Today, many women find themselves in leadership positions in education, but they are still a minority among college presidents. According to the American Council on Education, only 21 percent of four-year colleges and universities are headed by women, and the number is only slightly higher, 27 percent, for community colleges. San Antonio has surpassed the national average by having four capable women at the helm of higher education institutions.

Tessa Martinez Pollack, Ph.D.
OLLU

When we arrive at Our Lady of the Lake University to interview its president, Dr. Tessa Martinez Pollack, the receptionist asks us to please “wait in the parlor.”

We are only too delighted to do so. The suite of rooms referred to as “the parlor” makes us feel like guests in an old castle. Vintage furniture, portraits and decorative objects all speak of time and history. For all its desire to modernize its image, OLLU is a venerable San Antonio institution with deep roots in the community, and that’s certainly not a small asset.  

For Pollack, who attended OLLU High School here (which shared the grounds with the college), returning as president of the senior school was an emotional homecoming. She had left San Antonio 15 years earlier when she resigned her position as a San Antonio College dean to take the top job at the Medical Center Campus of the Miami-Dade Community College. From there, she went to the Maricopa County Community College District in Phoenix, but in 2002 she found herself contemplating the OLLU presidency.

“I never thought I would be back here,” says the willowy, distinguished-looking Pollack. “My daughter and grandchildren were in Phoenix; I was happy with my job there and was envisioning staying there. Then people starting calling to ask if I would take this position. When I came here, I was so overtaken by being back in San Antonio and at this university, I knew in the first hour that I needed to be here. For all of us who grew up in this neighborhood, this was quite an extraordinary place. This (job) was more like a calling than another career step.”

But she adds that she came in with her eyes open. Leading a small Catholic college “in a world of public education” and ever increasing competition was going to be tough. OLLU currently enrolls 3,246 students in both traditional and weekend and evening programs and offers 58 undergraduate majors, 48 graduate specializations and two doctoral-level degrees. More than half of the students are Hispanic. One task for the new president was obvious: the university needed something to distinguish it from its competitors.      

The demographics of the country work “for us,” explains Pollack. She points out that minorities have for the first time in history become the majority in Texas and that Hispanics constitute the largest of the minority groups. She would like to position OLLU to take advantage of the confluence of two cultures.

“My vision for this university is that it will become a nexus where San Antonio will have the type of higher education through bicultural programs that will stimulate it to be truly a binational community,” she says.

To that end, the college has added bilingual, bicultural programs — referred to as biliterate — in business, communication arts, psychology, social work and speech pathology, enabling graduates to conduct business in their disciplines in both English and Spanish. International students from Latin America are also expected to be interested in these programs.

“That’s been a major challenge,” admits the president. “It’s hard to turn the ship around. We are trying to turn the image of the university around to explore the new direction as a bicultural bridge and to engage faculty and students in a different way.”

But OLLU also cherishes its roots as a Catholic institution and will continue to emphasize service and spiritual values established by the Sisters of Divine Providence who founded the school.

“I often speak to the business community, and it has become increasingly important to them to have employees who have sound ethical values,” says Pollack. “It’s important to students, too. We provide that balance. That’s one thing that was refreshing for me coming from public education. I enjoy going to the chapel to pray with the kids.”

Pollack grew up with those Christian values, not far from campus, raised by two grandmothers. Her mother had died when she was a toddler, and her young father returned to Mexico to work. Young Tessa was the first in the family to finish high school and go to college. She still remembers how lost she felt when she first left the sheltering arms of the neighborhood to attend San Antonio College. That’s why she has a special understanding for kids who seek a smaller college like OLLU, where personal attention is part of the package.

In 1969, Pollack obtained a broadcast journalism degree from UT Austin but found that getting a job in TV for a Hispanic female was close to impossible. Reconsidering her dreams, she went into teaching and eventually earned both a master’s in education and business from UTSA and a doctorate in educational administration from UT Austin. At 21 she married and had a daughter, but divorced 20 years later. Today, Pollack is married to her second husband, Bob Pollack, who shares her values, she says. The couple faced a major crisis recently when Bob was diagnosed with a brain tumor and became unable to work

“But we have adapted. You have more resilience in the face of loss than you know,” she says.

