CHAMPAIGN – When Robert Exley left his job as an outside operator monitoring valves for a petrochemical company, a co-worker dismissed that move scornfully.
"He said, "So you're going to be a hot-shot college kid,'" said Exley, who this month became Parkland College's fourth president. "It was an interesting comment. Pasadena, Texas, was a very blue-collar neighborhood."
Exley gives credit to teachers and mentors at San Jacinto Community College near Houston for giving him a good start in higher education and for setting his sights higher than the oil industry job he held for six years after high school.
"It's a college like Parkland that meets a variety of needs," he said. "San Jac taught classes in underwater welding, for example, from midnight to 5 a.m., and they were always full. It was a college founded to educate people who worked different shifts to help them get better jobs."
Exley is spending his early days on campus getting to know the people he'll be working with, and he said they are another reason he was interested in the Parkland job.
"This college is known for great leadership," said Exley, who didn't bring any staff with him from Iowa Western Community College, where he was vice president of academic affairs.
"One thing I've learned from watching changes at other colleges is to pay attention to the legacy of my predecessors," he said. "And go slow. You have to get input, feedback from everyone, and that's time-consuming. Do I have some things in the back of my mind that I'd like to look at, yes. But I'm not sharing them yet."
Exley wants to have conversations about programs and policies with Parkland employees. In these early days, those conversations usually happen in his office, one he's still decorating with books, mementos of overseas travels and treasured artwork by his daughter, Heather, now a Drake University student, and son, Will, who will be an Iowa State University freshmen, when they were children.
But Exley's eager to get out of the office, walk around the campus, meet colleagues in their offices and in the community. He wants to walk around the Parkland and University of Illinois campuses because he likes the atmosphere and because he believes Parkland's connection with the UI is critical.
Board members said Exley made an immediate positive impression when he visited campus for the first time.
"He's so personable and his obvious enthusiasm for his profession impressed me," said Dana Trimble of Newman. "His strong work ethic and strong morals made him stand out."
Like his predecessor, Zelema Harris, who retired June 30 after 16 years, Exley grew up in east Texas in a hard-working family with no background in higher education. He was a mediocre high school student who planned to work blue collar jobs – until he got bored working in plants that made chemicals like arsenic, cyanide and acetylene.
At San Jacinto, he was elected to the junior college honorary Phi Theta Kappa and was then elected national president of the organization.
"It was impossible to work for the petrochemical company and do the traveling the president had to do so I quit and became manager of a pizza restaurant, thanks to a faculty mentor," Exley said. He also decided he wanted to be a psychologist, a job he knew would require a graduate degree.
Exley graduated from San Jacinto and then from the University of Houston, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology, and became manager of a day program for troubled teens.
On a shelf in his new office, he keeps a memory from that job, a toothpick construction made by one of his very troubled patients."He made it to show me he didn't have attention deficit deficiency," Exley said. "It turned out he had horrible troubles at home no one knew about. I kept it to remind me not to judge people too quickly."
He remained active in Phi Theta Kappa and when he decided to return to school to earn a doctorate, he changed gears, applying to a highly competitive community college leadership program at the University of Texas Austin.
"Community colleges were where my heart was," Exley said. "It's been the best decision I ever made." He said the program director, John Roueche, accepted him even though he had no background in education and had to spend nine months taking classes to catch up.
"He invested in me," said Exley, who said he felt an obligation to succeed because of Roueche's support. "He was a mentor, someone profoundly important in my life. He didn't have to give me a chance."
"Bob's a fine young man, and he brings a wealth of great experience to the Parkland job," said Roueche, director of UT's Community College Leadership Program, one he said has produced more presidents and chancellors than any other program in the country.
"What we look for as we think about admissions are people who are positive, upbeat and can-do, people who want to make a difference in their community, people who embody service orientation," he said. "We look for people who can motivate, inspire and find common ground with faculty and staff members. And Bob's one of the best."
Exley served an internship at Miami-Dade Community College in Florida that led to a job there – and a new look at community colleges' mission because Miami-Dade was a nationwide leadership in changing the philosophy about that.
"The prevailing philosophy at the time was doors open to all with the right to fail," Exley said. "Miami-Dade said students have the right to succeed and started assessing preparedness and supporting students who need to catch up."
A goal of the president at the time also was to use college resources to rebuild Miami's inner city. Exley took that philosophy and its corporate citizenship lessons to heart and today they are cornerstones of his own approach to education and community service.
After 10 years at Miami Dade, Exley made a move toward a presidency, taking the vice president's job at Iowa Western in 2000. He said the faculty and administrators at the school near Omaha were skilled and supportive, and he was upfront about his own future goals.
"I told the president that when Will and Heather are out of high school, I would be looking for a job as president of a college," he said. "But I didn't expect it to happen so fast."
Exley's joining a Rotary club and he's looking forward to making connections at the UI.
"All education should be seen as one part of our community because we all benefit," Exley said. "Community organizations are critical to me. One fascinating thing about being president is having an opportunity to influence the community. Where I go, Parkland goes. I'm excited about introducing community people to people here with like hearts."
Exley believes higher education is an important investment in the greater good of a community and its culture.
"Twenty years from now, when our business students become CEOs, will they ask their employees to do community service?" he asked. "We can put that in their hearts while they're here and that's an investment. That's what makes my heart sing about this work. Boy, do I have a chance to make a difference."