In 1970, Cecil Groves was the 30-year-old provost of Delgado College. The city of New Orleans was on fire, rent apart by the legacy of former President Lyndon Johnson’s policy of desegregation, and Groves was trying to guide his little two-year college towards national accreditation at a time when the future of American cities was very much in doubt.
The lessons he learned during the early years of his career explain why even the largest problems seem small to Groves now, their solutions already grasped in the teeth of the gears that turn the wheels in his mind.
“Cecil struck me as a visionary of a proportion I hadn’t interacted with at my level or at the community college level,” said Bill Gibson, director of the Southwestern Planning Commission, recalling the first time he met Groves.
Last Friday, Cecil Groves said goodbye to Southwestern Community College after a 13-year run as president during which he reshaped the regional landscape and turned SCC from a little school with good teachers into one of the best community colleges in the country.
At the graduation, Groves was recognized for his hand in expanding SCC to its Macon County campus, growing the largest graduating class in its history, and creating a technology platform that has allowed the college to reshape the way it delivers education to students.
Groves is almost universally loved by staff and students, and he sees SCC, the smallest and sweetest job of his career, as something like a beloved child.
But to understand why Groves was so successful at SCC, you have to go back to the beginning.
Born in Magnolia, Texas, a sleepy town outside of Houston, Groves was the son of a sawmill worker and worked in the self-same mills as a young man.
“Eat it up. Wear it out. Make do. Or go without,” Groves said, recalling the country sayings that shaped his worldview. “And I thought, ‘Why don’t we just get together and work this out?’”
Groves got his PhD. in higher education administration from University of Texas in 1970, having spent his college years during the time Lyndon Johnson was unrolling his plans for the Great Society. This was the America of the Whiz Kids, a time and place when the human systems that make the world go round were getting crunched into equations and spat out on IBM punch cards.
When you listen to Groves talk about what makes a two-year college tick, it’s like listening to Eisenhower explaining the European theater of World War II.
Gibson, who was trained in planning and administration around the same time, recalls learning to plan with three variables: physical capital (p), fiscal capital (f), and human capital (h). That’s product, money, and labor, for the uninitiated.
“Cecil was one of the first people to understand the real impact of relationship capital and how the interactions among people and the institutions they represent either add value or take away value from a desired end,” Gibson said.
Groves describes the basis for his success as a networker and dealmaker in plainer terms.
“I like people. I just do,” Groves said. “I think they’re basically good, and they like to do good.”
A time to change
“My career has been in the midst of growth and expansion in different areas,” Groves said, somewhat formally, responding to a question about his remarkable record for being in the right place at the right time.
Groves is careful to point out the coincidences in his past, but the fact is that everywhere he’s been, he has helped change the regional discussion around economic development and education. He guided Delgado College towards accreditation through desegregation, white flight and the attenuating upheaval that grew out of the civil rights movement.
He grew Austin Community College from an after-thought in a city dominated by UT-Austin into a 16,000-student workforce development engine and a national template for the university transfer model — where community colleges act as a stepping stone to local four-year universities.
He guided Pike Peaks College in Colorado Springs through the trial of the savings and loan crisis of the mid-‘80s while helping to create a workforce that paved the way for the growth of one of the nation’s key high-tech regions.
When he came to Western North Carolina to take over at Southwestern Community College –– which serves Jackson, Macon and Swain counties along with the Qualla Boundary –– Groves faced certain challenges he had seen before.
The North Carolina Community College system was about to move from a quarter schedule to a semester schedule to create better alignment with the UNC system. Groves needed to create a more flexible curriculum that would allow students to pursue open-ended goals, like university transfer, or immediate goals, like a one-year associates degree.
Having taken stock of the situation, Groves set about applying his own principles, one of which is to value what you already have.
“It’s like the Hippocratic oath,” Groves said. “Do no harm when you go in. This was already a good institution, but to make it better, we had to look at the whole region.”
Having spent the better part of 30 years at the helm of educational institutions, Groves’s pedagogical philosophy has been honed to a point.
“Anybody in education needs a credo — just like a minister in the pulpit,” said Groves. “These are the four things I believe.”
Educators, sharpen your pencils.
One, students learn best if they are engaged in as many ways as possible. Two, teachers are catalysts, not people who give out information, and their job is to create a learning environment. Three, the more you do something, the better you get at it. Four, if something makes sense, it’s easier to learn. The application needs to be clear from the beginning.
