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John Gossett will be president at A-B Tech. He talks about his readiness on day one.

Today, on March 19, the State Board of Community Colleges approved John Gossett to be the president of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. At the same meeting, the board is talking about all of our community colleges and coronavirus.

Gossett is ready.

Currently the president of McDowell Technical Community College, Gossett has served the college in a variety of roles since 2012. He has worked in the North Carolina Community College system for 32 years.

Gossett will serve as the seventh president of A-B Tech when he assumes the role on July 1. He replaces Dr. Dennis King, who was president for six years. Until July, interim president Joseph Barwick will continue to lead the college.

I met Gossett on my first visit to McDowell Tech in the spring of 2019. He impressed upon us the importance of colleges and high schools working together to combat high school dropouts, of bolstering the educational pipeline to move people toward attainment, and of using Career and Technical Education as a direct connection to highlight prospective careers to teenagers.

As Gossett prepares to take over at A-B Tech, he acknowledged his excitement during one of our recent conversations. “When I told my direct reports that I had been invited to serve as the next president of A-B Tech, one of them said, ‘I’m proud you made the big time!'”

“Having worked in A-B Tech’s shadow my whole career, I always looked up to the school and the people who work there,” he told me.

Gossett, and his family, will be moving a mere 40 minutes up the road come July.

Here’s more of our conversation:

Nation Hahn: You are a long-suffering Tennessee Vols fan. Tell me about that experience as well as the experience of growing up in Tennessee.

John Gossett: My father worked for the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture in Knoxville. To my embarrassment I am the first generation to not make a living through agriculture, but I am proud that I am a second (and my son is a third) generation educator. I was raised to understand and appreciate that education is the main avenue people have to create a better life. 

NH: What led you to work in education?

JG: Last year I asked my graduating class for the first-generation college graduates to stand. A third of the class stood. They couldn’t, but I could, see the pride in their families’ faces sitting behind them. I told them in 50 or 75 years grandchildren or great-grandchildren they may or may not meet will ask themselves, “Where would this family be if grandma/grandpa had not graduated from college?” These brave graduates are changing the trajectory of their families for the better! The expectations are now higher. I know if my grandmother had not pushed my father and his brothers to college, I would probably still be on a farm in west Tennessee working to make a living in timber and soybeans. Yes, education makes a difference for those who pursue it.

NH: What should your faculty and students know about your interests outside of work? I always believe it helps to know people’s hobbies to begin to know the full measure of someone.

JG: We enjoy hiking, biking on rails-to-trails like the Creeper Trail in Virginia, the Tweetsie Trail in Tennessee and the Peavine and Point Lookout Trails in McDowell County. It’s great that communities are converting old abandoned rail lines into something that everyone can enjoy. I play golf when I can and wish I was better but don’t have the time to practice like I need to in order to be good. The best golf is with my son! We don’t care what the scores are, we just enjoy the time with each other. 

Julie agreed to be my bride eight years ago this July. Together we have two sons, two daughters, two daughters-in-law, one grandson and one Shih Tzu named Mojo. The kids bring six dogs with them for Christmas. It’s wild! As you know, my son is a twin. We lost his brother 25 years ago to a lifelong illness. Jackson’s memory is never far from my thoughts. His life and death taught me so much about grace and mercy. 

NH: We would be remiss if we did not discuss COVID-19. Share a little about McDowell Tech’s response to the pandemic.

JG: We are abiding by the numbered memo sent by Peter Hans and Dr. Kim Gold. My leadership team is meeting constantly. We will shut down face-to-face classes next week for the foreseeable future. The processes are the same across the state. Get the best people on the most important tasks and give them the authority to solve problems.

NH: When you and I spoke recently, you said your departure letter to McDowell Tech will be “tear stained.” Clearly this is an emotional moment for you. Tell me how you are feeling as you prepare to leave McDowell Tech.

JG: McDowell Tech is special to me in so many ways. Dr. Bryan Wilson brought me here in 2012 and was a wonderful mentor. He gave me room to grow as a leader and supported my efforts. Likewise, the Board of Trustees have been phenomenal in their support during my presidency. All 12 are pulling in the same direction to make our school better for our students and give us the support we need to be bold in a smart way. The employees are some of the most dedicated, student-centered people I have ever had the pleasure to work with. We don’t have to remind them of the goal; student success is at the center of everything they think and do. Plus, they love to laugh, which fits me well. We spend more time at work than anywhere else. Might as well enjoy it. 

NH: What lessons from McDowell Tech, and your other stops, will you bring with you to A-B Tech as you move forward?

JG: One thing I bring is 32 years in the NC Community College System. I know the system office leaders in Raleigh and how our system works. Having served on almost 10 off-site reaffirmation teams through our accrediting body (SACSCOC), I see how our system is unique from other states. Knowing the ins-and-outs of how we generate a budget, how to create programs that serve our community, where to go for support and answers to questions should serve me very well. 

NH: What do you see as the opportunities and challenges for McDowell Tech as you depart? 

JG: It is a great time to be in McDowell County, so my successor is going to have so much fun! McDowell County is growing, the Marion downtown area is booming, the relationship with the public school system is strong, and it feels like MTCC’s reputation among the citizens is growing. There are challenges as the economy is changing before our eyes with COVID-19, but the entrepreneurial spirit is strong, and the desire to pull together to make McDowell County a better place to work and live is stronger still. 

NH: What keeps you up at night as a college president? What will you be thinking about in terms of challenges as this new role launches?

JG: What keeps me up at night are the issues our students face outside the classroom. Food insecurity is an issue for all higher education. Housing is an issue for our community so MTCC is in the room helping a group of different agencies address the problem through grants for workforce housing units. Transportation, health care, disenfranchised students, access to broadband … the list goes on. Is food and housing and transportation within our stated mission? Not specifically, but if students are worried about hunger, where they are going to sleep or how they are going to get to school, then studying their subject won’t be a priority. I am sure that Madison and Buncombe county residents face the same barriers to success, so we will be at the table helping the communities address the issues.

NH: What do you see as your job on day one as president at A-B Tech?

JG: Obviously it will be a challenge to learn a new culture with very talented employees, but I am looking forward to the challenge. A-B Tech means so much to the communities it serves, I am honored to be chosen to lead it. Likewise, this is an exciting time to be in the community college industry, and I am looking forward to the future and being able to lead such a strong institution.

Being so close geographically makes Day One a little bit easier. Life is all about relationships. I hope to begin meeting with the employees and direct reports before July 1 to create relationships with key people on all of our campuses. Thankfully I already know several because in an industry like ours, paths cross. But also developing relationships with Board, the Foundation, economic development, chamber of commerce, council of governments, city and county leaders … everyone who has a vested interest in the success of A-B Tech and our students.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the director of growth for EducationNC.