My Fellow Americans,

Of this faith I am not the author. But it has grown on me, through my love of community college students. It’s a faith spun by the spirit that I see working in them, in their pursuit of meaning and purpose in their lives, unleveraged as they are by privilege. If “the meek shall inherit the earth,” I see no one more deserving than community college student bodies.

In a near half century of professional involvement in higher education, I have counted myself very fortunate to find myself working inside the phenomenon that has become the community college movement. When in 1968 I signed on as Congressional liaison for the American Association of Junior Colleges, I left a higher paying job in federal administration; yet I knew instantly that I’d made the right move.

It confirmed something I’d always known about myself: I’m populist, to the bone. My mother made sure I was raised that way. Community colleges are the populists of higher education, easily as important to national progress and the promise of equality through opportunity as the cutting-edge research that American universities lead. Community colleges are the very spirit of equality through opportunity that is the spirit of America, the pulse of the American Dream.

Perhaps nothing nourishes the spirit more surely than being in the right place at the right time. That was the spirit that greeted me at AAJC. At 86, I can see that it has always been there for me. It was my good fortune for the last decade of my Washington career to lead Congressional liaison for both the AACC, evolved from AAJC, and the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT). It was a productive decade in federal legislation for community colleges (detailed in a separate article).

I alone have held that dual appointment, during which I continued to lend counsel to the American Student Association of Community Colleges, ASACC, which I cofounded, hoping to see college students become a strong and badly needed voice in the national affairs of higher education. I wanted their legislative priorities harmonized as much as possible with those of AACC and ACCT, and vise versa.

That a cohesive national student voice has not materialized on federal policies and programs is the largest regret of my career. It is badly needed, for at least two reasons. Students can explain their needs to Congress far better than can college presidents, who can’t help but show self interest when cast in that role. Second, student leaders need the benefit of such experience, from which the nation will benefit as they grow into careers in both the private and public sectors, occasionally as legislators themselves.

The desire to help them nurture and unify their national voice, spurred by the populist family of community colleges, keeps me working with the colleges and their student governments at every opportunity. Their student leaders now speak for the largest and fastest growing system of postsecondary education, in which women have become the largest enrollment. Their upward mobility is now bringing women three out of every five four-year degrees. The twin rockets powering their rise have been, and are, community colleges and Pell Grants. At nearly every college, women outnumber men in claiming Pell Grants. And in both urban and rural community colleges, Pell Grants ordinarily carry half or more of the students earning college credit.

Without Pell Grants, a considerable number of rural colleges could not survive. The grants enrich both the campus and community economically and culturally, as they flow from student pockets to campus needs and local merchants.

Community colleges are increasingly known as the colleges of lifelong learning, because they are most widely used by employers and employees alike to keep job skills at the changing and cutting edge. The advancing popularity of their occupational courses and tracks makes them the largest formal engine of workforce development. Four great professions that gird up the American Way are grounded in community colleges: classroom teachers, health care, law enforcement, and emergency services. Teachers use community colleges more often than universities for the courses they need to maintain their professional certification. Their successes in these areas prompted Florida a generation ago to empower all the community colleges to offer four-year degrees in education.

In their singular focus on learning, community colleges are further advantaged by the absence of overblown athletics, which have become the tail that wags the dog at too many universities, where academic prowess is often overshadowed by the pursuit of bowl bids and the fat checks and alumni cheers that go with them. If a community college wins a national title in any sport, the celebration is largely confined to the community of the winner.

Community college diversity is always reflected in their student governments. It’s almost as common to find students in their thirties as students in their teens on these freely elected boards. In my meetings through the years with student boards, that diversity has often given me the feeling of a church. In fact, it was in my first meeting with the student board of Victor Valley College, California, that this feeling first arose, a decade ago at the opening dinner of the annual July retreat of VVC’s newly formed SGB, where I would be called upon to deliver the keynote following dessert.