Groves takes this philosophy wherever he goes, but he also learns the lay of the land.
“He sought to understand before he sought to be understood,” Bill Gibson said, paraphrasing Steve Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
What Groves wanted to preserve about SCC was the culture of family.
“One of the interesting things about the mountains is the family tradition, the feeling that the people who come to school here are family,” Groves said. “It’s a cultural issue that needs to be protected. It’s the value of the person.”
But he also realized early on that the college needed to move towards an online delivery model that was flexible enough to serve a wide panorama of students across a far-flung, difficult to access mountain region.
Changing the way a faculty delivers its message to students can be tricky, especially when you’re requiring them to update their technological skills.
“I don’t think technology is as complicated as people think,” Groves said. “Sometimes technical people obfuscate it so that other people think they can’t do it themselves.”
Groves said the curriculum changes worked themselves out with few kinks. Teachers who already had their students on the edge of their seats were allowed to maintain their old practices. But teachers who weren’t reaching their students were asked to update the way they created a learning environment or leave.
“What we did was to let the market drive it,” Groves said. “I won’t try to change a teacher who is already successful. This has been a natural evolution without any pushback, and it has moved along very nicely.”
A tangible legacy
“I hope that I positioned this institution and this region, in terms of infrastructure, facilities, and relationships, for the next 20 to 30 years,” Groves said, answering what he wants his legacy to be.
It’s fitting from such a practical thinker that above all of his other accomplishments at SCC, Groves believes his biggest contribution to the region is something he helped put in the ground.
Groves helped to broker the creation of Balsam West FiberNET, an unprecedented collaboration between SCC, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Drake Enterprises, a Franklin-based tax software company that employs 500 people. Balsam West FiberNET, a for-profit business jointly owned by Drake and the tribe, created a 300-mile fiber broadband ring with a 10-gig capacity.
For Groves, the broadband capacity was essential for his school but he also saw it as a means to help the region adapt to the growth spurt that was just around the corner.
“You’ve got to have this level of connectivity that can create jobs and put you on the same kind of level playing field with Asheville and Raleigh,” Groves was saying.
Without any public money, Groves created the vision for the mountains as a destination for high-tech businesses by brokering a deal that resulted in a broadband network that could support a company the size of Google.
Conrad Burrell, SCC board chairman and a close friend of Groves’, remembers when he first heard the idea.
“I couldn’t even start to believe something like this could happen,” said Burrell.
Here is Groves the visionary, using his experience watching the development in other regions and his skill with human relationship capital to find a solution for a whole region.
“I saw the growth coming, and it was going to happen no matter what,” Groves said. “The question was, ‘How do we preserve the quality of life and protect the people who live here?’”
Gibson said Groves was the person who got all of the string-pullers in the region to face the reality that was rapidly impinging on their dreams of real estate booms without collateral costs.
“We were going to grow regardless,” Gibson said. “We were going to put more strain on our resources regardless. If we turned around and walked away those things were going to happen.”
Here is Groves the Whiz Kid. The broadband capacity would create an environment that could attract high-tech businesses and entrepreneurs. The taxes the businesses paid would offset the impact that fast-paced development was having on the region.
“You can’t just say you don’t want anyone else coming in,” Groves said. “You have to bring in another payer group if you’re going to minimize your taxes and retain the quality of life. The college’s role was to engage with the community to mitigate some of the impacts.”
Burrell, and many others, watched a fantasy come true.
“He had this dream out there and that’s just exactly what he made happen,” Burrell said.
While the mountains of Western North Carolina haven’t exactly turned into a new Silicon Valley, Groves still thinks they will. He has seen recessions and upheaval, and he marks the region for growth through the next 30 years.
Upon retirement, Groves will head back to Waco, Tex., where two of his children live in the same neighborhood. He’ll take on the challenge of full-time grandparenthood.
For Burrell and many others, he will leave behind a void, a fiber ring, and a lot of good feeling.
“We’re going to miss him and his leadership, and it’s going to be a vacant spot for a while,” Burrell said. “But I understand what he’s got to do. We’re both getting up in years.”
Perhaps the best way to end a discussion of Cecil Grove’s legacy at SCC, is with his own words of advice to young people. Like the man, they are both simple and elusive.
“Find something you like doing and do a lot of it,” Groves said, smiling. “Forty hours a week isn’t enough.”