infrastructure.

“President Obama has said that he wants all our citizens to have access to higher education,” Cochrane said. “Just the president saying that says a lot. I think the appointment, especially in this economic downturn, is saying that we really need community colleges and the role that they play.”

When she arrives in Washington, Kanter will team with Glenn Cummings, whom Obama has named as deputy assistant secretary, heading the Education Department’s Office of Vocational & Adult Education — the agency that deals most directly with community colleges. In that role, he’ll administer programs related to two-year schools, adult education and literacy and career and technical education.

Cummings, 48, is a former speaker of the house in the Maine House of Representatives and has deep roots in promoting the mission of community colleges. As chairman of the House Education Committee in 2002, Cummings sponsored a bill that transformed the state’s technical colleges into a community college system. The result has been rapidly growing enrollment; Southern Maine Community College, where Cummings was dean of institutional development, is now among the fastest-growing in the nation.

Cummings also was an advocate of a statewide policy which requires all high school graduates to fill out a college application in hopes of raising the educational aspirations of all students.

Cummings told the Portland Press Herald that the Office of Vocational & Adult Education will play a key role in the nation’s economic recovery.

“The new secretary of education has talked about making it a center for college access and career development, making sure there is a good transition between high school and the university and community colleges,” he said.

Cummings was an early supporter of Obama’s presidential campaign, helping Obama overcome an 18-point deficit to beat former New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in the state’s Democratic caucus.

Kanter does not have the same kind of political heft. But she said her name kept surfacing as the search for the head of the postsecondary office was under way. Colleagues urged her to pursue it.

“I love my job, but when the president called, I couldn’t say no,” she said. “The president needs people who are committed to making a difference. I am.”

Supporters of Kanter, including Hal Plotkin, a member of the Foothill-De Anza Board of Trustees, are lavish in their praise.

“I know Dr. Kanter well,” Kanter wrote in his blog. “I am deeply proud to call her my friend. She will make a truly outstanding undersecretary, one who will make an enormous difference to students, families and to our country by making higher education more accessible to people from all walks of life than it has ever been before. That has been her life’s work. She knows exactly what needs to be done to create new opportunities for millions — and soon she will have the tools and the resources to make it happen at the national level.”

Jack Scott, chancellor of the California Community College System, said Kanter has sharp leadership skills.

“She is one of the most able community college leaders in California,” he said. “The fact that she comes from a community college background makes us very happy. She is passionate about their mission. Community colleges have had a tough time, but people are beginning to see how important they are, especially in a recession.”

Overdue Recognition

For community college leaders, the recognition has been a long time coming. Two-year colleges now enroll nearly all students in higher education, but they often feel unappreciated. That is gradually changing. Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have repeatedly praised community colleges. Enrollment in community colleges is surging, fueled by a recession that is sending displaced workers back to classrooms in search of new skills.

“I respect the large universities, and I have worked with them,” Kanter said. “But without community colleges, we are not going to educate America. When I think of community colleges, I think we are not well understood. There is a sense that community colleges are sort of forgotten. We have a branding problem.”

Kanter sees a solution. She wants higher education to be thought of in a new way. Colleges should not merely be the starting point on a career, she said, but a place where a student can return again and again to burnish and update their skills and knowledge as the economy evolves.

Much of her success, she said, will depend on alliances she is able to build both within the Education Department and other federal agencies.

“I’d like to work with the Labor Department. They have a lot of opportunities for youth to work,” she said. “But I think the meaningful integration of meaningful work is something that we really need to talk about.”

“I am good at crossing boundaries. It I something I have done my whole life.”

The ability to cross traditional boundaries is one attribute that has made Kanter an effective leader, said Betsy Bechtel, chairman of the Foothill-De Anza Board of Trustees.

“She is active in the community, taking on leadership positions,” Bechtel said. “This activity has made key community members much more aware of the community colleges here. She is president-elect of the local Rotary club. She was co-president of Joint Venture Silicon Valley. She serves on the board of Peninsula Open Space Trust and has served on the San Jose Art Museum.”

A Varied Career

The eldest of five children, Kanter’s father was a psychiatrist who served in the Army in World War II. Both her mother and father were among the first generation in their respective families to attend college. A Boston-area native, she holds bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University, a master’s from Harvard University and a doctoral degree from University of San Francisco.

She came to California in 1977, and worked in several jobs in the central office of the state’s community college system. In 1993, she became president of De Anza College. She served in that role until becoming chancellor of the two-college district in 2003. The district has an enrollment of about 45,000 students.

During her tenure as president of De Anza, the college consistently ranked among the top five transfer institutions to California’s public and private universities.

In 1994, the college opened the first Advanced Technology Center in the state’s community colleges, a 66,000-square-foot interdisciplinary center for information technology, engineering, arts and science.

Currently, the college is undergoing a campus-wide renovation of classrooms and student services facilities, updating buildings that are more than 40 years old and building new science, arts and student centers at both Foothill and De Anza colleges.

Power of Technology

Kanter said she has long believed in the power of technology to improve education.

She also hopes to harness technology to meet one of her primary challenges as undersecretary — fixing the Byzantine financial aid system.

She wants more families to apply for financial aid, and thinks that can be achieved by simplifying the application process and using existing data, like that of the Internal Revenue Service, to determine eligibility.

“I have a simple philosophy,” she said. “We need to educate the top 100 percent.”


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