Real African American Heros: Dr. Curtis L. Ivery

Dr. Curtis L. Ivery
Chancellor restores college’s reputation and puts it on right track for the future
By Karen Bouffard / The Detroit News

Dr. Curtis L. IveryCurtis Ivery grew up poor in the Texas panhandle.

 But education was his ticket out of poverty and into a larger, richer world, and throughout his career, he’s strived to make that ticket available to others, with the ultimate goal of transforming lives.

 Since becoming chancellor of Wayne County Community College District in 1995, he’s used a combination of vision, charisma and elbow grease to accomplish his mission.

 Along the way, he recaptured the trust of government and business leaders by putting the college on a stable course following a series of scandals and management blunders in previous years.

 “If you have a conversation with him, he speaks passionately about the school and what needs to be done. It’s infectious,” said Joseph Berwanger, vice president and general manager of WDIV-TV (Channel 4), who has worked with Ivery on a number of community initiatives. “He draws you in, pulls you into this inner circle and embraces you.”

 Ivery secured the institution’s financial stability in 1998 by championing passage of a permanent 1-mill tax. And he pushed through an additional 1.5 mills in 2001 to generate about $600 million for capital improvements. Classrooms were painted, roofs repaired, parking lots resurfaced and buildings wired for the Internet. Sixty new programs were added and new facilities constructed as enrollment surged.

 After years of a stagnant student population hovering at about 11,000 students, the college has grown to nearly 44,000 on five campuses during Ivery’s watch. In 1999, the district received a 10-year continued accreditation, the highest level of accreditation an institution can receive, from the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

 “In terms of relations with the communities, he’s been visible, credible and responsible,” said Taylor Mayor Greg Pitoniak, who has watched enrollment at WCCC’s satellite campus on Northline Road in Taylor triple from less than 3,000 students to nearly 9,000 in the last decade.

“It was an institution for which there was very little confidence for many years, and he brought good businesses to the college – that was evident almost immediately.”

 Ivery graduated from an all-black high school (Carver High School) in Amarillo, Texas, and then enrolled at Texas A&M University, where he became the first black student body president. He soon realized there were deficits in the education he had received at his high school, where students sat in second-hand desks and studied decades-old textbooks.

“I discovered that I had so much catching up to do – I noticed that all the other students were so much better prepared than I was,” Ivery said. “But I’m a very competitive person (so) I would work my classmates under the table.”

 Ivery stayed in college for 10 straight years, earning a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Arkansas. He held a variety of academic posts at Westark Community College in Fort Smith, Ark., before then-Gov. Bill Clinton tapped him for the job of commissioner of the state’s Social Services department – becoming the first black cabinet member in Arkansas history. He then spent six years with the Dallas County Community College District before coming to WCCC in 1995.

Ivery’s outreach efforts reflect the philosophy that a community college should play a central role in the life of the community.

With help from his wife, Ola, a retired Detroit Public Schools teacher, he started the Book Worm Club to encourage literacy in 3- to 7-year-olds.

 “I’m a real believer in early childhood development,” said Ivery, the father of a son and daughter.

Dr. Ivery has written a book of reflections on his own childhood, called “Journeys of Conscience.”

 Ivery also called an educational summit, “Responding to the Crisis in Urban America,” to create dialogue on unemployment, poverty, incarceration and other problems. Co-sponsored by The Detroit News and WDIV-TV (Channel 4), widely recognized politicians, diplomats, business leaders, journalists, activists and scholars convened at Detroit’s State Theater in 2002 to brainstorm potential solutions.

“Education is so huge, it created a whole other world for me,” Ivery said. “Take any of these young people and have them here for two days, and you have a different person – because just to say, ‘I am a college student,’ is powerful.”

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