The main building of Essex County College in Newark will be named for its former long-time president, A. Zachary Yamba.
The building, once termed the “megastructure,” was, for years, the entire campus of the public, two-year community college. Essex admitted its first students in 1968 in temporary facilities at what had been Seton Hall Law School in Newark. The huge, single-building campus opened eight years later. The rededication of the building is scheduled as part of a convocation marking the school’s 45th anniversary Monday, Aug. 26.
Yamba, who joined the faculty the year Essex opened, became its fifth president in 1980 at a perilous time in the college’s history. Plagued by scandal, corruption, and political interference, the college was threatened with a loss of its accreditation by the Middle States Commission of Schools and Colleges. Without accreditation, the college could not operate in New Jersey.
The educator, born in Ghana 74 years ago and educated at Seton Hall University, already had decided to return to his home country when the trustees and state officials urged him to take over the institution’s leadership. He had been expected to join a new government in the West African nation. Yamba, who also served as a member of Seton Hall’s board of regents, decided to remain in the United States and accept the position at Essex.
Within a year, the soft-spoken educator had persuaded the accrediting commission to grant the school full, 10-year accreditation. The approval was renewed under Yamba’s watch again in 1991 and 2001.
Faced with the loss of accreditation, Yamba reorganized the college’s administration, tightened fiscal controls, insisted on tougher academic standards, and developed remedial efforts for students who were admitted without adequate backgrounds. State law required all community colleges to admit all applicants.
He also ended the close relationship that had developed between county politicians and the college since the school’s founding, a coziness that led former state Higher Education Chancellor T. Edward Hollander to call for the resignation of all its trustees.
Yamba became a statewide advocate for imposing admission standards at urban community colleges, warning the schools had become “revolving doors” for students who, without extra help, could not succeed at college-level work. The college president’s position was roundly criticized by local political figures but his advocacy eventually led to the provision of extra state funds for remedial education at urban county schools. He brought credibility and respect to an institution that, for years, had been held out as an example of a poorly run public institution.
The college underwent a vast expansion during his 29-year tenure. New buildings were constructed and the school took over the county police academy. It now enrolls more than 13,000 students.