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The State Board of Community Colleges unanimously approved today Thomas Stith to become the new president of the community college system, filling the position vacated by Peter Hans this summer.

A presidential search committee has held 15 meetings since its first in August, fielding applicants from around the country for the position of community college system president. The meetings were largely held in closed session with no public announcement as to who the system was considering until today’s press conference.

“When you’re looking for someone to fill the presidency of the third largest community college system in the country and, by all sorts of metrics, the number one community college (system) in the country, you get applications from intelligent, dedicated, visionary people from all over this country. And we got any number,” Bob Stephens, the State Board member who lead the presidential search committee, said during the press conference. “The president we’ve chosen today, though, was at the top of every list.”

Stith comes from the U.S. Small Business Administration where he has served as North Carolina district office director since 2019. Prior to that, he worked at a business development consulting firm he co-founded, and as senior advisor on investment, development, and investor relations at Rivermont Capital, according to his bio on the U.S. Small Business Administration website.

He is perhaps most publicly known for his role as chief of staff for Republican Gov. Pat McCrory from 2013-2017 and as a former Durham City Council member. According to the press release from the community college system, while serving the governor, Stith led initiatives on historically black colleges and universities as well as on recovery from Hurricane Matthew.

The press release also states that he worked for five years as the economic development program director at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Stith laid out his vision for the community college system during today’s press conference. He talked about coming from a family of entrepreneurs and educators, explaining that in 1956, his parents started a business college in Durham. He said that history informs the way he thinks about the system he will now lead.

“To me, an appropriate education is a key to opportunity,” he said. “My vision for the North Carolina Community College system is very clear. The system will lead the effort to rebuild North Carolina’s economy by providing affordable education and training to our diverse population across the state.”

Stith said he has already been in touch with Republican legislative leaders as well as Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. He said they all are supportive of the state’s community colleges.

“Our state leadership understands the importance of our community college system,” he said. “They understand how the community college system will be a part of our economic recovery and educational future.”

Those leaders all publicly lent their support to the community college system’s pick of Stith as its leader.

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, sent out a statement this morning about the naming of Stith.

“North Carolinians are fortunate to have Thomas Stith at the helm of the state’s most vital workforce development pipeline, as few leaders have his experience to ensure this system meets the needs of our students and the demands of a growing private sector,” Moore said in a press release. “We are excited to build on the education and economic accomplishments already realized for North Carolina through Thomas’ service in state government, and working together we will continue to fulfill that promise in his new role.”

A press release from the community college system also included a number of statements from both state political and community college leaders.

Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said in the release:

“Thomas Stith will be a strong leader for North Carolina’s community colleges. His unique business experience and love of all things North Carolina will bring a fresh perspective to the system. The pandemic has shone a bright light on the need for educational opportunities and workforce development — two things our community colleges excel at. I believe Thomas is the right leader to build upon those fundamentals and help mold the next generation of North Carolina’s workforce.”

And Cooper said in the press release:

“North Carolina’s Community College system has a reputation for training the world-class workforce that has attracted companies large and small to our state. My hope is that the new President will work with businesses, schools, universities, workers, the legislature and me to continue the system’s tradition of connecting North Carolinians to life-long learning as our state faces the economic challenge of pandemic recovery.”

Stith starts his job officially on Jan. 11.

Read the entire press release at the link below.

Watch the press conference below.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.