Parkland president leaves permanent mark on school
CHAMPAIGN – The rural Newton County, Texas, neighborhood where Zelema Harris grew up in the 1940s and '50s had a distinct identity.
It was "just where the black folks lived."
Harris, who retires June 30 as president of Parkland College, remembers looking at names written in her books at school wondering who those children were."Our books were handed down from the white schools and those were their students' names," she said. "We put book covers on them to make them look new."
But Harris remembers best the teachers, all of whom were black, who focused her hunger for education.
"They were good teachers, resourceful, above the national norm," Harris said. "They didn't have libraries, they didn't have new equipment, but they figured out how to help their students learn."
She found the same teaching excellence at her all-black college, Prairie View A&M University, but by then Harris was old enough to know highly educated black teachers came to schools like Prairie View because they weren't welcome at Big Ten and Ivy League universities.
At the heart of Harris' quest for education – one that took her through graduate programs into educational administration and finally to Parkland – were lessons taught by her father, a farmer and carpenter who had no formal education, and her mother, who finished eighth grade but learned real wisdom from life and the Bible.
"They always promoted learning," Harris said. "My mother said, 'It gives you freedom. You can't depend on anyone but yourself.' "
When she thinks about the long journey that took her from Newton County through a career marked with national and local honors, Harris remembers the people who accompanied her, who gave her good advice and who provided many chances to excel.
Parkland was going through a difficult transition in 1990, after two years under controversial former president Paul Magelli, when a search committee headed by Newman farmer and businessman John Albin picked Harris to become the first woman to lead a downstate community college.
Harris said board members pledged their full support and never went back on their word.
"I remember board Chairman Harold Miller said, 'People are going to watch us because we're hiring you, and we're going to do everything we can to help you be successful,'" she said. "They've done that. They have been bright and creative, and I've implemented their visions."
"When John brought her to the college to visit, faculty were picketing," said Lin Warfel, who became a board member a year later. "That tells you the faculty's mood. During her tenure, there has been no work stoppage, not even a hint of one."
Harris said she was immediately interested in the Parkland job because community members were so interested in the college and in the selection of a new president.
"I liked the size of the community, the fact that this is a farming area and my background is agriculture and the values here were consistent with my own," she said. "Parkland's relationship to the University of Illinois was also very attractive. Our students were going to a place where people were doing cutting-edge research."
Albin remembers a visit he made during the search to Penn Valley Community College in Kansas City, Mo., where Harris had risen quickly through the ranks to become president.
"The college was in an area where people weren't affluent and problems were great," he said. "She had been successful there, bringing the students around to respecting the college and the education opportunities there."
When Harris made the cut on a list that started with more than 100 candidates, Albin called her and was taken aback by her blunt inquiry: "She said, 'Am I a token candidate?' I don't remember what I said, but apparently I said something to convince her that she wasn't and she should come to campus to meet people."
Retired University of Illinois President Stan Ikenberry said the UI had worked hard to cultivate its relationship with Parkland, so when Harris came to town, he took action to continue that cooperation.
"One of the first things Judy and I did was invited her to the president's house for dinner," Ikenberry said. "That was the beginning of a long relationship. When I went to Washington to head the American Council of Education, I invited Zelema to join our board. She's had an impact on education locally and nationally."
Harris, the youngest of five children in her blended household, was a bonus child: Her beloved father, who died shortly after she graduated from high school, was 40 years older than her mother.
Harris struggled studying physical therapy at Prairie View, so she switched her major to English and taught at a middle school and high school after she graduated in 1961.
She took to heart a lesson she learned from her black teachers at Prairie View.
"We came through before desegregation, and we were told we had a big responsibility," Harris said. "Our teachers said, 'We want you to represent the black community.' After 1961, the good teachers at those black colleges were siphoned off to integrate faculties at other colleges."
Harris earned a fellowship to attend the University of Kansas in 1966. That was her first experience in a "sea of whiteness," and she excelled. She earned a master's degree in counseling and designed a recruiting program for minorities.
"Our learning community at Parkland resembles what I did in the late '60s," Harris said. "I modeled the Kansas program after one of at-risk students at Southern Illinois University at East St. Louis, where they took kids from the projects and put them in interdisciplinary classes."
Her work at Kansas earned her a doctorate in education, but she had trouble getting a job, a problem she tackled in a forthright way.
"I'd applied for 14 jobs, and got no interviews, so I called the Kansas City Community College System and asked for one," Harris said. "I said, 'This is my resume. How can I fix it so I have the right credentials to work for you? This is where I need to be.' "
Her interviewer, Chauncey Moten, suggested that she focus.