Both of us glance over to her desk where a beautiful wedding photo of her and Bob stands. All along, we’ve been talking while a lunch-time drum-driven concert outside her office windows often threatened to drown out our words. That’s OK with the president, though. She is happy to see the students have a good time.

“I love coming to work every day,” she says. “I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the people in my life who didn’t see this happen — my mother, father, my two grandmothers, people in the neighborhood. This (her work at OLLU) is a gift in return.”

Angie Runnels, Ph.D.
St. Philip’s

Like Pollack, Dr. Angie Runnels also moved to San Antonio not long ago to assume the top job at another historic institution, St. Philip’s College on the East Side. Founded as a school for black girls in 1898 by St. Philip’s Episcopal Church of the West Texas Diocese, the college was led for 52 years by teacher Artemisia Bowden, a strong and determined woman who refused to close shop when the church withdrew its sponsorship.

“Many black colleges that were supported by churches folded when private funds were no longer available,” explains the current president, “but Miss Bowden went looking for public support and even ran the school for two years without support from anyone. I am tremendously honored to serve a college with that kind of history and one that reflects the level of commitment of this woman.”

Today, St. Philip’s is one of the four community colleges of the Alamo Community College District, and its student body is not only co-ed but no longer majority black. Hispanics make up 51 percent of students and non-Hispanic whites 29.2 percent, while African-Americans constitute only 17.2 percent. “This college still serves the community,” says Runnels, “but the community has expanded beyond the East Side. Our programs bring students from all over Bexar County and beyond.”

She is referring to unique occupational/technical programs that are available only at St. Philip’s, such as aviation and automotive technology, culinary arts and the successful allied health departments which train LVN nurses, occupational therapists, radiology technicians and others. Graduates have no problem finding jobs, but the regional demand for people with technical skills is so great, she says, that it’s hard to meet the demand. Like other community colleges, St. Philip’s also offers a basic academic curriculum for students who plan to transfer to a four-year university.

When she took the reins four years ago, Runnels decided that what the school needed for balance was a stronger curriculum in the arts. Today, students can choose between music, visual arts, theater and, since this fall, dance. The college is also blessed with one of the best, state-of-the-art performing halls in town, the Watson Auditorium, which is often borrowed by other local or visiting groups. Another area that the president focused on was developing partnerships with middle schools and high schools in the neighborhood and with city-wide businesses in the industries that employ St. Philip’s graduates.

“We have done work with schools to see how we can support them to enhance the probability for students to go to college,” says Runnels, who keeps the picture of Miss Bowden on her office wall. “At the middle school level, we have something that we call Service Learning Program. Our faculty goes to the schools to work with the math or science or other teachers. It starts the kids thinking about what comes next in life (after public school). We want them to know that St. Philip’s is not only here, but that we are expecting them and ready to serve them and that achievement is possible for them”.

If kids need a role model of achievement, Runnels is certainly a shining example. Raised in Tyler by parents who wanted their four girls to be able “to take care of themselves,” she discovered early on that she was effective in helping other people learn, so she became an English teacher. After teaching children and teens for years, however, she decided that dealing with adults would be more fun. In 1975, with a master’s degree in hand, Runnels went to work for the Grayson County College in Denison, and her new career took off. Before long, she was named division director, opening her eyes to the possibility that she could be a dean or a vice president some day.

But as a single mother, Runnels waited until her daughter had finished college before she embarked on a pursuit of a Ph.D. in educational administration, which she obtained in 1988. In a matter of years, her ambition to be a dean and then a college VP became reality. For the last seven years before she came to San Antonio, Runnels held several leadership positions with the Dallas County Community College District, both at college and district levels.

