Growing up in a poor family where neither of his parents had a college education, William E. Trueheart, CLAS ’66, consistently got one piece of advice from his family: If you don’t know, ask.
And ask Trueheart did. The answers led him to an EdD, a college presidency and a position as president and chief executive officer of the Pittsburgh Foundation.
Today, Trueheart is president and chief executive officer of a nonprofit called Achieving The Dream: Community Colleges Count. And his questions are focused on ways to get students – especially those with low incomes and students of color – to earn a college degree.
Trueheart was the first – and only — member of his family to get to college. His parents did not have enough money to educate all three of their children and concentrated instead on using their limited resources to send their only son to college.
One of the first lessons he learned in Storrs was that the more education he got, the hungrier he was for more education.
“I would have no career if it were not for my liberal arts education,” he says. “It opened doors to new ways of thinking and viewing the world in which I lived and introduced me to things I never really knew existed. It made it possible for me to explore and provided me with an intellectual candy store.”
The candy store came with a price tag — he had to work to help pay for his education and he quickly learned that studying was a job, too.
“Early on in my schooling I made education a full time job. That didn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable,” he says, “But I knew that I had to take seriously the rich learning opportunities a liberal arts education provided.”
A political science and economics major, Trueheart took a job at the University after graduation as an assistant director of admissions. In 1969, as a fellow of the American Council of Education, he became an assistant to former UConn president Homer Babbidge, with whom he had worked closely as an undergraduate active in student government.
“I loved my association with him. He was magnificent and a superb mentor. Unrest on campus was pretty hot and there were lots of threats directed at the president and at me because as his assistant, I had a pretty high profile,” Trueheart recalls.
Babbidge encouraged Trueheart to enroll at Harvard for more education, but Trueheart didn’t do that immediately. Instead, in 1970, he became the director of the University’s Academic Advisory Center and assistant dean of CLAS By 1972, however, Trueheart decided to follow Babbidge’s advice and he matriculated at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where he received a master’s in public administration in 1973.
Using support from a Littauer Fellowship, the Charles I. Travelli Foundation Fellowship, and a Ford Foundation Fellowship, he was able to attend graduate school and conduct research. While in graduate school, he co-authored a published report, Production Function Analysis in Higher Education: General Methodology and Applications to Four Year Black Colleges.
By 1979, he had earned an EdD in Education and Social Policy.
Trueheart served for four years as director of the master in public administration program and assistant dean of the Kennedy School of Government, and then became associate secretary of Harvard’s Governing Boards. In 1986, he became executive vice president of Bryant College in Rhode Island.
In 1989, he became the first African American to hold the top spot at a four-year private college in New England when he was named Bryant’s president.
Some of the challenges faced by institutions of higher education haven’t changed since his undergraduate days and the poor economy isn’t making things better, he says.
Trueheart notes that the economic models used to fund colleges must be examined and modified so students are provided with the highest quality education
at the lowest cost possible. Options such as offering some majors in a three-year degree format, need to be considered, he says.
“We need to look at a range of options including using technology to telescope the opportunities for degree completion,” he says.
Trueheart expects to continue his work with Achieving the Dream. “Its mission of utilizing evidence-based research to transform teaching and learning in community colleges is importantly linked to US goals to regain our national ranking as #1 in the world in degree completion. I am very committed to building this national community college reform network,” he says. “And that’s going to take a lot of energy and time.”