By Eric Barton
City & Shore Magazine
The first thing that struck Gregory Haile as odd on his first day of college was how easy it was to get to class. There were no layers of security guards, no metal detectors, no pat-downs.
Back home in Queens, that had been daily life. Friends who lived on either side of Haile had been shot. A bullet hit his window when someone was shot in front of his house. Most stores he went in had bulletproof glass.
“That was my normal,” Haile recalls.
At Arizona State University, he had to get used to strangers being friendly. At first, he had no idea how to react and avoided befriending people, worried about their intentions. “It took some time before I could get used to interacting with people without being guarded.”
It’s one of the many experiences Haile had that he says make him uniquely qualified in his new role. After seven years as general counsel and vice president for public policy and government affairs of Broward College, 40-year-old Haile became its president in July. More than half of the college’s students come from low-income families and, he says, often don’t have a support network of family and friends with college experience.
“When they come to college, they’re coming with aspirations, and it’s our job to make sure they can achieve them,” Haile says.
After the culture shock Haile experienced in his first few days at college in Tempe, Arizona, he broke out of his shell of shyness. By his sophomore year, he had become the guy who could talk to anyone. Learning how to succeed at college was more of a challenge, though. Haile’s public school – which has since been disbanded by the city of New York – did little to prep him for college. ASU enrolled him in remedial coursework that helped him catch up with classmates, but Haile still had to learn how to be a student.
After reading that people are more likely to remember the last thing they read before going to sleep, Haile devised a plan. He’d set an alarm every hour of the night, get up and study for a while, and then go back to sleep. “It’s not something I’d recommend,” Haile says. “I was trying to figure it out on my own.”
Eventually he did, and in addition to graduating magna cum laude at ASU, he also received the Most Outstanding Undergraduate award. He went on to Columbia University School of Law, where he graduated in 2002. Returning to his neighborhood in Queens, Haile’s new approach of befriending everyone he met wasn’t exactly well received. “I did that in New York, and I was not treated with any pleasantries, I’ll tell you that.”
After law school, Haile spent nine years as a corporate litigator. But he found his passion in the nonprofits where he volunteered. He wanted to find a way to do something more. When thinking about how he could serve, he says he could find few things that transformed him more than education.
In 2011, he took the job as general counsel with Broward College. He also continued volunteering with nonprofits, landing on the board for Free the Slaves and chairman of Broward 2-1-1. Meanwhile, he has taught at Broward College, Miami Dade College, Columbia University School of Law and Harvard.
At Broward College, his responsibilities included as chief lobbyist at a time when the state college system was under attack in Tallahassee. After becoming president of the Florida Senate in 2015, Joe Negron set out to drastically change the state college system. He cut the budget, moved to strip the number of four-year degrees the colleges could offer, and wanted to force them to return to the title of community colleges.
Haile and others fought the changes, and in the end, Gov. Rick Scott, a product of the community college system himself, vetoed many of the changes. The state colleges did see cuts from Negron, however, and now Haile says he hopes to see the budgets restored.
In December, David Armstrong announced he’d step away from the Broward College presidency and into an emeritus role. He had overseen a decade of rapid growth, most notably creating a virtual fourth campus out of the online programs. After a nationwide search for Armstrong’s replacement, the college’s five trustees voted unanimously May 10 to name Haile as its seventh president.
Haile wants to identify avenues to support students who need remediation just like he did. In 2014, the Florida Legislature scrapped a law that required students to take remedial classes if they weren’t ready for college courses. Since then the number of students taking remedial classes has dropped by nearly two thirds.
With his own experience in overcoming such challenges, Haile says he hopes his story can help inspire some of the students.
“We have the opportunity to transition and transform their lives,” he says, “and help them do better.”
Broward College By the Numbers
150 countries represented
48 percent are first generation to attend college
270,383 people have taken credit courses
90,887 bachelor’s degrees, associate’s degrees and certificates awarded
145 academic programs
5,000 faculty and staff
34 online degrees and certificates
3 rank nationally among community colleges by the Aspen Institute