“I look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘I’m a college president?’” Dr. James Houpis smiles self-deprecatingly. The son of blue collar parents, a married father while still in school, working multiple jobs while taking nearly a decade to finish his education, the new president of Modesto Junior College explodes the image of Ivory Tower privilege.
How does his atypical path to the presidency of MJC uniquely qualify him to lead the school and its students at this pivotal time? The Living Series Magazines sat down with Dr. Houpis recently to find out just what makes him a good match for MJC, its students—and for Modesto.
“I was a non-traditional student.”
“I hardly saw my father,” Houpis recalls his “low income” childhood, “because he was always working.” Like so many of his MJC students, his parents, Houpis says, relocated the family to California for its promise of good schools and better opportunities for their children.
Houpis married young and with his wife began raising a family of four while in graduate school. Yet he readily admits, “it’s a lot tougher today” for many students. “It’s more expensive, and society is more complex.”
“Taking into account what’s going on in students’ lives.”
Those complexities include food insecurity, homelessness, and limited transportation. The widely heralded—and just as widely debated—’California Promise’ of a free college education is just that, a promise, according to Houpis. “Most of our students aren’t eligible,” he says, “because they’re not full time.” They can’t afford to be. Houpis is pushing for more online classes so working or parenting students can still attend. He advocates Zero Textbook Cost [ZTC], which encourages instructors to assign open-source free texts. “If [students] weren’t buying the book, or were taking fewer classes” because traditional texts were too expensive, “is that ‘better?’”
Bryan Marks, Dean of Student Services and Public Relations, underscores the stark reality facing many students. “On a Saturday, I see kids hugged up to the buildings to use the WiFi because they don’t have it, or even electricity, at home.” Wednesday food distributions draw hundreds of students, he says, “not to get a snack, but because they want to eat tonight.”Houpis nods. He is a frequent visitor to the student center, to talk with his students, or just to observe the community he is charged with shepherding. “All of us can learn a lot just by listening” to the students, he says.
“The currents of my life led me here.”
Both immediate past interim President Steve Collins and Marks mourn MJC’s isolation from its surrounding community in recent years. Senior posts in California’s Community Colleges System are seen as prizes for ambitious administrators and turnover is rapid, according to Marks. Collins points out Houpis is MJC’s thirteenth president since 2001. The result has been an administration with little time or inclination to interact with the community outside the college boundaries. By contrast, Collins and Marks agree, Houpis is an accomplished leader who has chosen to conclude his career here. His long term commitment to both MJC and the city of Modesto has made an immediate positive impact. “You can see the excitement in our community and in our faculty,” Marks says.
“College needs to be a focus of hope.”
“This school is an important resource” for the community, Houpis says. “We need to be really good partners.” He cites a recent visit to a Salvation Army shelter whose residents include MJC students. “One of [MJC’s] key missions is job training,” Houpis says, so “we are a very good answer” to the problem of homelessness. Houpis says the strength of the community college is its ability to tailor its degrees and job training to the unique needs of their home communities. He sees MJC taking a renewed place as a leader in not just studying community problems, but partnering with individuals and groups to carry out practical solutions.
“Marrying the community of the college to the community at large.”
What goals has he set in these early days? Houpis says, “Planning is a constantly changing landscape.” But his desire for Modesto Junior College to rebuild its bond with Modesto will remain central. “Three years down the road, I want us to be a part of the fabric of the community. I want an observer to say, ‘boy, I see how the college has moved us forward.’”