“As I reflect on it now, what I do strongly mirrors teaching,” says Runnels. “Being president requires a knowledge base, it requires a skill to motivate and evaluate and the ability to get things done with an entire work group. Just like in a class, you are working with different people with different needs, and you are trying to balance all that and make it work.”

Her career path may not be the way women will achieve top positions in the future, she says, but so far that has been the best route for a woman to prove herself and advance in an institution of higher learning.

“Most women leaders in education have come through the ranks. Women have had a bigger challenge coming into the system (from outside) in leadership roles. More often, they have to prove their success over time,” she explains.

When it comes to her students, however, Runnels is more worried about the men than the women. As on other campuses, females outnumber males at St. Philip’s and generally do well in their studies.

“The group most at risk right now is young African-American males,” she says. “We are looking to see if we can create a program that will appeal to that population. Right now, women seem to be taking advantage of the opportunities that have opened up to them.”

Ana “Cha” Guzman, Ph.D.
Palo Alto

Ever since it opened in 1985 on the South Side, Palo Alto College has been known as “the heart of the community.” A nice designation by any standard, but current president Dr. Ana “Cha” Guzman would like to add a little more to it. Her vision for the school is to be both the heart and the economic engine of the community.

“Palo Alto grew out of the needs of the community,” says Guzman, who assumed the reins of the two-year college in 2001. “It has been developed as a transfer college, and the transfer rate is high (to four-year institutions). Since I arrived here, I’ve continued to emphasize the importance of transfer, but I have also added 23 programs in the occupational/technical high-paying professions. I want us to be ready for Toyota.”

Those programs include associate degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering but also in non-Toyota-related practical disciplines such as landscape and horticulture science, pilot training and data-entry-technician education.

While transfer programs attract primarily kids fresh out of high school, the added disciplines appeal mostly to midcareer working people who are looking for new or additional skills. To serve them, Guzman has emphasized off-site teaching at various locations around town. Like Runnels, she believes that an important role of a community college is to ensure that the region’s employers have the work force they need. “See that building over there?” she asks, pointing to a building under construction across the street. “It will prepare people for the needs of Toyota and other manufacturing companies.

“I have been able to make changes because the faculty was looking for someone to be an innovator,” she says. “The enrollment has grown by 29.2 percent in the last three years.”   

The Cuban-born Guzman immigrated to the United States with her family when she was 13. Like Runnels, she started her career as a teacher while getting all the education she could so as to prepare herself for opportunities that might open up. She was working in training teachers for early childhood education in 1975 when just such an opportunity occurred. As a promising Hispanic leader, the 27-year-old Guzman was offered a fellowship by the Department of Education to pursue her doctorate in education, which she completed in 1979.

Fifteen years later another great opportunity came her way. After making her way up through the ranks in Houston schools, Guzman left Texas temporarily to follow her husband to Washington, D.C., where she found employment at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Va. While there, she noticed that Hispanics often failed to meet admission criteria. Upon analyzing the situation, Guzman was able to convince authorities to revise the guidelines to make them more sensitive to minority groups without upsetting either teachers or parents. That brought her to the attention of the National Science Foundation officials looking to increase minority participation in science and technology professions.

By now, she was in demand as an expert on minority issues. As such, Guzman chaired the Presidential Commission on Excellence in Education for Hispanic Americans during the Clinton administration and served as an advisor to Education Secretary Richard Riley. Pictures of her with both Clinton and Riley now adorn her office bookshelf. But the “honorary Texan,” as she calls herself, returned to the Lone Star state to work. Before coming to San Antonio, Guzman served in several high-level positions at Texas A&;M and later became an executive vice president for the large Austin Community College. The move to Austin meant a pay cut, but she didn’t mind.

“I did it because I thought that it was at the community college level that we could make the biggest difference,” she says. “Ten years ago community colleges were the ones breaking ground in educating students who didn’t have a chance elsewhere.”

She still has an Austin connection, though. Her second husband, Gilberto Ocanas, still works in the capital, where he has a printing business. The couple maintain a house here and an apartment in Austin.

