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By Paul Bradley  /  
2016 April 10 - 05:06 pm

Under New Management

Glasper Takes Reins as Head of League for Innovation

CHICAGO — Rufus Glasper wasn’t looking for a job when the League for Innovation in the Community College came calling earlier this year.

He was 64 years old, and had a highprofile job: chancellor of the Maricopa County Community College District, the sprawling system that enrolls about 265,000 students across ten campuses and two skills centers in Phoenix and its environs. He had just signed a new contract that would take him through 2018. He could see retirement beyond the horizon after a career in Arizona that spanned three decades, including 13 years as chancellor.

But then Gerardo de los Santos, the League’s longtime president and CEO, unexpectedly stepped down from his job to care for his frail and elderly parents, ending his own 17-year career with the non-profit membership organization. There was suddenly a vacancy for which Glasper seemed an ideal candidate. He had served on the League’s board for 13 years and was widely respected there. The League is based near Phoenix, so Glasper would not need to relocate.

Glasper swiftly became the choice to succeed de los Santos, and he retired from Maricopa. For Glasper, the new position offered a rare opportunity as his career winds down: the chance to promote and test on a national scale some of the notable initiatives he had championed at Maricopa.

“There were things that I had been doing at Maricopa that had been working,” he said. “To do it nationwide was very intriguing to me.”

“I think the League can be a platform to push some new ideas. We don’t have to take a position on all of them. But we can say ‘this works.’ Not all of them will be scalable. But you have to take some risks.”

Among those initiatives was the establishment of a corporate college, set up in part to help offset the loss of state funding. Maricopa has established partnerships with companies like Amazon and Ford as a way to provide noncredit and for-credit training to company employees. The approach has been emulated by other colleges across the country.

Glasper brought attributes to Maricopa not typical of a community college chancellor. He rose not through the ranks of academia, but through the college’s business and finance offices. By his own admission, he is a “non-traditional college CEO.” He is a certified public accountant. His Ph.D., from the University of Arizona, is in philosophy.

Glasper spoke in an interview at the League’s 2016 Innovations Conference in Chicago. Attended by about 1,500 people, it was the first major event for Glasper as League president. It was also a homecoming. He was born in Chicago — “at 43rd and Drexel” — the second of seven children, including five brothers. He was the first member of his family to go to college.

He worked for several years for the Chicago school system, eventually becoming the system’s director of financial planning and budgeting. He was exposed at an early age to the rough-and-tumble politics of the Windy City. It was an experience that would serve him well as he navigated the political currents of Arizona later in his career.

He grew up in suburban Blue Island, Illinois, worked for his father’s janitorial business, played on his high school football team and made good grades. He became president of his senior class before heading to Luther College, a small, private liberal arts college in Northeast Iowa. He was a hard-hitting cornerback on the school’s football team and one of about 75 African Americans on a campus of about 2,100 students. It was an eye-opening experience and he loved it.

“It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life,” Glasper said. “There were a number of students from all over the world. I determined early on that it was a great place to get an excellent education.”

He graduated with a degree in business administration and business education. He returned to Chicago with the intent of becoming a teacher and a coach.

Then, a perceived slight caused him to change course. He had been working summers in the business office of the local community college district, but still had his eye on a teaching career. He wanted to teach business. But a glimpse at a recommendation he had requested from a college advisor changed his mind. The advisor wrote that it was a good thing Glasper was becoming a teacher because he would never make it in a business office.

“He was someone I trusted, but it appears he was profiling me,” Glasper recalled. “I wanted to prove him wrong.”

He set out to do just that. He turned down the teaching job and took a job in the business office. He eventually became director of finance for Chicago schools where his first order of business was closing a $150 million budget deficit and dealing with regular teacher strikes.

“I never taught at the public school level, and I never coached,” he said. “I regret that. But I went a different path.”

It was in 1985, out of the blue, that he got a call from Maricopa. The college system needed a finance director and associate vice chancellor.

“I said ‘what’s Maricopa?’” he said. But he soon was stepping off a plane in Phoenix, trading the frigid winters in Chicago for the warmth of the desert.

“It was a great opportunity for me and my family,” he said.

Becoming head of the League allowed Glasper to exit what had become a toxic and sometimes difficult environment at Maricopa. He often found himself at odds with the district’s governing board. The panel was closely divided between Glasper supporters and detractors. The dynamic required Glasper to walk a political tightrope on nearly every issue.

“My biggest frustration was board governance,” he said. “Their goal was to manage the system. You’d think it was the budget situation. But the budget is part of governance.”

“Why would I want to keep pushing that rock up the hill?” But budget matters have been all-consuming. Over the past several years, Arizona has become a national symbol for college cost-cutting. It has gradually been disinvesting in community colleges. Its political leaders contend the colleges can cope by raising local property taxes and tuition.

Last year, the trend reached its culmination when the state ended funding for the college district altogether. As late as 2008, the state contributed nearly $69 million to Maricopa, by far the state’s largest community college system. Last year, the state contributed nothing. Pima Community College also lost all state funding.

“We were once state-funded,” he said. “Then we were state-supported. Now we are state-located.”

Allowing the system to grow despite the reduction in state funding and the Great Recession is the accomplishment of which Glasper is most proud. Like community colleges around the country, enrollment is now on a downward path.

“I feel good about where I left the system,” he said. “We were able to get through the recession without one furlough day. We became more efficient and effective. And it was done internally.”

Glasper said his management philosophy is guided by three watchwords: inclusiveness, engagement and respect.

“When I was chancellor, I invited the unions, faculty and staff to be part of the conversation,” he said. “We will not always agree. But I will respect your opinion. And I hope you will respect mine.”

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