Unlikely student succeeds as college president

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President Robert Zeigler reads a passage from former President Ronald Reagan’s television address Jan. 28, 1986, about the Challenger 7 disaster during a memorial for the crew Jan. 30 in the Challenger Center. The shuttle exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven aboard, including Commander Francis “Dick” Scobee for whom the center is named. Photo by Carlos Ferrand

President Robert Zeigler reads a passage from former President Ronald Reagan’s television address Jan. 28, 1986, about the Challenger 7 disaster during a memorial for the crew Jan. 30 in the Challenger Center. The shuttle exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven aboard, including Commander Francis “Dick” Scobee for whom the center is named. Photo by Carlos Ferrand

By Bleah B. Patterson


Students might be surprised to find that Dr. Robert “Bob” Zeigler thinks he wasn’t a good student in high school, that he was never the type to map out his future, nor did he intend to climb the proverbial ladder or dream of being a college president.

“I wasn’t a good student,” he said. “I didn’t like school and I didn’t get anything out of it. I liked to fish, read and shoot pool. I guess you could say pool was my sport.”

The college president said in an April 23 interview he found his path to success as a student of this college. As he fast approaches retirement by the end of this academic year, he stopped to reflect on his decisions and achievements.

“The teachers here are the people who really inspired me to go into education,” he said, explaining he was a business major when he enrolled. “I realized after awhile it wasn’t for me; I was more interested in history and political science.”

After attending Alamo Heights High School, he considered himself finished with school, so he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After his service stint, his father asked him to try just one semester.

“I believe I had better teachers at SAC than anywhere else through my entire education,” he said.

Students crowd in to ask questions of the president at one of his regular forums. File

Students crowd in to ask questions of the president at one of his regular forums. File

English Professor Arsenne Blondin made a big impression on Zeigler. “She was very interesting and very good,” he said. “She would work you hard, but I came out of high school unprepared.”

Zeigler said he didn’t like school. “I just didn’t try,” he said.

Blondin made students write and rewrite papers, which helped him to feel better prepared for college.

Zeigler also recalled a history professor who inspired him. “Both teachers saw my love for literature, political science and history and helped me cultivate them.”

That inspiration and preparation saw him through his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He ultimately earned a Ph.D.

In 1971, Zeigler returned to this college to join the history faculty.

So how effective a teacher did the man who disliked school become?

Zeigler laughed and said he likes to think he was a good teacher. “I was demanding, but I don’t think I was rigid,” he said. “I lectured a lot, and we wrote lots of essays — one for every test — but I also had them do a lot of group work and I asked questions.”

Zeigler was not expecting the future he faced.

“When I came here as a faculty member, I thought I’d spend my life teaching, then I was elected to Faculty Senate and, eventually, Faculty Senate president.”

With the arrival of a new college president in 1993, the then-current vice president decided to return to the classroom, and Zeigler was tapped as interim.

“I thought it was going to be like a six-month gig, but, no, the opportunities opened up. I applied and got the job.”

Through his tenure, Zeigler was present for major changes, technology being the biggest.

“When we used to have registration, it would take three days in the gym, and we’d have punch cards. The computers we used took up whole rooms and couldn’t do nearly as much as your iPhone can now.”

Zeigler praised the integration of technology into education for the ease it brings to a student’s journey through higher education.

“Students can use technology to gain a wealth of knowledge,” he said. “The downside, though, is sometimes we rely on technology so much, we lose sight of the discipline that comes with the drudgery.”

He said there is so much information accessible today faculty members are more important than ever to students, helping them discern the valid from the “junk.”

“That’s why we need teachers. We can’t just rely on technology,” the one-time college telecourse coordinator said. “People forget that you need to use technology to achieve an end; technology is not the end.”

He said in light of recent controversy over e-books replacing physical textbooks, he recognized the importance of technological advance, “but you have to be careful.”

“There are benefits, but you have to be willing to deal with the pitfalls, too,” he said.

Zeigler said he acknowledges the shifting environment in the

Alamo Colleges. “It’s becoming more district and more centralized.”

He said he sees the benefits: “As colleges, we’re able to bounce ideas off of one another and see how other people are doing things.”

He worries, though, because each college has a unique culture and personality, his college in particular. “There’s nothing wrong with being different, and SAC is different from the other colleges, just like they’re different from each other,” he said.

“I just don’t want SAC to lose its culture. We’ve always acknowledged the importance of the programs we offer that others don’t. We have a strong Student Government, a strong and independent student newspaper, and strong radio-television-broadcasting, art and music programs.”

