Promoting a Humanities-Based Curriculum at Community Colleges: A Progressive Approach to Educating Tomorrow's Leaders

Lisa Williams
Leadership Abstracts

As both a community college graduate and a community college leader for the past twenty-five years, I appreciate the value and critical role my community college experience has played in shaping me into the person I am today. While earning my associate degree in a technical program at a community college, I understood the importance of the humanities and how my coursework in that subject area helped prepare me for my future leadership roles.

At Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C), we are focused on educating the leaders of tomorrow. As Ohio’s largest community college and a nationally respected leader in community college education, Tri-C consistently looks to create innovative projects and academic initiatives that benefit both its students and community. The college serves over 50,000 students annually, and provides a comprehensive student experience comprised of programming, degrees, and credentials that align with employer needs. Tri-C’s goal is to ensure that students leave our campuses prepared for a job or career that enables them to earn a sustainable living wage. With 85 percent of our graduates living and working within the region (Cuyahoga Community College, 2018), Tri-C recognized the importance of educating students to become the future leaders of our local community.

As part of our ongoing efforts to provide the highest quality education to our students, the leadership at Tri-C created—with generous support from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Humanities Foundation and Mandel Supporting Foundations—the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Humanities Center. Located on Tri-C’s Eastern Campus, the Center provides students with a civic-oriented humanities education that helps them attain academic success through an innovative curriculum, cocurricular activities, and promotion of matriculation to a four-year institution.

Creating the Humanities Center

As the college considered opportunities to more fully integrate the humanities into its curriculum, Tri-C’s executive leadership realized the benefit of finding a partner to assist with this effort. Fortunately, the college had a relationship with the Mandel Foundation—a national philanthropic organization dedicated to improving communities and civic leadership through supporting organizations and activities in the areas of nonprofit management, humanities, Jewish life, and urban engagement—which was identified as the ideal partner. The result of the collaboration was an unprecedented $10 million grant from the Mandel Foundation in 2015. The strong alignment of values between Tri-C and the Mandel Foundation led to ambitious plans and progressive goals for the new Mandel Humanities Center, which opened its doors in the 2016 academic year. Specifically, the planning and agenda underlying the Center’s creation were primarily focused on innovative teaching techniques, collaborative and team learning opportunities, seminars and lectures from prominent national and local leaders, and mandated student involvement in civic engagement activities. Through increased focus and attention on these aspects of the student curriculum, the Humanities Center aims to provide students who matriculate through the program with enhanced critical thinking skills and greater potential as future leaders.

Innovative Curriculum

Students interested in becoming a Mandel Scholar must apply to the Mandel Scholars Academy, complete an admissions interview, and meet the acceptance criteria (i.e., a 3.0 grade point average, prerequisite coursework, and past academic experience). Students enrolled in the program are, therefore, considered high performing and are expected to complete their studies in a timely manner and transfer to four-year institutions.

The many distinctive aspects of Tri-C’s Mandel Humanities Center include a unique learning environment, continuous academic support and encouragement, and a wide array of activities that promote academic excellence and facilitate leadership development. Mandel Scholars quickly become accustomed to working together on projects, participating in special events, exchanging ideas, and learning in group settings. In addition to participating in rigorous academic programs, Mandel Scholars interact with leaders in local government, corporations, and nonprofit organizations, as well as with other prominent individuals in the region, to enhance their leadership skills. All Mandel Scholars are required to take three specialized courses—The Individual in Society, History of Cleveland, and Community Engagement—to prepare them for a leadership role in the community.

Besides offering unique programs and providing leadership development experiences, the Humanities Center was designed to provide a technology-rich environment, with areas for individual computer use, collaborative computer-based learning, and teleconferencing options for attending lectures and working on group research projects. These and other design elements foster a sense of community among students and faculty with the purpose of facilitating problem solving and enhancing inquiry-based learning.