I shared a table with five students, and one said as dinner was being served that she had read in preparation for the retreat that I’d had a large hand in Congress’ enactment of the Pell Grant. At least two at the table were on Pell Grants, so the group was excited when I offered a brief recap of that history. On my immediate right was a new member of the board who looked more like a high school freshman than a college student. Whisker free, he was the picture of innocence. When we arose from the table 30 minutes later, this lad turned to the students rising behind him and said, “I think I’ve just dined with God.” I was so shocked I could neither laugh nor cry.

When I’d delivered my keynote, praising the glories of community colleges for their lift to the American Way and the American Dream, a faculty member who was in the audience shook my hand and said, “That was quite a sermon.”

I was invited back as advisor-team the following year, and as I was called upon for the keynote following the opening dinner, all the students unbuttoned and peeled down their shirts, to reveal identical black t-shirts. They turned so I could not miss the message emblazoned on all the backs, “The Church of the Community Colleges” in dayglo green, and below it in day-glow orange, “Rev. Frank Mensel.”

While everyone chuckled, I had a different reaction. I felt a spirituality. The students had touched the religion that had always peeked in and about my life. I could see clearly that the interest that drew me to higher education from the beginning was the students and their aspirations. They were my faith, my church. The populist church, they always will be.

The creed that fits it like a glove is the Preamble of our Constitution, which I’ve always felt is the most glorious capsulization of human aspirations for liberty ever penned, to wit:

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

That is the faith that I’ve come to appreciate as the fountain of my love of life and the pulse of my career, so richly complemented and enlarged in my bonds of many decades of professional association and friendship with spouse Dr. Bonny Franke and our families. Any audiences that risk inviting me are bound to hear about it. Maybe feel it too.

Yours truly,

Frank Mensel (“The Rev”)

July, 2015

P.S. At about the time our annual engagements with the Victor Valley SGB got rolling, I received a totally unexpected accolade from a very different direction. I was at Dulles Airport looking for a dear aunt who was about to arrive from Europe when a voice from the next gate called “Frank Mensel.” I turned to see Bob Watson, a senior program officer of the National Science Foundation, approaching. He said, “Frank, have the community colleges built a monument to you yet?” When I smiled and shook me head, he continued, “NSF dragged our feet all the way, in the enactment of the Advanced Tech Education program, but you beat us at every turn. A big federal agency beaten by one dogged sob.” We laughed. Happily, during the several years that this program was evolving from the first bill in the House, Andrew Korim, vice president of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny College, came to town to help lobby it. In fact, he and I collaborated in the first draft of it, which he then persuaded his own congressman, Rep. Doug Walgren, D-PA, to introduce. Fortunately, Walgren served on the House Science Committee, and chaired a subcommittee, in which he gave the bill its first hearing. When Walgren lost his seat, more senior Members were then backing the bill. Their support got it enacted. That program in its first year increased NSF funding for community colleges tenfold. Before its enactment, NSF funding to community colleges had never exceeded $3.5 million a year. In its first year, Advanced Tech awarded $35 million in grants to community colleges. — FM

Texas AG Should Seek Counsel

The Supreme Court’s vote affirming the right of gays to marry is a victory too for the Constitution itself.

That so many of our Republican officeholders in Texas don’t grasp this should embarrass all of us. It’s Neanderthal that Attorney General Paxton has it wrong, attacking the decision as a threat to religious liberty, which he says is the first freedom. Actually, he’s wrong twice.

What comes first in the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights is vital to all the rest: complete separation of church and state. This alone justifies the Court’s finding.

Second, it folds freedom of religion into the overarching intent of the First Amendment, which is freedom of expression, whether exercised in speech, religion, or assembly.

Mr. Paxton couldn’t help but draw upon two code words of right-wing rattling: infringement and harassment. He provides as context: “Our guiding principle should be to protect people who want to live, work and raise their families in accordance with their religious faith.” But such is not the ordinary American workplace, where business always comes first, where productivity and success make little room for time wasted in political or religious chatter.

