Dr. Curtis Ivery's Crusade
The Wayne County Community College chancellor's ascent from humble roots to becoming an author and academic leader shows the power of educational opportunity—something he’s spent his life trying to provide to others
Dr. Curtis L. Ivery distinctly remembers his first press conference in 1995 as the newly-appointed chancellor and CEO of Wayne County Community College District. The college was in the midst of tough times—struggling with low enrollment and not the best image. One campus was shuttered and there was talk that the entire district might follow suit.
“At the time, among community colleges in Michigan, we were the lowest as far as funding. On almost every index, we were at or near the bottom,” Ivery says.
And yet he shared this vision . . .
“I said we would be the best community college in the state, if not the country,” he says. “Some of my colleagues looked at me like I’d just lost my mind. But I knew we could do it. I believed.”
More than 15 years later, Wayne County Community College District is flying high, and Ivery has piloted its ascent. For one, he helped achieve financial stability for the school by fighting for the passage of three notable millages that allowed the school to expand and improve its curriculum, and help the district make approximately $600 million in capital improvements.
He resuscitated the school’s reputation by ushering in new business models that would create a foundation for teaching and learning. And he declared that WCCCD would establish new memories.
Today, despite the district having its share of challenges, the college is enjoying some of its greatest successes. It’s now educating more than 71,000 credit and non-credit students a year through five area campuses and a university center, making it the largest urban community college in Michigan. This year, nearly 1,700 students walked across the stage at Detroit’s Cobo Hall to receive their degrees—an all-time high for the 42-year-old institution. More recently, Wayne County Community College District received one of the highest commendations in higher education by maintaining 10-year re-affirmation of its institutional accreditation with no cited findings from the Higher Learning Commission of North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. This distinction is known as “WCCCD’s Perfect 10.”
“According to the Community College Times, we’re reported as one of the fastest-growing community colleges in the country, graduating more African American students with associate’s degrees than most colleges in the country,” says Ivery.
The opportunity of education
Dr. Ivery seems like a man born right where he is today—large and in charge, living with his wife, Ola, on top of the world—or at least Detroit’s version of it, in the Riverfront Condominiums overlooking the international connecting channel of the Detroit River.
But as a self-described humble kid growing up in Amarillo, Texas, he never really imagined all he could accomplish. Still, he understood the importance of being the ambassador of his own destiny, having experienced his formative years in a racially segregated region.
“I think that’s why I never intentionally squandered any opportunity,” says Ivery.
Ivery’s father set that example for his family. “My father never missed a day of work to my knowledge,” Ivery says. “He lived his life in a way that he would expect for us to live.” That strong work ethic pushed Ivery to succeed. But when he graduated from high school, he was terrified.
“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he says. College wasn’t necessarily a natural choice. He enrolled at Texas A&M University and admits that he struggled at first.
“As soon as someone said I couldn’t do it, I would do it, and I think that’s the beauty of education—that if we allow an individual enough room to be creative, support them, give them the tools and show them the way, they can succeed,” Ivery says. “We have so much undiscovered talent within us.”
It is that core belief that influenced so much of his life’s work and later the mission of Wayne County Community College District.
He remembers a former WCCCD student who, many years ago, was paralyzed at the prospect of enrolling in college. “He walked around the building for an hour and a half, trying to get enough courage to walk in the building,” Ivery says. When the student finally walked in the door and met with an advisor, who led him through the process of enrollment and showed him the resources available to help him in his studies, the student started to cry.
“It was one of the most powerful things that ever happened to me and informed my decisions about serving students,” Ivery says. “We can’t ever forget how huge this step is for some, how overwhelming.”
But in that fear is an opportunity, one that Ivery himself experienced and wanted to make available to students in southeast Michigan.
“Education is the key to the enlightenment of all,” he says. “I’ve always felt that.”
The power of lifelong learning
After spending 10 straight years in higher learning, ending with a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Arkansas, Dr. Ivery stayed in college, though next as a teacher. His first professional job, at age 23, was as a professor of psychology. He went on to work in a variety of academic venues.
“Every job I had, I was the first minority to hold the position,” he says. That streak continued when then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton appointed him commissioner of the state’s Division of Human Services. The appointment made Ivery the first African American and youngest cabinet member in Arkansas state history.
“I was always an avid reader, a lover of books and learning,” Ivery says. Anyone who knows Dr. Ivery is aware of his passion for books. Ivery’s Detroit condominium is a testament to that passion. The overflowing bookshelves with hundreds of books that line his hallway are just a fraction of his library. And then there is his new love—his iPad, on which he downloads new titles to carry with him wherever he goes. He says he reads and listens to three books a week.
