CCAC president promotes a culture that respects and values diversity
August 9, 2012 8:00 AM
Community College of Allegheny County president Alex Johnson stands inside Byers Hall on the North Side campus.
By Rob Wennemer Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As a boy, Alex Johnson rarely saw white people in his hometown of Concord, N.C. When he did -- typically at stores uptown -- he noticed that they were treated better.
"When you went to a department store as a black person, you were not allowed to try on the clothes," said Mr. Johnson, now 61. "You had to buy them, and if they didn't fit when you got home, that was your problem."
Such experiences had a lasting impact, leading him to promote a culture at the Community College of Allegheny County, where he has served as president since 2008, that values diversity and inclusion.
By immersing CCAC's students in a multicultural community, Mr. Johnson believes their actions in the future will reflect a more accepting perspective, ultimately sustaining the diversity efforts put forth by the institution.
"I call it 'horizontal diffusion,' because students learn and then what they are able to do is apply that in their lives in a broad kind of way and also in their community," he said. "They are able to promote a better understanding [of diversity], some of it directly and at other times vicariously."
He noted the importance of diversity being reflected among the students' professors. This can be achieved either by assisting current faculty in their efforts to promote diversity, or through the addition of qualified minority individuals.
"We have tried hard to enrich our application pools for various positions at the institution, particularly among the faculty, and use that as a way to ensure that we have a diverse pool of qualified individuals that we can choose from," he said.
"More importantly is that our existing faculty understand how to inculcate in our students what it is like to live in a multicultural society."
In September 2007, 11.5 percent of CCAC's full-time faculty were minority individuals. That had grown to 14.1 percent by July 2011, the most recent statistics available.
A 6 percentage point increase was seen among minority executive/administrative and manager positions, which have risen to 20.6 percent over the roughly four year period.
Mr. Johnson believes that more needs to be done.
"We've made progress in that regard, but we have a long way to go, particularly in the instructional area," he said. "We've got to do a better job of ensuring that individuals who teach our students reflect their various backgrounds and experiences."
Externally, the president has focused on using eligible minority, women-owned and disadvantaged business enterprises for the institution's services. He said CCAC hasn't set a fixed percentage of expenditures as an annual goal, but cited 15 percent as reasonable.
"Each and every year, we exceed the 15 percent mark," he said. "In a few years, that has been 22 percent of what we purchase in terms of goods and services."
An example can be seen through the construction of the K. Leroy Irvis Science Center, which began in Sept. 2009 and is expected to be finished for the spring term.
Total construction costs for the building amount to $18 million, according to David Hoovler, executive assistant to the president. The general construction contract, a portion of the costs totaling $9.1 million, has been given to L.S. Brinker, a certified minority business enterprise.
"You have to understand that these companies still have to go through a competitive bid process, so it's not like we can automatically pick a company and give them our business," Mr. Johnson said. "But at the end of the day, we are excited when a minority-owned business really can gain a significant portion of our business offerings here at the institution."
Mr. Johnson and others also created the Vanguard Diversity Awards, which annually recognize those at CCAC and in the Pittsburgh community who have demonstrated outstanding efforts to promote diversity and inclusion.
Srujana Kanjula, professor of political science and sociology at CCAC's North Campus, was one of two winners of the inaugural "College Award" in May 2009, the institution's internal Vanguard honor.
Also serving as one of four campus diversity officers, Ms. Kanjula, 44, received the award in part for starting the World Cultures Club at the North Campus, as well as her support in sponsoring the International Food and Dance Festival.
Ms. Kanjula said the rise in diversity awareness at CCAC since Mr. Johnson's arrival has played an important role in her ability to organize and advance such initiatives.
"Apart from the culture of diversity he has worked to promote at the institution, President Johnson specifically created structural mechanisms like campus diversity officer positions at each campus," she said. "He has made diversity and inclusion a top priority."
Mr. Johnson was quick to clarify that his mission to promote diversity is not an individual task.
"I'm fortunate indeed to have people at this institution also concerned about diversity and inclusion," he said. "As a result of that, there have been some significant gains that we've made at this institution alone, and in some instances we are models for other community colleges to follow."