The relative strength of programs relies on internal and external factors, and Zeigler has always made sure students knew they had his support, meeting regularly with SGA, guesting weekly on KSYM’s morning show, “The Sauce,” and responding to the never-ending questions from reporting students at The Ranger.

Meanwhile in private, Zeigler was buffeted with a barrage of complaints from those unhappy with their appearances in The Ranger.

He politely explained how an independent newspaper functions to defuse those situations while steadfastly defending the newspaper’s constitutional right to freedom of the press.

Zeigler said being a college president has been fun, and seeing the differences his team has made and progress this college has been able to achieve has been rewarding.

Among his victories is providing an appropriate home to the Challenger Center and remodeling and upgrading the Scobee Education Center’s planetarium, where Commander Francis “Dick” Scobee may have first dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

Other achievements include neighborhood projects, such as Sinkin Eco Centro and Tobin Lofts, along with engineering a win-win parking exchange with area nightclubs.

He was often at odds with Tobin Hill neighbors over college parking and expansion of the campus, but he kept a vision of a “real college campus” on track while maintaining lines of communication.

When Zeigler was a student here in the early years at the current location, the college was a few buildings nestled along San Pedro Avenue and the rest of today’s campus was still a thriving neighborhood crisscrossed with streets lined with bustling family homes.

The striking change since those days is probably a factor in his attention to the smallest details of this facility, as in asking groundskeepers to keep the flower beds fresh and blooming year-round and leading a charge to ban smoking on campus.

Dr. Jessica Howard, who served as his vice president for four years, said Zeigler’s leadership was the kind that leaves an impression on everyone he works with.

“He pushed me to be a better leader,” Howard said.

Today, she is president of the southeast campus of Portland Community College in Oregon. “Sometimes, I channel him, even today in my own presidency. He has a firm hand and is never rattled by the constantly changing atmosphere of a community college.”

She punctuates the thought. “I would do anything for Dr. Zeigler.”

The president’s last semester has been busy with controversy over district initiatives to change the core curriculum by removing a humanities course in favor of a second student development requirement.

Other items in contention included initiatives to standardize textbooks in courses across the five colleges, to switch from textbooks to e-books, and to roll the cost of instructional materials like books into students’ registration bills, thereby eliminating any chance of discounted texts.

Dr. Jacqueline Claunch, president of Northwest Vista College, who also elected to retire this year, made her announcement to trustees hours after a contentious meeting with the chancellor over her faculty’s opposition to the core change and the manner in which it was executed.

The announcement of Zeigler’s retirement came at spring convocation.

The board approved a retirement incentive for college presidents in 2013 that required retirements be announced by July 1, 2014. Of the four presidents eligible for retirement, two have already departed, and this summer sees the exit of the two remaining. With these retirements, the district loses all the presidents the chancellor found when he arrived in 2006.

The college chief executives regularly found cause to oppose the chancellor’s attempts at combining services across the colleges, most significantly, his suggestion that perhaps Northeast Lakeview College’s trouble attaining accreditation could be neutralized by simply turning the five-college district into a five-campus college.

That move would have threatened St. Philip’s College’s twin designations as an Historically Black College and Hispanic-Serving Institution. This college and Palo Alto also carry the Hispanic-Serving Institution designation.

Zeigler said his leaving had absolutely nothing to do with the spring’s conflicts. “I was just telling someone yesterday that I wished I were staying,” he laughed.

He went on to say that he loves a challenge, and that these controversies pose a challenge he would love to take on. Instead, he’ll leave that to a new president. “I want to leave while I still love it,” he said. “I’ll have more time with my family and more time to visit my children. I don’t want to work forever.”

Zeigler explained that his wife retired three years ago, and he’s ready to join her. Son Todd owns a public relations firm in Washington, D.C., and his daughter, Sara, is dean of a college in Kentucky. He’s excited about more time to spend with them.

An unexpected relationship also gives the president more reason to open up his schedule.

Two years ago, he and is wife were approached by long-time family friends expecting a baby. With no living parents, the couple honored the Zeiglers by asking them to step in as their child’s grandparents. They accepted, so the Zeiglers plan to spend more time with Greta as she grows up.

“Some of my retired friends said to me I’d know when it was time,” he said. “And it’s true; my time came.”

Along with more family time, Zeigler said he wants to stay involved professionally by joining some boards that promote and support education. He declined to identify any organizations but said he’s excited to have the chance to continue serving the community in a way that’s less demanding of his time.

He’d like more time for reading, fishing and playing with 4-month-old Maggie, his yellow lab puppy.


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