CHAMPAIGN – Growing up in a family that didn't respect higher education, Robert Exley worked for years before he went back to college, and he believes a community college made all the difference.
Exley, 51, is one of five finalists to replace Zelema Harris as president of Parkland College. On Thursday, he talked with Parkland staffers about how teachers gave him their full attention, and pushed him to excel, at San Jacinto College in Houston.
Exley is the vice president of academic affairs at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
His father had denigrated higher education, calling it the "the rich man's draft deferment."
Exley, like another presidential candidate, Northwest State Community College President Betty Young, was not a stellar high school student, but after five years in the petrochemical industry, he was "bored silly."
He got the idea that he wanted to help substance-abusing youths, and following San Jacinto College, went on to earn a bachelor's and master's from the University of Houston.
After working as a therapist and helping start-up auxiliary treatment centers, he decided he liked the teen-agers but could no longer stand dealing with their parents.
So, recalling his good experience in community college, he enrolled in the doctoral education program at the University of Texas at Austin.
Exley is quick to profess that he wants to be a college professor. He has taught at San Jacinto College, Miami-Dade Community College, the University of Houston-Clear Lake and Iowa State University.
Meanwhile, one of his brothers who never went to college, Richard D. Exley, has authored 30 books, he said.
Finding the potential of students who, like Exley, "had a lot of fun in high school" is something at which the community college can excel, rivaled only by small liberal arts colleges, he said.
He said community colleges like Parkland teach a continuum of students, from those who need remedial work to University of Illinois students filling a requirement.
Exley said he was interested in looking at talent from minorities. He cited historical examples of widespread racism to suggest that some groups have burdens to overcome. The white male still has the most advantages in America, he said.
Exley said he was disappointed recently when he looked at promotions at Iowa Western and saw that women were underrepresented in the highest positions.
He said a personal motto was, when faced with failure, "never lower your standards, make them higher."
He has a wife, Anita, and children Heather and Will.
Three finalists remain to appear at Parkland receptions.
Eric McKeithan, president of Cape Fear Community College, Wilmington, N.C., will visit today.
The other finalists are Gordon Burns, president of Wilkes Community College, North Carolina; and Kathryn Jeffery, chief executive for the Community College of Southern Nevada's Charleston campus. They will visit campus on March 13 and 14, respectively.