Meet the 2024 Austinite of the Year: Dr. Richard Rhodes.
The former chancellor and CEO of Austin Community College from 2011-2023, Rhodes has a storied history both in receiving and working in education.
Prior to serving as the longest chancellor in ACC history, Rhodes studied at New Mexico State University and UT Austin (where he was named Distinguished Graduate in 2001), and worked at El Paso Community College and Salt Lake Community College in Utah.
In his 12 years at ACC, Rhodes...
- Led ACC in expanding to 11 campuses
- Helped pass two general obligation bonds totaling ~$1 billion
- Expanded opportunities for high school students
- Secured partnerships with major companies like Apple and Samsung
- Saw ACC’s graduation rates become one of the fastest-growing in the state
One thing Rhodes “failed” (his words, not ours): retirement. Just one day after his departure from ACC, Rhodes began working as interim president of Texas A&M Central Texas in Killeen. He also teaches two classes at UT Austin.
Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for clarity + brevity.
Could you talk about your experience in education?
When I graduated from high school, my parents didn’t have the money to send me to college. I needed to get a job and my two best friends had gone to New Mexico State University majoring in engineering and they got in a co-op education program where they got to go to work for Texas Instruments in Dallas.
I made an appointment with Dr. Hamilton, who led the co-op exchange program, and said, “I’m Richard Rhodes. I’m an engineering major and I’d like to get on.” He said, “I’m sorry, son, but we have no engineering positions open.” He saw how dejected I was and I was walking out when he said, “If you know anybody who’s an accountant, I’ve got an accounting co-op position.” ... I turned around and said “Dr. Hamilton, I’m Richard Rhodes. I’m an accounting major.”
That was how my major, my career, and direction changed almost in an instant. I often reflect on that moment because I look at our students at community colleges and universities and (think): what is it that impacts and changes them?
Was there a certain pull to come back to the Capital City?
While I was working on my doctorate here in Austin, I had the opportunity to do an internship at ACC for about five months. After that experience at ACC, I always had a desire in the back of my mind that someday I really wanted to come back to ACC. In 2011, that opportunity finally came to came to fruition. It’s a dynamic institution with great opportunity.
What goals did you go into the chancellor job with?
Probably one of the primary goals at the very beginning was that ACC had no early college high school. When I left El Paso Community College, we had six. I believe deeply in early college high schools and giving young people the opportunity to take college credit.
Early college high schools are an aggressive way to allow students to accumulate up to 60 college credit hours so that by the time they graduate high school, they really have an associate degree.
Another one of those lessons that really triggered what I wanted to do as a college president was to promote opportunities for students to take advantage of getting into higher education, even those who didn’t think that they would. If they can experience it in their high school and show that they are college material, they will go ahead and and proceed.
We now have at ACC 13 early college high schools and about 13 Pathways in Technology career academies. ... (We also have) clear pathways for students to who want to get a bachelor’s degree, to leave ACC, but miss no steps in continuing and graduating from a university partner.
(We want to) have the right type of guidance and counseling necessary to write articulation agreements so students can be done with their bachelor’s degree as quickly as possible and not lose any time and money.
Of all the changes you made while at ACC, which ones are you particularly proud of?
The relationship with the school districts and ... the ACCelerators. When I left, I think we had four or five ACCelerators on different campuses. Those are large open labs that allow students to come in and get help, especially for those that don’t have access to the internet at home.
If you just leave it to a classroom setting, and expect the students to come in and get out, and if they leave with questions, they’ll get farther behind if they don’t get them answered. We wanted a setting that allowed students to have the wraparound support services necessary for them to thrive.
One of the things we did shortly before I left is open the Make It Center. (Students) can actually ... experience some of those different careers and that really is an eye-opener for a lot of individuals, whether they’re in grade school, or whether they’re in their 60s-70s and are thinking about some type of a career later in life.
The Highland Mall project itself was one of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences. (We worked with) various partners to take a mall and generate something completely new: a planned mixed-use community where the heartbeat is education and learning. That really was a thrilling experience. All of that happens because of fantastic faculty and staff leadership of our board and incredible students along the way.
How would you like to see the future of the Central Texas education system continue to evolve?
What I love seeing is, a mantra at ACC, “innovation plus collaboration equals transformation.” I believe truly that that will continue in the Central Texas area. There is such a great culture of innovation, history, and belief of collaboration, that entities are working together so well. I just want to see that continue to thrive because that’s how we really turn opportunities into outcomes, is through innovation and collaboration.
What advice would you give to take full advantage of the education system here in Central Texas?
Education is lifelong. Learning is lifelong. Take advantage of it. We live in a dynamic time in history, a very dynamic time of the economy, and it requires us to continually update our skills and sometimes change our skill sets. The best place to do it is where you’re going to receive the type of support, the encouragement necessary and you’re gonna get that from the educational institute institutions and from the business and industry in Central Texas.
What was your reaction was to finding out you won the award?
I just want to express how appreciative I am to the Austin Chamber for this award. It took a while to sink in, but what I did immediately is think about all the people that contributed to the unique entity that ACC became. My first thoughts were about all the people that were involved in making that happen and so many came to mind. I just wish I could give credit to all of them.
My wife has been my constant encouragement and my four kids and my nine grandkids keep me humble, but they keep me active and alive. I couldn’t be more proud of my family and the support and the successes that they have seen.