“I am always reading. I don’t like fiction, except for Dickens,” Ivery says. “My favorite book is ‘Oliver Twist,’ but to me it’s not fiction because I can relate to Oliver Twist. I think I have some sense of what it was like for him. I can relate to so much that he went through.”
This passion for learning and reading is something that he and his wife, Ola, retired from the Detroit Public School system, instilled in their now-adult children, Angela and Marcus.
“I got a letter from my daughter about a year ago and she said, ‘Dad, one of the greatest things you’ve done for me was encourage me to read, because reading opened up a whole new world for me,'” Ivery recalls. “I know that, and she and my son know that, but I still think about people who don’t and all they are missing.”
The crusade for children
A concern for area youth who may not have been exposed to the passion of reading has inspired Ivery, who has become an advocate to improve the educational opportunities for area children. In 2002, he and his wife started the WCCCD Bookworm Club for children ages 3-7 in an effort to combat illiteracy and improve early childhood education. Ivery also established a literacy foundation in his family’s name that makes funds available for literacy projects.
“The earlier children are introduced to books, foster a love of reading and reveal any challenges they may have, the sooner they can be helped along the way,” says Ivery.
He was recently interviewed on MSNBC regarding the need for early childhood educational investment. “Detroit is one of the largest metropolitan cities that has an increasingly high illiteracy rate, and that started because those people were not given the time and attention as kids to learn how to read,” says Ivery. “We need to help those who as adults can’t read, but we also have to stop this trend through prevention.”
But Ivery, who has two grandsons, is mindful that institutions can only help so much. The real lessons begin at home, as they did for him and his own children. For the first time in his professional career, his mission has shifted from the world of academia and into the family fabric.
The prolific writer, who has penned more than 600 articles for newspapers and magazines across the nation and three books, is anticipating the release of his latest book, “Reclaiming Our Legacy: Black Fatherhood.” The book is a how-to on important aspects of being a dad, from instilling self-esteem and values to dealing with conflict and peer pressure. But it’s also a fully aware guide to the fractured state of fatherhood within the Black community. Many chapters are a clarion call to this generation of Black men to be present and active in their children’s lives.
“To think of a child growing up without a father is just overwhelming,” Ivery says. “I know that without my father, I wouldn’t be here today, and I just think we all need that, that ability to feel whole.”
The creation of a caring legacy
Helping people “feel whole” is something that Dr. Curtis Ivery has done
throughout his life. By helping the man who doesn’t see his ability to attend college finally visualize the path to success, or passing the love of learning and reading to his own children, or providing and advocating for children’s literacy initiatives, or teaching the next generation of men the value and importance of being a good father – it has all been part of his drive to bring out the best in people and let them see and realize their full capabilities.
“As my father always said, we are a composite of all our experiences. Everything that happened to me would be reflected in what I do, and I will be judged by what I leave behind,” he says. “I think what I learned most from my parents is the ability to care deeply about people. That is one of my gifts that I’m most proud of.”
All of his achievements at Wayne County Community College District matter, too, of course. And he appreciates the many awards he’s received, such as the 2004 Michiganian of the Year Award, the 2008 Man of the Year Award, the Distinguished Service Award from Detroit City Council or the Dr. Charles H. Wright “Builders of the Vision” award for higher education.
Distinctions, such as his recent election to the board of directors for the American Association of Community Colleges and appointment to the 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, show he’s earned the respect and appreciation of his peers.
But at the end of the day, he says, all of those achievements were the result of his work on behalf of others. In those early years leading WCCCD from some dark days to its current transformative state, he admits he had some doubts.
“I didn’t know if I would be able to get to where we needed to be. There was so much to do and I didn’t always see a way forward,” he says. “But what pushed me through was that I wanted the school to succeed for others. I want others to do well. I want others to be able to prepare themselves for a rewarding life. And we do that now.”
To him, Wayne County Community College District is uniquely positioned to help a population of underemployed and underserved people get a second chance in light of the shift in our local and national economy.
“As I thought in the beginning of my journey, and as I do now, there’s such an opportunity for a lot of good to be done here,” he says. “I understand the importance of education. It is where we will improve our lot—individually and regionally.”
He knows that from experience. After all, he was once a kid of modest means from Amarillo, Texas who—through his own education —became a successful college president, author and national education expert.
“I think a lot about legacy at this point in my life, how I would like to be remembered and whether this has been a good cause, whether education was a good choice for me and why I chose it,” Ivery says. “I know now that I didn’t—that it chose me.”