In a Sunday church sermon and with characteristic boldness, the current vice chancellor of UCI and future president of Cal State Dominguez Hills made his ambition clear.
Thomas Parham, who will take the reins of CSUDH next month, vowed to transform the university into “a destination campus, not a default campus.”
Parham went on to declare he plans to turn 1.9 grade average students into students with 2.5 grade averages, to build 3.6 students into PhDs.
If it sounds like the same old rhetoric, it’s not.
Parham was like no other vice chancellor at UCI and it’s certain he won’t be like any other public university president when he leads at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
How’s this for starters?: He told the congregation at Christ Our Redeemer Church in Irvine that Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are in him, that he shares the same birthday as Nat Turner, the slave who led a rebellion in 1831.
“You know,” Parham pointed out from the pulpit, “where my warrior gene comes from.”
But those statements hardly compare to the very fact that Parham spoke from the pulpit, gave a sermon, and did a sly double-take when this leader of public universities boldly spoke about what it means to be a Christian.
“The true measure of the Christian life,” the 64-year-old academic said, “is the degree to which we are able to support and assist other people.
“The challenge is not one of effort but of outcome.”
Still, the service remained both a bittersweet sendoff and a celebration of what Parham has meant to so many during his 33 years at UCI.
A few days before the service, Christ Our Redeemer Rev. Mark Whitlock explained Parham’s promotion this way: “There’s a loss physically, but there’s not a loss spiritually, socially or intellectually.
“Cal State Dominguez has the largest African American student population in California,” said the south Orange County preacher. “And we now share a connection between UCI and Dominguez.”
Whitlock has a point. Parham’s roots run deep wherever they grow.
Legacy of equality
Parham grew up in Los Angeles, earned his bachelor’s degree at UCI, his master’s at Washington University in St. Louis and his doctorate at Southern Illinois University. He went on to join the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania before returning to UCI in 1985.
Along with working as an adjunct faculty member, the licensed psychologist was director of UCI’s Career and Life Planning Center and also served as assistant vice chancellor for Counseling and Health Services.
All the while, students called Parham, “Dr. P.”
Understand, the nickname was a rare honor of informality in the often stuffy world of academia. Instead of being aloof, Parnham was an administrator who moved nearly effortlessly through the widely diverse student body.
He was and remains known for promoting multicultural education, multicultural counseling and respectful leadership.
“Dr. Parham has been a fierce advocate for our students, working tirelessly to make their experience on campus a compelling part of their education,” said UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman. “I shall miss his wise counsel, steady hand, and good humor.”
In selecting Parham to head CUSDH, Cal State Trustee Peter Taylor echoed Gillman: “Dr. Parham has an exceptional history of working with students from diverse backgrounds and has demonstrated unwavering commitment to student achievement.”
Yet, somehow, Parham found the time to have an impact far beyond UCI.
Known for wearing dashikis and African robes on special occasions, Parham in the early 1990s helped found Orange County’s chapter of 100 Black Men of America. He was president for four years and also developed what has become a national curriculum for teens at other chapters.
The current president of the 100 Black Men chapter in Orange County, Marcellous “Mark” Reed, last week summed up Parham’s significance in an area known for an astonishingly low percentage of African Americans.
“He wrote our high school curriculum that prepares these young men for life,” Reed said. “You have an opportunity in America to be whoever you want to be and Dr. Parham instills this kind of thinking.
“He unshackles brains.”
In an interview, Whitlock summed up how Parham played a key role during the late 1990s in building the only African Methodist Episcopal Church in south Orange County.
“I call him St. Thomas.”
To be sure, Whitlock is joking. Sort of.
When Whitlock launched Christ Our Redeemer, he had five members and no where to minister. After he met Parham, the pastor had a temporary location on UCI’s campus — and a congregation.
“Suddenly, I had thousands of students around me,” Whitlock recalled of those early days. “Soon, we were creating a sense of family for African Americans.”
Referring to the juggernaut film, “Black Panther,” Whitlock offered, “We had a Wakanda experience.”
Whitlock also credits Parham for mentoring a wide range of cultures and races, while also “being unapologetically black.”
Parham embodies, the pastor said, the concept of “appreciating your history, affirming who are are and loving who you are while also loving others.
“That is so important for African Americans who have identity problems.”
During the Sunday morning service, Parham was presented with a host of honors including commendations from Sen. Kamala Harris, state senators John Moorlach and Patricia Bates, Orange County Supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Todd Spitzer.
Still, the coolest honor was a spontaneous one when two young boys in the congregation high-fived.
As Parham stood before the gathering of hundreds, he explained: “There is no greater blessing in life, next to being a parent, than being entrusted with the intellectual and personal growth and development of students.”
Parham allowed that his mother was a single mom who raised four children, all of whom went to college and two became PhDs. Still, the psychologist and author said the real credit is elsewhere.
“Success,” Parham said, “is not attributed to our effort alone, but to God’s grace.”
As the service ended, the chorus sang, “Amazing grace … How sweet the sound.”
Source: Orange County Register