Higher ed community mourns Alfredo de los Santos

The City of El Paso named a street for Alfredo de los Santos. (Photo: de los Santos memoir)

The community college world lost a major trailblazer with the passing of Alfredo de los Santos, Jr., on March 8. He was 84.

De los Santos was the first president of El Paso Community College (EPCC) in Texas and served in that role from 1971 to 1976. He later was vice chancellor for student and educational development at Maricopa Community Colleges in Arizona from 1978 through 1999, and a research professor at Arizona State University from 2000 to 2011.

De Los Santos served on the board of directors of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) in the 1970s and was honored with the National Leadership Award from AACC in 2004.

A legacy of excellence

“To call him a pioneer is an understatement,” said AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus. “Alfredo led the way in transfer pathways, technology, international education and so much more. He was always working to advance community colleges – at the local and national levels, and he did so with stunning intelligence, great wisdom and sincere kindness. He leaves us with a legacy of excellence – both as a leader and as a human being, and he will be greatly missed.”

De los Santos “has been a wonderful friend” and a “wonderful president,” said John Roueche, executive director of the Roueche Center for Community College Leadership at the University of Kansas. He was the first Hispanic to complete a doctorate in educational leadership at the University of Texas-Austin, and among the first Hispanic community college presidents, Roueche said.

“He worked diligently to increase the number of Hispanic, African-American and female applicants,” he said.

One of de los Santos’ greatest passions and joys was helping others achieve, ascend and succeed, said his son, Gerardo de los Santos, co-director of the Next Generation Leadership Academy at Civitas Learning and former president of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

“So many of us across the higher education landscape stood on the shoulders of those like Alfredo, who paved the way and held out their strong and supportive hands,” he said.

“Alfredo was one of our most significant leaders of the last half-century who helped define the contemporary community college. He was a visionary who, with his enlightened common sense laced with a delightful sense of humor, made all of us who knew him better human beings,” added Terry O’Banion, senior professor of practice at Kansas State University and president emeritus of the League for Innovation.

Founding a college

Current leaders at El Paso Community College emphasized his dedication to his work.

“He is known for his lifetime commitment to higher education and for his visionary leadership at EPCC,” said William Serrata, the current president of EPCC and chair-elect of AACC.

De los Santos had been the key force in creating what was then called the El Paso Junior College District, securing state funding, setting up classes in leased space at the Fort Bliss Army Base, and later acquiring buildings from the public school district.

As the first president of El Paso Community College in Texas, Alfredo de los Santos, Jr. (far right) was at the ribbon-cutting of the first day of classes at the college, which were initially held in buildings leased from the U.S. Army at Logan Heights on Fort Bliss. (Photo: EPCC)

Gaining approval of property taxes for the fledgling college was no easy task. A dispute over the validity of two local bond referendums was decided in favor of the college by the Texas Supreme Court.

When reflecting on EPCC during the college’s 50th anniversary in 2019, de los Santos said, “It would be almost impossible to measure the positive impact that El Paso Community College has had on thousands of El Paso students over the years.”

In discussing the adventure of starting a college, he said: “I still have clear memories of working with groups of people in the community, hiring administrators and the faculty, and playing basketball with the students.”

One of his many research studies focused on the concept of “swirling,” which dispelled the myth of a linear transfer progression. Instead, de los Santos found that many students go back and forth among more than one community college and university before earning a degree.

De los Santos also testified before Congress on STEM education, stressing AACC’s role in advancing STEM programs at community colleges.

Many honors

De los Santos was a founding board member of the American Association of Hispanics in Education, which created the annual Alfredo do los Santos Jr. Distinguished Leadership in Higher Education Award in his honor.

In addition to AACC, he served on many other boards throughout his career, including the American Council on Education, American Association for Higher Education, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the College Board. He was a founder and member-at-large of the Arizona Minority Education Policy Analysis Center at the Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education.

The many awards and honors presented to de los Santos include: the Reginald Wilson Award from the American Council on Education (2001), the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education (1998), the Special Recognition Award for Scholarly Research in Bilingual Education from the National Association for Bilingual Education (1994) and the Education Achievement Award from the National Science Foundation (1993).

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.
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