This profile is part of a series of conversations with college presidents in various higher education institutions. Earlier conversations in this series were with Adam Weinberg, president of Denison University in Ohio; Katherine Persson, president of Lone Star College-Kingwood in Texas; Katrina Rogers, president of Fielding Graduate University, based in Santa Barbara; and Paul Pribbenow, president of Augsburg College in Minneapolis. This profile features Rassoul Dastmozd, president and CEO of Saint Paul College, an institution serving almost 12,000 students that is a vibrant presence in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Throughout this series, our central interest is to explore what it means to be a “democracy college,” and how—at a time of intense partisanship and growing concern about the erosion of democratic principles and practices—leaders of the nation’s colleges and universities can reassert the public purpose and civic mission of higher education.
Unlike the other higher education institutions featured in this series, Saint Paul College is a nonresidential, two-year comprehensive community and technical college. Ever since the Truman Commission in 1947 used the phrase community college and recommended that institutions of this kind be expanded nationally to offer universal postsecondary education, they have been known as “democracy colleges,” a phrase that recognizes their unique role in broadening access and offering opportunities for advancement to a highly diverse group of students at a modest cost. In fact, Saint Paul College is the most diverse institution in the Minnesota state system with 61 percent students of color.
Saint Paul College, which was recognized recently by Washington Monthly magazine as the No. 1 community college in the United States in 2010, and again in 2013, is proud of its diversity. “We are blessed,” says President Dastmozd, “with this beautiful tapestry of humanity that comes from many places around the globe in search of pursuing their educational journey at this college and wanting to become contributing members of this community.”
Since it started more than 106 years ago, Saint Paul College has been known primarily as a college that offers career, technical vocational education/training in construction, information technology, accounting/business/finance, health, manufacturing, service, and transportation occupational sectors. In recent years, it has expanded to include liberal arts, fine arts, and STEM programs. Like community colleges nationwide, Saint Paul College plays a key role in educating a highly diverse group of students who come from 38 different countries. It offers more than 52 training programs with 100 different degrees, diplomas, and certificate options. Its graduates enter a wide variety of positions in business, construction, health, information technology, service, transportation, and skilled trades. Some students use the liberal arts curriculum as a launch pad for transfer options. Last year, Saint Paul College students transferred to more than 350 four-year colleges and universities across the United States. Whatever their educational path, says Dastmozd, “the Saint Paul College experience prepares them not just for successful careers, but also to become contributing members of the community. We are graduating students who will become active and engaged citizens beyond their academic training and education.”
Energetic and engaging, Dastmozd often shares his personal story with students. As he says, “Our students often have experienced situations similar to what I experienced.” His personal story is by no means a typical path to his current position as college president. “I’m a servant leader.” he says, “An immigrant kid.” In 1979, he left Iran at a time when the revolution in that country was heating up and came to the United States. As a first-generation college student, he studied engineering at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota, where he also worked full-time washing dishes and waiting tables. “As an immigrant,” he recalls, “I was born in a country that paid very little attention to democracy and the democratic values we revere in the United States. That experience heightened my commitment to public engagement, civic engagement, and intentionally promoting democratic values.”
He went on to study educational administration at Drake University in Iowa and then earned his doctorate at Colorado State, where he majored in Education and Human Services. Before coming to Saint Paul College, he served as a faculty member, department chair, and dean at various colleges, and then was vice president for instruction at Clark College, the second-largest community college in Washington. What attracted him to Saint Paul College was the challenge of leading an institution designed to help students whose experiences are similar to his own 30 years earlier when he was a student. “I relate to these students. There were times when I was going to college when I slept hungry because I didn’t have any money.”
While Saint Paul College is best known for providing a comprehensive menu of education training and options, Dastmozd is intent on making the civic side of his students’ experience more prominent. “Our mission is ‘Education for employment . . . Education for Life.’ I want all to embrace the importance of learning about, and practicing, civic engagement so that it is synonymous with ‘Education for Life’ in our mission. Our goal is to graduate students who are citizens first, before they are college graduates.”
In a nonresidential institution at which roughly half of the students are enrolled part-time, and many also work part-time, honoring the commitment to the civic dimension can be challenging. At Saint Paul College, civic engagement is promoted mainly through students’ extracurricular activities. Several years ago, the college initiated both a service learning program and an honors program that incorporate civic education. The college also encourages intentional dialogues about a wide variety of issues in listening sessions held on campus, which involve faculty and students.
Dastmozd recalls several examples of recent listening sessions. One listening session took place late in 2015 after the shooting of Philando Castile and was a candid exchange about the role of police in a racially diverse community. The meeting, as Dastmozd recalls—which was hosted by the local chapter of Phi Theta Kappa in conjunction with the Office of Student Life and Diversity and the Criminal Justice Club—involved leaders of Black Lives Matter and local law enforcement officials. The listening session led to a series of interviews with police and helped participants see the complexity of issues surrounding police-community relations. Other events held this past year have addressed issues relating to diversity as they affect the local Islamic community, the LGBTQ community, and Somalis, among others.
A series of conversations held on the Saint Paul College campus this past year during the election season featured a discussion on how elections work and another on protesting safely. A third event, which took place on the evening of the first presidential debate, was an occasion for discussing the candidates and the presidency. The college is currently making plans for nonpartisan public forums held in conjunction with the National Issues Forums network.
Shortly before and after the inauguration this year, Saint Paul College Phi Theta Kappa and Student Senate organized two seminars called “Our Future: Perspectives on the Political Moment.” Six Saint Paul College faculty members facilitated these sessions and provided the participants with perspectives on the political moment in the United States. These interactions and exchanges opened the lines of communication and promoted understanding of this democratic pivotal moment.
In spring 2017, Saint Paul College will engage its community in a structured, facilitated discussion of difficult social and civic issues that will be focused on finding common ground between disparate perspectives. “It is—as I am sure you can imagine—difficult work, but it is also rewarding and timely given the nation’s current political state,” says Dastmozd. The college will also expand the work by incorporating community listening sessions that engage external stakeholders and community members.
When you talk with Rassoul Dastmozd about how he sees his role as advocate for the civic dimension of the student experience at Saint Paul College, his commitment seems like a throwback to an earlier era, before presidents became preoccupied with their administrative duties as CEO and chief fundraiser for their institutions. “A college president’s job is to balance many priorities,” he says. “This is matter of priority for me. Promoting students’ involvement in civic engagement is a prudent proposition, a civic responsibility, and a moral obligation. If our graduates are informed and engaged citizens, they will make informed choices and be actively engaged in promoting democratic practices.”