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David Pierce served as president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges from 1991 to 2000.
Photo: Phi Theta Kappa
David Pierce, who served at the helm of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) for almost a decade in the 1990s, passed away on Jan. 16. He was 78.
Pierce’s presidency was marked by efforts to strengthen ties and collaboration within higher education and beyond. He worked with other associations to augment student aid programs, particularly Pell Grants. Pierce also steered community colleges through two reauthorizations of the Higher Education Act and consolidation of federal job training programs under the Workforce Investment Act.
A focus during Pierce’s tenure was to raise national awareness of the contributions and unique role of community colleges. At the time, his leadership brought unparalleled attention to public two-year institutions, which lead to growing federal, corporate and philanthropic support for the association. Funding for community colleges from the National Science Foundation increased from $1 million in 1989 to $50 million in 1999. A $7 million grant from Microsoft helped create model programs in information technology training at community colleges. The intent was to match curricula and resources with employer needs within local business communities.
During Pierce’s tenure, AACC established effective relationships with various federal agencies and, most significantly, with the Clinton administration. President Bill Clinton, U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley and U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich all spoke at the AACC annual convention in 1995.
‘Salt of the earth’
Community college leaders this week remember Pierce for being straightforward and forward-thinking.
“As I think about my role as CEO of AACC, I am often reminded and guided by the wonderful job David Pierce did as CEO of our organization,” said Walter Bumphus, AACC’s current president and CEO.
Bumphus also served on the AACC board of directors, including a year as board chair while Pierce was AACC president.
For more on David Pierce when he served as AACC president, click here.
“I had the privilege of working with and getting to know David very well,” Bumphus said. “In my opinion, there has never been a finer or more humble leader than David Pierce.”
Anthony Ziess, president of Central Piedmont Community College (North Carolina) who served as AACC board chair, said Pierce was a “giant of the community college movement,” a sentiment echoed by others.
“Dave was smart, decisive, purposeful, fair and completely ethical,” said Daniel Moriarty, president emeritus of Portland Community College (Oregon). “He was a man without guile, a straight shooter, salt of the earth. He asked for nothing more than the space to do his job.”
Pierce came to AACC at a critical juncture, saw what had to be done, did it, and left AACC a stronger, more viable institution for the future,” Moriarty said.
“No one can ask for more than to leave the world a better place for our efforts. We are in his debt,” he said.
Getting the house in order
When Pierce came on as president, the association was facing several challenges, the most significant being financial restructuring, staff reorganization, program restructuring, and — especially controversial — a radical change to the commission structure, said Augustine Gallego, chancellor emeritus of the San Diego Community College District.
Pierce’s approach was straightforward, his arguments persuasive and informed, said Gallego, who worked closely with Pierce for more than 10 years while serving as chair of the Urban Commission and later as an AACC board member and board chair.
“His goals, successfully accomplished, placed AACC in an enhanced position to continue its leadership and support of the community colleges in the U S, as well as internationally,” Gallego said.
Building a career in education
After serving in the U.S. Marine Corp—including one year in Korea—Pierce started on his goal of becoming an educator, earning an associate degree (at Fullerton College in California), a baccalaureate, two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education and math.
During more than four decades in higher education, Pierce’s professional career comprised every major level of campus activity, from math instructor to division chair to dean of instruction to college president.
From 1980 to 1990, he served as executive director of the Illinois Community College Board, and from 1990 to 1991 as chancellor of the Virginia Community College System. He was selected president of AACC in 1991, becoming the seventh association CEO in its 80-year history.
Strong ties with students
Pierce became the second AACC president and CEO to serve on the board of directors of Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society of community colleges. He promoted community college presidents’ participation in Phi Theta Kappa’s first capital campaign to raise funds for the construction of the Center for Excellence in Jackson, Miss. He also began the tradition of recognizing the All-USA Community College Academic Team at the society’s annual presidents’ breakfast at the AACC convention.
“In thinking back over two decades, it’s difficult to think about an aspect of Phi Theta Kappa that Dr. David Pierce did not influence – from the presenting of the All-USA Today Community College Academic Team during Phi Theta Kappa's Presidents Breakfast at the AACC Convention, supporting the establishment of All-State Academic Teams, leading Phi Theta Kappa's first-ever capital campaign, and the construction of Phi Theta Kappa's Center for Excellence,” said Phi Theta Kappa Executive Director and CEO Rod Risley. “Even after serving for 11 years on our board of directors, most as vice chair, he continued to engage in Society initiatives and give back through the Phi Theta Kappa Foundation. Without question he left an incredible legacy in his work with community college education and Phi Theta Kappa, and he will be deeply missed.”
Pierce’s family has requested that in lieu of flowers gifts be made in his memory to the Phi Theta Kappa Foundation Scholarship Fund.
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