Cocurricular Activities

Beyond the unique aspects of the academic coursework, Mandel Scholars are immersed in a sequential series of cocurricular activities designed to align with the leadership competencies that faculty have identified as core to the program. In the first year, students attend thought-provoking workshops, have meaningful dialogue with local leaders, and participate in interactive skill-building labs to make connections between leadership, civic engagement, and the humanities. In the second year, students apply and practice their leadership skills, learning first about project management and then investing their time in leadership roles at the Mandel Humanities Center.

The Humanities Center’s work, in conjunction with various community organizations, institutions of higher education, local governments, and area foundations, has provided Mandel Scholars with the opportunity to attend a number of unique cultural events and public lectures and to participate in historical research, writing, and public presentations within the college and the community. A few of the local community organizations that Mandel Scholars have engaged with to date include Stokes Civic Leadership Institute, Western Reserve Historical Society, YWCA of Greater Cleveland, City Club of Cleveland, and Cleveland Municipal School District.

Transfer to Four-Year Institutions

The Humanities Center actively supports Tri-C students who transfer to area four-year colleges and universities. In spring 2017, the Mandel Foundation provided financial support to facilitate the transfer of Tri-C’s Mandel Scholars to Cleveland State University’s Mandel Honors College. Students in this program received academic advising, peer mentoring, laptop computers, and stipends to support their participation in summer research programs. Mandel Scholars Academy alumni who successfully matriculate at Cleveland State University’s Honors College receive full-tuition scholarships for two years.

In addition to partnering with Cleveland State University, the Mandel Scholars Program joined the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative (CHC) via a partnership between Tri-C and Case Western Reserve University (CWRU). The purpose of this partnership is to facilitate the transfer of Mandel Scholars who have successfully matriculated through the program to Case Western Reserve University to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in any major offered by CWRU’s humanities fields. The CHC partnership provides several activities and services to help streamline the transfer process, including advising, mentoring, and acclimating to CWRU. Furthermore, students electing to pursue this option are afforded access to stipends to support their transition into CWRU’s academic programs.

Looking to the Future

The Mandel Humanities Center has become a leader in humanities education and community programming, not only for Tri-C students but also for the entire Northeast Ohio region. As we look to the future, the college continues to explore new initiatives to expand the Center’s programming and enrollment, including

  • Offering opportunities for continuous professional development and participation in special events for Mandel Scholars Academy alumni who have transferred to four-year institutions;
  • Arranging informal presentations by well-known guest speakers (e.g., corporate CEOs, journalists, etc. who have backgrounds in the humanities) that focus attention on the value of studying the humanities;
  • Creating study-away programs that provide life experiences and learning opportunities for Mandel Scholars Academy students; and
  • Providing unique humanities-focused research opportunities for Mandel Scholars Academy students. 

While the Humanities Center has made an important contribution to the success of Tri-C students and the community, the leadership at both the Center and college continue to promote the benefits of studying the humanities by developing challenging courses, providing additional leadership opportunities for students, and creating new initiatives that position the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Humanities Center to become a national model for engaging community college students in studying the humanities.

As articulated by the Center’s Dean, the long-term goal for the Mandel Humanities Center is that,

In 20 or 30 years, we will see thousands of alumni of the Mandel Scholars Academy who are leaders in every sector of our economy—whether they are doctors, lawyers, or business leaders, or serve on their local PTA board. They will share the foundation of what it means to be a leader, a citizen of Cleveland, and a thoughtful human being.

To reach this ambitious goal, Tri-C will continue to engage its leadership in the promotion of the humanities across its community college campuses and similarly prioritize its role in creating the future leaders in its communities. Given that I recognize how my community college experience played a major role in my path to leadership, I have the utmost confidence that the Mandel Scholars will become the next generation of leaders throughout our communities.


Cuyahoga Community College. (2018). Where futures begin: Report to the community 2018. Retrieved from

Dr. Lisa Williams is President, Eastern Campus, at Cuyahoga Community College in Highland Hills, Ohio.

Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.