Growing up in 1960s Harlem, Irving Pressley McPhail was treated to sweet sounds drifting from Small's Paradise night club while the streets crackled with political insurgency.
"There was great jazz, Lew Alcindor played at [the] high school on my block, and people like Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell were on the sidewalks, at the heart of our unfolding culture," says McPhail.
Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. McPhail moved on to a career in higher education and now is chancellor of the Community Colleges of Baltimore County, Maryland's largest two-year college system.
McPhail says he will draw from all of his experience -- from Ivy League credentials to a prestigious assignment at the Johns Hopkins University -- to lead reform at the 70,000-student system, badly shaken during the tenure of his predecessor, Daniel J. LaVista, who was fired last year.
Among the many challenges facing McPhail are finding money for outdated computer systems in classrooms, fixing crumbling and peeling physical plants and restoring a positive attitude in a full- and part-time faculty of about 1,200.
"My father was a furniture upholsterer, mom a homemaker," says McPhail about his days in New York. "They made certain academics were very important to me," as he says he does with his 19-year-old daughter, who attends college in North Carolina.
"And," he adds, "they instilled in me never to take on something I think I can't accomplish."
His 6-foot 5-inch frame is recognizable at the Catonsville, Essex and Dundalk campuses, where he has met with students and faculty since taking the job last month. His work ethic and engaging style have not escaped members of the board of trustees.
Board Chairman Francis X. Kelly says, "From the senators in Annapolis to people on the campuses and board, people like him and the fact he works so hard."
McPhail says he has several immediate priorities for a system with more than its share of problems, ranging from a skeptical faculty to antiquated technology systems in classrooms.
"First, we have to convince state and county officials that we need a higher level of financial support," McPhail, 48, says. "Without it, we're dead."
For next fiscal year, Kelly is seeking a $9 million increase over the current budget of $85.3 million.
"Excellence can't be done on a bargain-basement budget," says McPhail. "We have to bring technology up to at least the minimal level on our first run at it. Our schools have to catch up to tele-learning, distance learning, if corporations expect competent students graduating from our system."
In the fall of 1999, CCBC will take over adult education from county public schools. That will increase enrollment to more than 100,000.
McPhail says he also will retain the three campus presidents, which had been uncertain, and wants to increase the system's effort at fund raising.
He has planned a retreat for the 15 trustees to outline these points and other items of his five-year strategic plan for the system.
Faculty leaders enjoy McPhail's gregarious style and optimistic views but remain cautious.
"Shared governance is still nonexistent," says Margaret Guchemand, chairwoman of the music department at Essex and campus president of the American Association of University Professors chapter. "We're hopeful, but we still see the steamroller going right on without our input."
Michael Cain, Catonsville English professor and head of the school's AAUP group, says of McPhail: "He sounds positive, certainly exudes energy, has direction. We're hoping for the best. But the same board issues, like abolished tenure for new faculty members, are sore points for all of us."
Other faculty members, who requested anonymity, worry about whether McPhail will make his own decisions or operate as a rubber stamp for the board.
McPhail's predecessor, LaVista, was fired by the board in January 1997.
Among the complaints against LaVista was that he didn't develop an operational agenda despite nearly two years at his job.
McPhail, who was president of St. Louis Community College when hired here, has a three-year contract for $125,000 in annual salary, plus $20,000 a year for housing and a car allowance. This is his fifth job since 1987, and he will receive a bonus of one year's pay if he remains chancellor for five years.
McPhail earned a bachelor's degree in sociology at Cornell University -- but not until after he and some other African-American students had "encountered a hostile environment. Our militancy grew, so in 1969 we took over Willard Straight Hall and made our symbolic statement."
He earned a master's degree at Harvard University and a doctorate in reading/language arts at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1971, he taught reading at what now is Morgan State University and served as chairman of Morgan's department of elementary education from 1977 to 1980.
He was assistant provost, division of human and community resources, at the University of Maryland College Park from 1980 to 1982, and was a research scientist in the Center for Metropolitan Planning and Research at Hopkins from 1982 to 1985.
While settling in his new job, McPhail is preparing for his June marriage to Christine Johnson, a published author and president of a community college near Los Angeles.
"This is a very good year," McPhail says with a smile.
Pub Date: 3/30/98