Making History: How SACSCOC President Belle Wheelan Is Inspiring the Next Generation of Education Leaders
This February, we’re bringing you a special series of conversations for black history month called “Making History,” highlighting black leaders in education.
Next in our Making History series is a conversation with Belle Wheelan — the President of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Before that, she served as the Secretary of Education for the state of Virginia.
Wheelan has worked in higher education for over four decades, after initially starting out studying Child Psychology. More recently, she’s also started a leadership program called “National Council on Black American Affairs”— an affiliate of the American Association of Community Colleges.
Listen in to hear her conversation with EdTech Times General Manager Hannah Nyren.
Hannah Nyren: Hi. This is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times, and today I am speaking with Belle Wheelan. So, Belle, could you introduce yourself in a couple of sentences and tell me who you are and what you do?
Belle Wheelan: Currently, I serve as the president of one of the regional accrediting organizations for higher education. I am ending my forty-fourth year in higher ed, having spent 28 years in community colleges and eight years working for a governor and secretary of education and thirteen and a half years in this division.
Hannah Nyren: How did you get into education? What inspired you to start going down this track?
Belle Wheelan: I was going to be a child psychologist. I was in a doctoral program and my mother took ill so I terminated with a master’s. And back in the dark ages we had not associated degrees in psychology with anything other than clinical psychology. And I had no experience in clinical psych, so I had to look elsewhere. And I lived in San Antonio, Texas. And we had some community colleges there. And I knew that I could be a faculty member, so I went, applied for jobs and ended up getting one there and fell in love with the philosophy of the community colleges and spent the rest of my career there.
Belle Wheelan: And as I moved up and moved over other opportunities, you know, came to to do just that. And the governor called and said “You know, I’m trying to get these senior institutions to understand the value of community colleges and to get some articulation agreements in place. How about you quit your job and come on and join me for four years?” So I said “Oh, why not.” I’d moved a lot so it was no big deal to move again. Virginia has the only one-term governor, so it was only for four years. So I knew I had to find something else after that. And the job in which I currently serve came available, I applied and must have said the right things. So, here I am.
Hannah Nyren: So what are you working on now? Tell me about your role now and how it affects education.
Belle Wheelan: We are the quality assurance arm for higher education. And since the 1950’s, have partnered with the U.S. Department of Education, so that they feel good about allowing access to federal financial aid to those institutions that have earned accreditation.
Belle Wheelan: So I head up the organization that handles that process for institutions in 11 other southern states and several international institutions. We’re from Texas to Virginia and Kentucky and everything south except Arkansas. And so, I have 800 member institutions in those 11 Southern states. And then we have five international institutions, some of which have been accredited longer than our domestic institutions.
Hannah Nyren: So let’s talk a little bit more about your history…So, you’re not just the president of the commission on colleges but you also used to be Virginia secretary of education. So, throughout your entire career, what are you most proud of? What is your proudest achievement?
Belle Wheelan: Being in a position to provide, to ensure opportunities for students, will have to be the thing that I’m most proud. Whether it was at a campus level, or at a system level, or at a state level, or now at the regional level. To make sure that institutions were paying attention, you know, to the students who were coming to them and that their academic needs were taken care of. The students have always been my first priority. And so to be in a position where I could make that difference I think is what I’m most proud of.
Belle Wheelan: But I’ve also been in a position since I have been a leader. And you know, in many of the positions, the first minority or the first female in those particular positions. I’ve been perceived to be a role model. And so people who look like me would come to me — and those who didn’t — you know other women, other men, just people who want to achieve have come to me and said, “Could I listen to you talk, can I follow your direction?”
Belle Wheelan: So there are, you know, I started a leadership program, it’s continuing to exist. You know, I have many folks that I’ve seen grow into presidents and vice presidents. And so that’s…that’s what I mean, I guess, when I say that I’ve helped to make a difference for students. Whether it was personally, or to help other people grow into their roles. I think that’s what I’m most proud of.
Hannah Nyren: What leadership organization is it that you’re talking about?
Belle Wheelan: There’s an organization that’s an affiliate of the American Association of Community Colleges called National Council on Black American Affairs (NCBAA). And within that group is the presidential roundtable. And they developed — or we developed — a professional development activities for folks who aspire to be the president. And it’s a leadership program that, like I said, continues to exist. So quite a few folks who are currently president or who have been president, executive deans — or whatever they call their campus heads— have attended that program. And so I feel that, you know, I’ve kind of touched their lives.
Hannah Nyren: Is there any advice you have for other leaders in education?
Belle Wheelan: Oh yeah. I think asking questions is paramount to becoming very successful. And letting people know to what you aspire, so that they can help you get there, for the good, the bad, and the ugly. You know identify someone you trust, to whom you’re willing to listen when they say, “You have lost your mind when you think you can do that.” Or say, “You know, it’s time for you to pick up and move to greener pastures.” Obviously having the terminal degree, opens more doors than not. It’s not mandatory perhaps anymore, because there are so many different issues. They’re looking for people from different areas, but you know it still adds credibility to this with the faculty. If you want to be, you know, president of an institution where they have faculty.
Hannah Nyren: Well, thank you so much for speaking with us today, Belle. I definitely look forward to seeing what you’re doing.
Belle Wheelan: Thanks so much. Good luck to you.