DETROIT - Curtis Ivery's idea of a perfect vacation goes something like this: He and his wife Ola fly to Beijing. They see the main tourist sights. Then they return to their hotel, she goes shopping, and he stealthily opens a suitcase full of books, leans back and begins reading.
"That's me," said the president of perhaps the biggest success story in Michigan education, laughing. Ten years ago, Wayne County Community College was widely viewed with contempt. It had fewer than 10,000 students, most of them poor black kids who couldn't get into any other school.
When it got into the news it was usually because of some sort of financial mismanagement scandal, and the chancellor's office was a revolving door. When Curtis Ivery heard in 1995 that the job was open again, he thought he might apply just so he could visit Detroit.
"But I am sort of a guy who takes a contrary view when I hear about a challenge. When they say something can't be done it makes me that much more inclined to try." It was clear that it would be a challenge, all right.
When Wayne sent him a packet of clippings about the place, his son, Marcus, then a high school freshman, read them. "Dad, are you sure you want to do this?" the boy said uneasily.
"He now thinks it was a great idea," said his father, showing a picture of his son, now a fast-rising young finance executive at General Motors. What's more, pretty much everyone else thinks Curtis Ivery's coming was the best thing that ever happened to the school.
Today, it has more than 45,000 students, at five campuses across the county, and is now formally called Wayne County Community College District. The Detroit News, long a harsh critic of the school, now says "the district has a firm grip on finances, accountability, and clear goals to handle change and improve."
Having goals is what Curtis Ivery is all about. When he got to the community college, it saw itself basically as a junior college, where weak students went for two years to get strong enough to transfer to a four-year school. Today, the school has a broader vision.
"I said when I came I wouldn't be satisfied until this was the best community college in Michigan. And we are not there yet, but we are probably the best school for dental hygienists in the state. And we have all sorts of six-month programs and certificate programs that have appeal."
The college is also seeking to partner with employers to provide specific sets of skills, he said, and is also reaching out to nontraditional students who are just putting their toe in the water, and retirees who want to keep learning.
Mr. Ivery himself was sort of a nontraditional student. The son of a construction worker in Amarillo, Texas, he was born in 1949 in the still-segregated South, and spent his childhood in the local library. He then became the first member of his family to not only go to college, but he stayed in school for a decade, earning a doctorate in higher education administration at the University of Arkansas.
From there he went on to run a community college in Fort Smith, Ark., until at 31, he impressed another young, self-made man who wanted to make the world a better place. Gov. Bill Clinton then made him head of Arkansas' Social Services department. Though he left after a few years to go back to academia, President Clinton and Dr. Ivery are still close and, he says, talk frequently.
Originally, he thought he might stay for three years. For any college president to stay in the same job for a decade is, these days, almost unheard of. But Dr. Ivery now has a hard time imagining leaving.
The chancellor is a self-professed workaholic who lives in a high-rise he can see from his office. His administrators aren't surprised by late night phone calls, and students see him in the halls on Saturday.
There's a lot more to do, he says. Detroit was long "a very interesting place in terms of education," he said; a place where you could get out of high school, go to work on the assembly line, and make a good living. Those days are gone, and a generation of young people have to figure out what to do now. Dr. Ivery sees his mission as getting his college ready to help them do just that.
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