Chancellor Don Q. Griffin retires

Illustration of Chancellor Don Griffin by Emma Winkles / The Guardsman A representation of the foundation Griffin provided for his students success

By Thomas Figg-Hoblyn

The Guardsman

Don Quincy Griffin flinches involuntarily, startled by the violent and piercing sound of gunfire which echoes down the hallway to his office.


Instinctively, he springs toward the door, but while reaching for the door handle, something inside him tells him to hesitate.  He waits five seconds, and then opens the door.


The shooter runs directly past him and out the back – five seconds earlier and he would have crossed paths with the armed assailant, responsible for the only homicide ever to have occurred at City College.


“The killer was a paranoid schizophrenic,” Griffin says today, recalling that fateful day in 1982, when his colleague, Dudley Yusuda was murdered.


Griffin was a teacher in 1982, but over the years he rose through the ranks all the way up to the chancellorship in 2008; propelled by charisma,  intelligence and an intrinsic understanding of psychology.


Over the last four years as a determined chancellor,  he has led City College through the most fiscally challenging times in the college’s history.


Griffin beat the worst budget cuts ever, by avoiding major lay-offs, just like he beat prostate cancer in 1997.


Recently, he discovered there was a life-threatening tumor in his brain.


“I started losing my sense of taste,” Griffin said, “so I went to the doctor, and we did a series of tests and the tumor was discovered.”


The chancellor was scheduled to retire in July, but he officially stepped down from the chancellorship effective April 30.  His physician and surgeon are evaluating his entire body, and going through and testing in preparation for surgery.    Ideally the procedure will commence in a matter of weeks.


In 1997 when he had prostate cancer, he kept it to himself.  He waited until it was safe to let people know.  He didn’t want to worry everybody.


As the 10th child in a family of 18 kids, who farmed the Central Valley as a teenager, Griffin learned to be autonomous.  He is also a very private man, and is not quick to share personal information with others.


But, after accomplishing such a great deal in administration, with his term as chancellor nearing completion, and after maintaining consistency and continuity through the worst budget cuts ever faced by City College; coupled with the looming weight of mortality – Griffin was ready to let his guard down.


This time he let everyone know about the tumor, within days of discovery.


He said he is trying to be more spiritual about it, and psychologically it is important to acknowledge the community which he has been a part of for so long, to show how everyone’s support is so important to him.


“I am kind of stealing their energy too – which I need,” Griffin said.


He feels very optimistic about the surgery.


The 69-year-old chancellor has served City College for over 40 years, as a psychology and statistics instructor, department chair and administrator.


You can see his eyes light up like a kid on Christmas morning as he considers his career. “It’s been a wonderful journey,” he said.


The chancellor says he is absolutely ready to retire.


“I have accomplished everything that I set out to accomplish,” Griffin said.


He is the mastermind behind priority registration, minority retention programs, student support program Puente, student equity, student diversity, and the modification of placement tests for student success.


During his last official board meeting on April 26, Griffin offered his final piece of advice to the Board of Trustees, who he spent countless hours planning college policy with.  He told them to approve the resolution which changes placement testing, so he could go home.  Griffin has worked for years to change placement testing policy to favor the students.


The resolution passed.

Dr. Don Q. Griffin on the night of his last City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees meeting, at the Gough Street Campus on Apr. 26, 2012. SHANE MENEZ / THE GUARDSMAN

Griffin also helped bolster student services, increase online course availability, and diversify the student population by encouraging international students and students from other parts of the country to come here. Dr. Veronica Hunnicutt, dean of the office of student affairs has worked with Griffin since 1972, and she says he works extremely hard to ensure that all communities are well represented.

As chancellor he focused on improving student equity, and worked to change the fact that students are here too long, and get discouraged.

For Griffin it is all about the students.

English teacher Carol Fregley says that she has never known a chancellor to be so student-centered.

He began teaching in the fall of 1969 – President Nixon was in office, and the American death toll in Vietnam was well over 30,000.

As a man of conscience, Griffin was on trial for participating in protests at San Francisco State University over equality issues and the draft, while he was applying for a job at City College.

Louis G. Conlan was interviewing Griffin, and he knew Griffin was one of the 470 protesters awaiting trial. Conlan told Griffin that he would hire him, conditionally. If he was acquitted, the job was his. If he was guilty, then there was no job.

The protesters were tried in groups of ten. Griffin was in the first group, who were acquitted. The other 46 groups of 10 were not acquitted.

“I was meant to come to City College,” he said.

For 27 years Griffin taught psychology and statistics, sometimes as many as five classes per semester. He had a good reputation for helping statistics students overcome their fear of math.

“I was a pretty good statistics teacher,” he says, from behind his trademark smile.

Griffin used psychology to help his students deal with math phobias.

English teacher Ellen Wall said students were memorized in his class.

He says he will never forget his first day at City College. It was a culture shock. Walking into his first class he sees that 45 out of the 48 students are Chinese and mostly Chinese females, and is somewhat flabbergasted by all the women who were staring at him.

“I thought, wow, what is going on here,” he said.

Then, he goes to his next class, and it’s full of police from the academy. Griffin was 27, and the youngest guy in the room was 25, all the way up to 55. They all had their uniforms on and responded with “yes sir.”

He went from giggling Chinese ladies to a group of military guys in uniform perfectly aligned in their seats.

“Those were my first two classes, and you can imagine what a distorted view I had,” Griffin said.

After 27 years in teaching, Griffin decided to move into administration to affect change through multiplicity. In 27 years of teaching, 10,000 students came through his doors, as an administrator he could affect 100,000 students every year.

The transition took some adjusting. Griffin says effective leadership as an administrator took him away from being a person, and a psychologist.

“I have to be tough, and it is different from my natural inclinations,” he said.

Griffin garnered support from the unions, department chairs, and the academic senate because he came from the teaching side of education.

His enthusiasm for improvement and his strategic planning to implement change produced positive results that future students will have the chance to utilize for years to come.

He has left a legacy.

“It’s a great point in my life to retire, and I get to spend a lot more time with my family and friends,” Griffin said, “I have been working 18 hour days almost straight for 14 years.”

“Don Quincy Griffin gave his life to San Francisco City College,” Hunnicutt said.

Don Griffin speaks at the college council in the Pierre Coste restaurant at the City College Ocean Campus on Apr. 19, 2012. SHANE MENEZ/ THE GUARDSMAN

The Guardsman