"He said, 'You need to state everything you have done that relates to our students,'" Harris said. " 'Be that peanut in a Cracker Jack box. You know how people go for the peanuts.' I followed his advice."
It worked. The system hired her to evaluate vocational programs, and four years later she was named president of the Pioneer campus and later Penn Valley when the campuses merged.
Getting started in C-U
Parkland community members say Harris' practical and academic work at Kansas gave her the experience to look at programs and personnel with fresh eyes.
Dale Ewen, who retired as Parkland's executive vice president in 2004, said Harris arrived with the skills to put changes in motion.
"I was impressed with the way she could read and assess the needs of the community and students and articulate a vision and get everyone to come together to carry it through," Ewen said. "Planning and developing close connections to the community are her strong points."
"She hit the ground running and never stopped," said Warfel, now board chairman. "Her first few months at Parkland, she worked really hard at promoting the college. She must have gone to 60 or 90 different meetings all over the district the first three months. She was everywhere."
"She had a very good sense of management," Albin said. "She's highly self-disciplined and doesn't let emotion get in the way of doing what's right. She's been able to bring out the best in people, to identify people with ambition and ability and help them reach their full potential."
"She has a gift for studying people, figuring out what their gifts are and doing what she can to get them to use those gifts," Warfel said.
Tracy Parsons, head of the Urban League of Champaign County, said Harris taught him leadership.
"She's been a great inspiration and mentor and motivator of mine since I came here in 1994," Parsons said. "She's truly a great leader. I hold her in the highest regard."
With Harris in charge, Parkland built a new wing and the Tony Noel Center to house expanding academic and technological programs. The college transformed the old K's Merchandise into the Illinois Employment and Training Center on Mattis Avenue that now houses job placement services and training programs and even child care for job seekers.
"I'm proud of that," Harris said. "It's a place for people to go who don't have jobs, and we have counselors and training programs. Jobs today depend on computer skills, and we got a grant to put a computer lab in there."
For the same reasons, she's proud of the child care program on campus.
"One of the first things we did was focus on the children of students and starting the Child Development Center, " Warfel said. "We were addressing a problem she brought to our attention. Many of our female students were mothers trying to improve their families' income."
And dramatically increased enrollment during Harris' tenure speaks of Parkland's success during that time.
"Students vote with their feet," he said.
Mike Henry, director of admissions, said about 8,570 students were enrolled in credit classes in 1990. Enrollment has grown to 10,692 in the fall of 2005, a 24.8 percent increase.The number of full-time students has jumped 30 percent, from 4,837 in 1990 to 6,294 in 2005.
Harris has traveled to Ukraine, China, Thailand, Australia, England, South Africa and Korea to arrange relationships and exchanges with universities. She also started a Center for Excellence to provide support for staff teaching and learning and a series of local leadership conferences for communitywide improvement.
Harris served on many different state and national education and leadership boards, she's written articles published nationally and given more than two dozen major speeches about leadership and education.
"Zelema has had a really transformational impact on Parkland," Ikenberry said. "That means Parkland's a different place today than when she took over 16 years ago. I served a comparable period at the UI, so I have some appreciation for the benefits of longevity and the stamina it takes. She's been first rate."
Harris never intended to end her career at Parkland.
She initially planned to stay until 2000, but then board chairman Jim Ayers talked her into staying for a few more years that turned out to be tough ones. In 2002, Harris was diagnosed with cancer but recovered after treatment. In 2004, her son, James Harris, a Chicago resident, had a second bout with cancer – and a stem cell transplant.
"I decided to leave, but Lin (Warfel) came to me and said, 'This is your family, and you need us now,'" Harris said. "Parkland got me one of the first wireless computers, and I commuted to Chicago, doing my work in my son's room. I never missed a board meeting."
James is now recovering, looking for a job. Meanwhile, daughter Cynthia Bond-Blanc, a Los Angeles resident, brought joy into Harris' life – Malia, her first grandchild – in 2005.
A second daughter, Narissa Bond, is a teacher and performer based in Norfolk, Va.
Harris plans to spend time with her family at the home she purchased on Lake Decatur when she was recovering from cancer. She'll continue to promote the community college system as an opportunity to improve life circumstances.
"I worry about people who aren't in school," she said.
Billie Mitchell, who's in charge of Parkland's adult re-entry program, said she regularly hears from Harris or someone in her office about people who need help getting back into education.
"Dr. Harris starts a conversation wherever she is and passes along a business card and contact information," Mitchell said. "I really admire that about her."
She also will continue working as a volunteer with young people at Urbana's Canaan Academy and with older people to improve their prospects and community connections.
Harris said she treasures her children and the Parkland community for their support.
"Parkland is a passion for the people who work there," she said. "If they don't have that passion when they come, they quickly get it."