How a college floundered and failed - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

How a college floundered and failed

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Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. Email him at

Posted: Wednesday, July 6, 2011 3:15 pm | Updated: 10:12 pm, Wed Jul 6, 2011.

MEXICO CITY - In the very early 1970s, I helped found a new college. It had a curriculum that just might have more to offer today than it did back then.

At the tender age of 29, I was acting president of a new Native Indian and Chicano college in Davis, Calif., which had land, buildings, students and idealism but no money or plan. My job was mainly to do something about the latter two while holding the other parts together. The college was called DQU.

I came to this challenge after serving on the American Association of Junior and Community Colleges staff in Washington, D.C.

After a controversial takeover of a former U.S. Army communications center by students, the land was turned over for the eventual college. Community leaders asked me to help write the first organizational document.

The circumstances around its founding, concern about "militant" student activity of that period and a polarized society over anti-Vietnam war activism and non-conformist beliefs and attitudes cast a suspicion over the rest of the college's days.

The many accounts about DQU since its founding have mostly overlooked the serious skull work and insight that went into its intended education program. Also mostly overlooked is that at the end of one year, the college had $10 million pledged for programs, an architectural rendering and plans for its facilities, another $10 million in foundation support in the offing, candidate status with the main regional accrediting association and an education program about to launch.

A pragmatic staff numbering about 75 was responsible for the preparations. Two of them, Rick Ontiveros and Jackie High, had PhDs, or nearly so, from The Wright Institute at Berkeley. They greatly influenced the innovation of the education model, one that has bearing today.

We designed associate- and bachelor-degree programs that were transportable anywhere (Indian reservation, migrant camps, urban communities, etc.) where our institution was home base. Students had to meet our standards, which took the form of a contract. Part of the curriculum could be taken at another institution that met with our approval. We were already in discussion for a specialized library and a pre-med program involving Stanford University.

Today's early-enrollment-for-earning-college-credit-while-still-in-high-school concept is in the tradition of our model. This matters as an object lesson because institutions -- with their culture of monopoly schooling -- will resist education change. But now they are having to veer in this direction to meet the diversity of interests.

I was present when the institution's first major setback occurred. The chief of the Iroquois Nation arrived to explain why the name of D is never spoken and may only be used in times of impending peril. Henceforth, the institution simply went by its initials.

Unfortunately, DQU is not remembered today for its curriculum plans,

It met its critics' expectations as a controversial enterprise when its board of trustees could not build a consensus about what direction to take. An indecisive, inexperienced board inflamed outsider suspicions and insider power plays. Board members clashed over how incoming funds should be allocated, The controversies made donors skittish.

Meanwhile, some -- but not much -- education took place.

In 1975, Dennis Banks was named chancellor. The American Indian Movement (AIM) leader, had been a protagonist in the 1973 South Dakota protest that turned into a gun battle and the famous Wounded Knee standoff. He found sanctuary in California when Gov. Jerry Brown refused to extradite him. In 1984, when a new governor was elected, Banks left for New York.

Unfortunately, DQU was better known for its controversies than its visionary education plans. In 2005, it failed to show progress and lost its accreditation. With it went much-needed public support. It "closed temporarily," although it was hardly ever open.

After a year and nearly a heart attack later, I quit because I could not get board support to vacate some "students," the same issue that divided the board when it came to an end 23 years later.

Certainly DQU was part of my education, having served there as the youngest U.S. chief executive of a recognized college. And the fact remains that what DQU had to offer the education establishment might not be over yet.

Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. Email him at

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