An Interview with College of Alameda President Jannett Jackson

Jackson talks about her commitment to education and the challenges of fulfilling the community college mission in an era of budget cuts.

Jannett Jackson is not the sort to back away from challenges. Whether it was earning her doctorate or leading troops in Iraq, Jackson has persisted in using her leadership skills to benefit others.

Now, as president of the College of Alameda during tough economic times, Jackson is undaunted. She is on the lookout for community partners and innovative strategies to help fulfill the community college missions — providing classes for students wishing to transfer to four-year colleges and offering career technical education.

Jackson served as interim president of COA for year before she was permanently appointed to the position on July 1, 2011.

Where were you born and raised? I was born in Louisiana. I am the oldest of six children. My mom and dad got divorced when I was in grade school and I was sent to live with my aunt in Garden City, Kansas. I went from a segregated school where everybody looked like me to an integrated school in Kansas. My brother and I were the only two black kids in the school.

That must have been quite a culture shock. As a kid, I saw it as an adventure. They did things differently. First, there was no corporal punishment, which I loved. And all the kids wanted to be my friend because, to them, I was exotic. They wanted to know about Louisiana and whether we had alligators — all of those things you’re interested in when you’re a third grader.

When we went to register for third grade, the principal came over and said “Hi, you must be Jannett Jackson.” As an adult, I realized he probably was concerned about integrating the school and how I would assimilate. But to me, at the time, I was a star.

What shaped your interest in education? I always loved school. It was always a place where I could learn new things and be exposed to different people.

When I started fourth grade, my mom offered me a carrot — a dollar for every "A" that I got. So I thought education equals money! I got straight As. And once you buy into that kind of thinking, it just snowballs.

So you just kept going? Yes, I got my doctorate in Education Administration from the University of Texas at Austin at age 42. When I did that, I thought I can do just about anything.

What did you do before that? I thought I wanted to be a doctor. But when I went to school, if you were a woman you became a nurse. I got a full scholarship to study nursing in college, but when I started working in the hospital my junior year, I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t like the smells. And I didn’t like to hurt people before you could help them.

Because I was the oldest of eight (my mom remarried and had two more kids), I didn’t have the resources to say I wanted to change my major. So I asked myself, what can I do so that I can still go to school? Back then, the military was not just a job, it was an adventure. I thought I’d join the Air Force, travel, do my tour and then go to college on the GI bill.

Sounds like a great plan. Yes, and that’s what I did except I didn’t get to travel. I was sent to Merced, California. And I cried! In 1983, I switched to the Army. I continued to serve in the National Guard until last year, when I retired as a full bird colonel after two tours in Iraq.

You inherited some significant challenges in your new position—state funding cuts and threats to the college’s accreditation just to name two. This was not the time to become a president!

What progress has COA and the Peralta Community College District made in addressing the issues raised by the accrediting agency? COA had been put on warning because of some issues that were primarily at the district level (COA is one four colleges in the Peralta District, together with Laney, Merritt and Berkeley City College). Because the colleges are accredited and not the district, the only way to get the district to take corrective action was to put the colleges on warning.

We had some serious budget issues that needed to be corrected. One issue was fiscal management. A second issue was with our computer system. We also did not have an integrated budget and planning system. None of these things have anything to do with the quality of courses we offer or students gaining competencies.

Last year, because the accrediting commission had the perception that we were slow to take action, they moved us from warning to probation — which is one step from the state coming in and taking over the district. We did not want to go to that step. Now we’re cleaning it up. Because of the scrutiny we’ve had, our budget and planning process is transparent and much improved. 

So when we come to the point where we’re fully accredited, then I can say we’ve come through the fire. We’re still finetuning our budget and planning process, but I am confident that if we continue on the road that we are on that we will be fully accredited.

What has been the impact of state funding cuts? The state has put a cap on our enrollment, and we are not getting reimbursed for the number of students who could go to school here. We’re also experiencing a roll-down effect. As the UCs accept fewer students, those students who can’t get into a UC go to the CSUs. Those students fill up the classes at the CSUs so CSU-eligible students are now coming to the community colleges. This means that our traditional students, who tend to be the ones who didn’t graduate from high school or didn’t graduate with the best grades, are being displaced. These are the students who really need the education. It’s starting to create this caste system because we have this group of individuals who can’t get into school. 

What types of students are served at the College of Alameda? We have a large, diverse population. About 47 percent of our students are Asian/Filipino. Another 24 percent are African American and 14 percent are Hispanic. Then there’s a large percentage who are mixed race. Many are immigrants or the first person in their family to go to college.

Those who are most needy are also the ones who tend not to know how to use the system and take advantage of the opportunity. You ask people to pull themselves up by their boot straps. Right now, the opportunities are not as available as they used to be. And there will be increases in the cost. It used to be $10 per unit. Now it’s $36 a unit and that’s without counting the cost of fees or books.

What is ASTI? The  is a great opportunity for high school students to get a two-year degree here at COA as well as a high school diploma. It’s a good partnership. I’m talking with AUSD Superintendent Kirsten Vital about expanding the program, but there’s no way to do that with the existing portables.

What is your advice to students? What I tell students is be persistent even if you can’t get into the class you want right away. Go in and talk to the instructor. Show up at the class early. Take notes and show you’re engaged and want to learn. You will see that by the time you get to the third week that the class is not as full as in the beginning. There are going to be people that drop the class you want. And there’s your chance. At COA, demand is greater than we can provide for. We’re not going to keep an empty seat because you didn’t show up. It’s open access, but limited seats.


Do you have an idea of a community leader we should profile on Alameda Patch? Send your suggestions to eve@patch.com.

Kate Quick September 27, 2011 at 01:48 AM
This is one generous, gracious lady. I am very glad I have gotten to know her through the Measure A Bond committee. Somthin' special is Jannett J.!!


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