While her career is clearly a success story, life has not always been a field of daisies for the vivacious, articulate Guzman. In 1999, as she was preparing to revisit her homeland for the first time with her two adult sons, her younger son, Ryan, was killed while riding in a motorcycle race. It’s the kind of devastating blow a mother never fully recovers from.

“Life has not been easy for me,” she says, eyes glistening with tears. “I lost my country, I divorced, I lost my son. It’s not about hard or easy, though. It’s about making a difference, I think.”

Jacqueline Claunch, Ph.D.
Northwest Vista

Guzman’s statement is probably something Northwest Vista College president Dr. Jacqueline Claunch would agree with wholeheartedly. Just a few months after landing in San Antonio in 1998 to assume the presidency of the newest addition to the ACC District, Claunch was confronted with one personal crisis after another. While she was taking care of her terminally ill mother, her live-in partner and now husband, Jack Stone, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. As if that and a new job weren’t enough for any person to deal with, she soon discovered that she, too, had cancer, of the breast. Carrying on was tough.

“You do what you have to do,” says Claunch today, remembering that time. “At work I was fortunate to have a small but capable and supportive staff, which helped me to deal with the difficult personal stuff.”

Eventually both she and Stone recovered but did not marry until 2003 — a second time for both — after Stone suffered a new bout of illness. Despite all this, Claunch has managed to steer the fledgling school toward academic success. Last year, NVC was recognized by the MetLife Foundation as one of only four “best practice community colleges” in the nation for its high student-retention rate.

Today, Northwest Vista is a leafy suburban oasis on the far northwest side of town. Buildings are pleasantly surrounded by trees, parking lots are not huge, and the campus as a whole seems to blend with rather than disrupt its Hill Country setting. The college president cares a great deal about the environment, explains public relations director Renata Serafin, and it certainly shows. Some sections are beautifully landscaped by volunteers who gather on Earth Day every year to do the work.

Claunch lets the environment into her office, as well. Large windows allow the outdoors to become part of the Southwestern-style decor. When she came here from Dallas in 1998 to become the first president of the school, there was no campus office waiting for her or much of a campus either.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a college from scratch,” says Claunch. “I love creating new things. When I came, there were 15 employees, one full-time faculty member and about 100 students, who took classes at other locations around town. Two things struck me early on. When you are starting a college, you really have to know everything: from hiring and building programs to getting accreditation, developing catalogs and everything else. The other thing was, if you work to have a certain culture in your institution, you have to be very purposeful about it. Either you set the tone, or it will just happen.”

The culture she eventually created emphasizes the collaborative spirit and students’ needs. That should be so in every school, but people sometimes lose sight of their purpose, she explains. To help everybody remember it at NVC, she implemented policies that make unambiguous statements, such as no reserved parking for faculty or staff, including the president. “We all have to find a place in the lot, just as students do. Are we more important than the students?” she asks rhetorically.

Northwest Vista is located in the fastest growing section of town, and enrollment has mushroomed to 9,000 in six years. The president is still dealing with growing pains. New buildings and equipment are desperately needed to set up new programs and accommodate the burgeoning student population, projected to grow to 12,000 by 2005. Thus, for Claunch, the big issue right now is to develop a new master plan for her campus.

A native of Ohio, Claunch earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Trinity University in 1966 and followed that up with a master’s in math and computer science from Texas A&;I. She pursued a career as a computer systems analyst for a while, married and had two children before entering the community college world. The bulk of her career was spent in Dallas with the Richland College, where she eventually rose to VP of academic and student development.

Northwest Vista’s high retention rate is largely due to her emphasis on student development. Since community colleges admit everyone who has a high school diploma, assessing students’ skills and providing the right kind of remedial courses to those who need them is essential to keeping them in class and on track.If she had a chance to talk to powerful politicians who are always talking about education, what would she tell them?

“First, I would explain to them about community colleges. I believe education is the key to having a strong middle class, and community colleges are a critical part of that. Then I would say, you can’t just give lip service to education, you have to support it,” she concludes.

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photographer: Liz Garza Williams