If workers expect the workplace protection he alludes to, they should seek employment in the large bureaucracy of the church they follow, or in the charity work that many perform. I have long applauded the hours that my closest Catholic friend devotes weekly to Catholic Charities. But every other workplace deserves separation of church and state. It’s the great wall that keeps bureaucrats, of the Paxton tilt, from telling us our workday must always start with a “word of thanks.”

What I’m always thankful for is the Constitution, which shields us from public officeholders who really don’t understand it, however prone they are to misuse it.

Paxton has doubled down on his abuse of office by allowing government clerks, county clerks in particular, to think they might force a new challenge in the courts by continuing to refuse marriage licenses to gay couples, on grounds that their personal beliefs are infringed in doing it. Paxton just doesn’t get it. In accepting election to his state office, that office requires that his right-wing evangelicalism be left at the door. This goes for every public office, leaving county clerks no room for exceptions. Without that great wall, is there any corner of government that would be safe from religious distraction and agitation?

What’s that old adage? Ignorance of the law is no excuse. In the state’s highest office of law enforcement, it becomes obscene. Paxton’s ignorance is bringing nationwide embarrassment to Texas. In effect, he’s telling county clerks and other officials in licensing and assisting gays in marriage that their duties to the law need not outweigh religious conviction in official conduct — arousing doubt that he’s even read the Constitution.           Now fellow lawyers are threatening a formal complaint to the Texas Bar, whose rules require that members uphold the Constitution, hence abide by edicts of the Supreme Court. Some 150 lawyers have expressed willingness to sign such a complaint, with the count growing.

Paxton’s stand is not working. Marriage licenses are now flowing freely to gays in Texas. The AG now must grapple with slackening respect for his opinions.

Frank Mensel — July 2015


(Nor a Friend of the Earth or the Constitution)

It takes bravery, as the National Anthem reminds us, to keep Old Glory waving and to keep faith with the Constitution. That’s a taller order now than ever before.

“Establish Justice.” It’s more and more dreamed of than delivered.

Promote the “general Welfare.” Poverty dogs our nation in far greater numbers than it did in the worst days of the Great Depression. In the mightiest economy the world has seen, poverty is a disgrace. It insults the Constitution. The globe’s one superpower can’t find the bravery to fix it. When the Star-Spangled Banner brings us to our feet, why aren’t we blushing?

Perhaps that’s why we hear God Bless America more and more. But why would any god of fairness bless a nation that grew by genocide, erasing the Native Tribes, and by slavery on unprecedented scale, whose vestiges continue in countless ways to keep us a nation divided against itself. What could be more ironic than its role in our foremost entertainment industry – football – where blacks now dominate the trenches of warfare? Can we excuse its popularity because the blacks are bearing the greater risks, both as linemen and as running and defensive backs, who will suffer the preponderance of concussions and eventual brain impairment? “A brain is a terrible thing to waste” – unless it’s a black brain.

How do universities still run with that motto, with a straight face, chasing gridiron glory and fat bowl checks, knowing that any and every concussion has the potential of wasting a brain?

The vast hypocrisy of all this should prompt higher education to declare a sports holiday. Make it a full year, and see what it tells us about ourselves, as a swarm of couch potatoes. It won’t happen. It can’t. There’s too much money involved. Education is badly tainted by it, with high schools and universities both dancing to the music of this unrivalled entertainment industry. Money is the tail that wags every dog in our economy of free enterprise.

