Riverside City College names Wolde-Ab Isaac as new president
By David Downey
A local board has awarded the task of leading Riverside City College to an East African-born man with an extensive educational background and a plan for boosting college participation in Inland Southern California.
Wolde-Ab Isaac, 70, of Riverside was named RCC’s 11th president late Tuesday by the Riverside Community College District board of trustees in a 5-0 vote. Isaac had presided over the nearly century-old, culturally diverse campus of more than 18,000 students on an interim basis since August 2013.
California’s seventh-oldest community college, RCC will celebrate its 100th birthday in March 2016. Isaac will make $205,000 a year.
“Interim is never ever guaranteed a position,” board President Virginia Blumenthal said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
But during a nationwide search for a college president, she said Isaac stood out.
“He’s a living example of what education can do,” Blumenthal said. “And that’s what he wants to bring to our community.”
Isaac has helped develop programs aimed at accelerating student achievement by prioritizing classes for those pursuing specific fields of study.
“We have one of the lowest college-going rates in the nation, and we are trying to increase that,” Blumenthal said.
According to the California Postsecondary Education Commission’s website, about 35 percent of Riverside County residents go to college, and about 29 percent of San Bernardino County residents do. That compares with a statewide average of more than 40 percent and a rate of 48 percent in Orange County.
“He is a terrific leader,” Blumenthal said of Isaac. “He knows how to build a consensus.”
Michael L. Burke, district chancellor, said in a statement: “I have the utmost trust in him.”
One of seven children, Isaac was born in the East African country of Eritrea in a family living in poverty. His father completed only the third grade.
“And my mother never attended school at all,” he said.
However, encouraged by his parents, Isaac excelled in school.
“I was always getting prizes,” Isaac said. He became the first member of his family to attend college.
Isaac said he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie University in 1968. Over the next four years, the Fulbright scholar secured a master’s degree and a doctorate in medicinal chemistry from the University of Michigan.
He initially sought to become a doctor. During his childhood, his mother was “not very healthy.” And he said he was impressed by the doctors who helped her.
“They were heroes to me,” Isaac said.
But his medical pursuit didn’t last long.
“I didn’t like working with dead animals or cadavers,” he said. “And so I moved on to chemistry.”
Isaac said he focused his training and earlier employment on developing medicines.
Isaac was hired by the Riverside Community College District in 2006 to serve as dean of health science programs at Moreno Valley College. Under his leadership, district officials said, the campus developed and expanded programs in dental hygiene, physician assisting, emergency medical assisting and dental assisting.
“He did an extremely good job at Moreno Valley College,” Blumenthal said. “He has always been a team player.”
Before accepting the interim-president assignment, Isaac was vice president of academic affairs at RCC for a year and a half.
“I fell in love with the college,” Isaac said. “It is a great college. It has a really rich tradition.”
Previous jobs: Assistant professor, Haile Selassie University, 1972-75; associate professor of pharmaceutical chemistry, University of Ife, Nigeria, 1976-82; senior research clinical scientist at AstraZeneca, 1982-93; Eritrea government secretary of human resources, 1993-2000; president of the University of Asmara in Eritrea, 1993-2006; first hired by Riverside Community College District in 2006 as dean of Health Science Programs at Moreno Valley College; vice president for academic affairs, RCC, January 2012-July 2013
Residence/Family: Riverside, three sons (two live with him)
Author: 25 scientific papers published in professional journals
Source: Riverside Community College District
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