Hundreds of San Diego education, business and government leaders honored Constance Carroll Saturday night for her steadfast advocacy of free and accessible community college studies.
At the same time, the recently retired chancellor of the San Diego Community College District praised President Joe Biden’s proposal for tuition-free community colleges nationwide as part of his American Families Plan.
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“If you look at some European countries, they do exactly that because they view higher education as an investment,” she told the Times of San Diego, “and we should do the same.”
The San Diego district’s Promise Program, which provides tuition-free education for two years, was the focus of the gala titled, “A Legacy of Achievement: A Tribute to Chancellor Emerita Constance M. Carroll, Ph.D. Benefiting the San Diego Promise.”
SDCCD’s longest-serving chancellor, Carroll, 76, retired on July 1 after serving 17 years as the chief executive officer at the district. She has frequently been referred to as the “People’s Chancellor.”
Attendees at the outdoor gala at the San Diego Mission Bay Resort had many descriptions for Carroll: brilliant, a force of nature, a Renaissance woman, tireless advocate, living legend, a champion of social justice and a woman with a killer sense of humor.
At the gala, it was announced that a building would be named after her at a community college and scholarships in her name would be awarded at the University of San Diego.
Carlos O. Turner Cortez, the new chancellor of the community college district, praised his predecessor. “Undoubtedly she is respected as the most effective community college administrator in the United States,” he told Times of San Diego.
“I came to this district specifically to have an opportunity to work with and learn from her.… I’m in awe by simply watching how she operates.”
Remarking that she has “unbelievable intelligence and wit,” Cortez said, “The fact that I have had the opportunity to work with her and now follow her is undoubtedly the biggest achievement of my life.”
The current chancellor pointed out that whereas state funding provides free tuition for 18-year-olds just out of high school, the SDCCD Promise Program allows adult learners, including military veterans, to take advantage of the financial assistance.
And it is that Promise Program that Carroll said she is most proud of in her tenure as chancellor because it benefits students directly — people who otherwise might not be able to come to a community college, she said.
“That’s why this evening is so important,” Carroll added. “It’s not so much about me. It’s about providing support for our students. The Promise Program has raised $2 million going into tonight and another $630,000 because of this event. Students have access to community colleges in a low-cost, high-quality manner — that’s what I am about.”
Launched as a pilot project in fall 2016 with 186 students taking part, the Promise Program has since expanded to more than 8,000 students, the majority from low-income and traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic communities.
A second major initiative of Carroll’s has been making it possible for community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees. Under a pilot program approved in 2014, 15 community colleges in California, including San Diego Mesa College, now offer limited four-year degrees.
It is this program that Carroll said will be a major focus in her retirement.
SDCCD board President Maria Nieto Senour explained that many community college students want to attend San Diego State University, but classes there lack space.
“We want to able to offer some more degrees within our district that are affordable for folks because they can get a four-year degree for $10,000,” Senour told Times of San Diego.
Carroll founded and is the president and CEO of the California Community College Baccalaureate Association.
“Now, I will have time to do that,” Carroll said.
Carroll’s retirement doesn’t mean she will fade from public service.
In addition to her focus on the Baccalaureate Association, she will continue to serve on boards, including the those of the United Way, San Diego Rotary, the National College Promise Program and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
In addition, she plays the piano and guitar and plans to keep the music going. She also loves opera.
Born in Baltimore to parents who both were educators, Carroll said it was expected that she continue in that tradition.
Her mother was the first Black woman to earn a doctorate from the University of Maryland.
But had she not become an educator, Carroll said, she probably would have become an architect.
At the gala, California’s Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins said Carroll taught people who we can think differently when it comes to making college possible for everyone and that she welcomed innovation and bold ideas.
Former U.S. Rep. Susan Davis said: “I don’t think there is anything that Constance Carroll didn’t do. She has the capacity to make so many connections, and obviously the most important one has been with her students.”
Asked what she would miss most in her departure from SDCCD, Carroll said: “The interaction with students. That has meant the most to me.”
Speakers at the gala included Martha Kanter, CEO of the National College Promise initiative; University of San Diego President James Harris; Larry Galizio, president and CEO of the Community College League of California; Mark Stuart, president and CEO of The San Diego Foundation; California Secretary of State Shirley Weber; Mesa College President Pamela T. Luster; and SDCCD Board President Senour.
The event featured performances by the San Diego Mesa College Jazz Musicians, the San Diego Mesa College Choir and a performance by opera singer Candace Bogan.
Carroll has had a distinguished career in higher education.
In 2004, she was appointed chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, after 11 years as president of San Diego Mesa College.
The San Diego Community College District is composed of City College, Mesa College, and Miramar College, as well as a seven-campus Continuing Education division. With a total enrollment of 105,000 students per semester, the district is one of the largest community college districts in California and ranks sixth in the nation.
Carroll also oversaw the transformation of San Diego City, Mesa and Miramar colleges and the San Diego College of Continuing Education through the voter-approved, $1.555-billion, Propositions S and N bond measures passed in 2002 and 2006.
With those funds, the district launched a $1.55 billion construction program that brought new classrooms, parking structures and technology centers to Mesa, City and Miramar colleges.
Before coming to San Diego, Carroll led two other community colleges — president of Saddleback College in south Orange County and Indian Valley Colleges in Marin County, where she was interim chancellor of the Marin Community College District.
During all these assignments, she taught courses in the classics and humanities.
She co-chaired the advocacy campaign for Senate Bill 850, which established the California Community College Baccalaureate Program; she was appointed by President Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve on the National Council on the Humanities.
Carroll holds a B.A. degree in Humanities from Duquesne University; an M.A. and Ph.D. in classics (Ancient Greek and Latin) from the University of Pittsburgh; and a Certificate of Proficiency in Hellenic Studies from Knubly University in Athens, Greece.
She also attended the Harvard University Institute for Educational Management.
Carroll has also served on the boards of directors of a number of organizations, including: the American Council on Education (ACE), the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the San Diego Foundation (as Chair), the California Council for the Humanities (as Chair), and the National Institute for Leadership Development.
Carroll’s affiliations included the San Diego Opera Board of Directors, the Super Bowl XXXVII Host Committee, the advisory board of Ms. Magazine, and other organizations. Carroll is a former member and past president of the Board of Directors of San Diego Youth Services.
Her board service has also included the San Diego Opera, BIOCOM, the San Diego Museum of Man, and the Urban League of San Diego County. Carroll is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
Among the award that she has received were in 2007 the Marie Y. Martin CEO Award, as the top-rated community college CEO in the nation, President of the Year by the American Association of Women in Community Colleges (AAWCC). In 1996, she received the Harry Buttimer Award — the top honor for a California Community College chief executive officer.
In 2009, she was presented the Whitney M. Young, Jr., Leadership Award by the Urban League of San Diego County, and the Remarkable Leaders in Education Award by the University of San Diego.
In 2019, the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE) honored Carroll with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
To make a donation to the San Diego Promise in Carroll’s name, go to sdccd.edu/promise-gala.