Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Gail Mellow

Gail Mellow, the longtime president of LaGuardia Community College in New York City, announced this week on Twitter that she’ll be stepping down in August.

In the fourteen (!) years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve never stopped to pay tribute to a retiring president.  But she deserves the writerly equivalent of a standing ovation.

LaGuardia is a tough gig.  CUNY itself is not for the faint of heart -- it’s subject to the politics of New York City, and its student body is among the most diverse in the country by just about any measure.  

Not only does she seem unflappable, as far as I can tell, but she actually brought about remarkable improvements for students within a system that can make positive change an uphill battle.  (For a harrowing account of just how difficult it can be, check out Alexandra Logue’s Pathways to Reform.) She and Kay McClenney are among the only people whose presentations I seek out specifically whenever I’m at a conference.  In McClenney’s case, it’s because she knows so much, and runs panels better than anybody. In Mellow’s case, it’s because she’s always up to something. She did pathways before it was cool, and wrote a book about it. The first time I heard about “tagging” (as in hashtagging) it was at a panel about something she had done with faculty at LaGuardia.  

She’s even an excellent talent scout.  Michael Baston, my erstwhile Aspen colleague and current president at SUNY Rockland, was her provost for a while.  Allia Matta, one of my favorite people from Holyoke, decamped for LaGuardia and I couldn’t blame her. When the ESL department at Holyoke needed external consultants for a review, it reached out to LaGuardia; when the consultants arrived, they mentioned that whenever they need resources, they just ask.  In response to a slightly cynical reaction, they clarified that LaGuardia isn’t wealthy; it’s just that the president there has her priorities right. That’s rare in itself; for it to be recognized is even rarer.

She has also embraced a role as a public champion of community college students.  I considered it a real honor to be in the same documentary with her -- Fail State -- and it made perfect sense that its New York premiere was at LaGuardia.  Of course it was.

I don’t know what her next move will be, but her last one was extraordinary.  Thank you, Gail Mellow, for showing the rest of us what can be done. You proved worthy of your students.