But sadly, it ain’t soooo free anymore. If it were true capitalism, it would spread wealth more than it concentrates it. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, to keep us free. To deliver economic justice. To prove itself in a growing middle class. But we know it’s not working because our middle class, once the envy of the world, has been dwindling to where it can no longer be called a middle class. It’s too small. And, the hope of growing a new middle class has gone dark, because Congress hasn’t raised the federal minimum wage in more than a generation, so that it will not by a 40-hour work week keep the earner living above the poverty line. It leaves the growing population living in minimum-wage jobs (thank you, Mitt Romney, for being so honest about the less fortunate and powerless “47%”) living at the pleasure of the Wal Marts and the other makers and manipulators of markets, essentially pitting the multinationals against communist China. Daring the Brave to do anything about it. Even Texas, which is leading the nation now in population, job and economic growth, sees the surge of new jobs concentrated in the low-wage service sectors.

So what we have in place now of the promise of the Constitution is government by oligarchy, spearheaded by corporate power, which has the green-light no less than from WeThePeople’s last line of defense, the Supreme Court. American history will have no irony greater than this. It makes a monster of the legal profession, where the record plainly shows that money talks loudest.

Just five lawyers outvoting four others to feed us the cruel joke that corporations have personhood and thus have the same grab on the Bill of Rights as individuals, because they are formed by people. By that slender, shaky 5-4 vote, these lawyers are telling us that money has the right to walk all over us, when and where it pleases.

The growing oligarchy has been aptly framed as the One Percent vs. the 99 Percent.

Maybe there’s room for hope – thanks to climate change. It’s too early to visualize the battle lines that will form. At least some of the billionaires are beginning to see that denying climate change is a blind man’s bluff, and they have the most to lose. After all, the One Percent hold assets as great or greater than the lowest 50 Percent combined.

However high their mountains of wealth, they will not, cannot, deny the earth the last word. What sterner enforcer of that word than the oceans, which are steadily rising as the icecaps and glaziers melt away? Once they are gone, no resource may be more precious than safe drinking water.

Ironically, it is the richest, most populous State that is driving this home to Americans. Though California has grown an economy ranked as the seventh largest, trailing only six nations, it is suffering a drought that has no end in sight, as its matchless farms cut production and idle large tracts in an effort to conserve water. But they already have badly depleted and endangered their priceless aquifers.

If the aquifers don’t recover, neither will California, nor the nation as a whole. It’s a perfect opportunity for the California billionaires to step forward, and make themselves the example by sharply curtailing their extravagance and shaving away their luxurious lifestyle. All the world would notice if Rodeo Drive boarded up all the shops.

In a world increasingly threatened by the divisions and terrorism that religions are spreading, the USA, as the last superpower, stands yet as the bastion of freedom most likely to lead mankind away from demise. Whether the oligarchs see this, in time to curve history in a positive direction, is a grave question. They wield the corporate power, and with it the legal profession, too easily swayed by prospects of fatter wallets, to take us in a new direction. It is that power that, while tarnishing freedom, leads freedom in the global trade war with communism.

But are they aware enough, and brave enough, to act? Will they realize that to act is to save themselves? The choice with the most promise would be instruction to their high-powered lawyers to give us the rule of law the Constitution promises, to ensure that it lives by the letter of the Preamble of the Constitution, which stands as the bravest commitment a people ever made to themselves to make freedom ring, and ring, and ring.

The oligarchs have that choice. Any other makes them fools. They can run, but they can’t hide. There no longer are mountains or islands secure enough to guarantee their survival. They and their fortunes will not keep the oceans from rising, or the ice fields from dying. They must realize that the last word is never theirs, no matter how large their law firms. That word is always the earth’s, in which climate change is a friendly warning. If they can’t see their responsibility to start helping the world of free enterprise meet it and live by it, they’ll keep growing risks for the kin whom they are bent upon showering with their assets.

Oligarchs, you have the choice. Where’s the bravery? Gumption could work, with some initiative and common sense. But the singing at which you, your corporate mouthpieces and lawyers excel simply won’t cut it. The earth isn’t listening. She will always have the last word. Against rising oceans and other new waves of climate change, corporate power will become useless. And wealth won’t cut it, either. That you can take to the bank, should any remain standing.

Frank Mensel — July 2015