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Our state deserves to know the finalists for president of the North Carolina Community College System

Update from Jane Stancill, Executive Director of Communications for the NC Community College system office, in an email received at 8:29am: “The Presidential Search Committee has been consistent in conducting a confidential search from the beginning to protect the process and to protect the names and current employment status of applicants. It has no plans to release the names of finalists, but has and will seek input on the next System President from representatives of the NC Association of Community College Presidents and the NC Association of Community College Trustees.”

Hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians are part of our community college system each year. Students, faculty, staff, and communities rely on the 58 colleges to teach basic skills, bolster economic mobility through credentials or degrees, and provide a pathway to public or private universities.

Breeden Blackwell, chair of the State Board of Community Colleges, and Bob Stephens, chair of the community college system’s presidential search committee, wrote in an op-ed published by EdNC in September that “the search for the next leader of the NC Community College System couldn’t come at a more important moment.”

They went on to write, “We want a consensus builder who can articulate the merits of the system and work collaboratively alongside the presidents of our 58 local colleges.”

They were exactly right when they wrote those words — and those words ring even more true now.

Enrollment is down at the overwhelming majority of the state’s community colleges. Because enrollment drives the funding model for the system and the rolling two-year budget for our colleges, this decline in enrollment could have a significant, multi-year impact.

During my recent travels to multiple colleges, the real threat of significant budget cuts that will come if the state does not step in with budget stabilization came up time and time again. 

Lee Proctor, vice president of instruction at Montgomery Community College, shared an old adage about community college budgets: “We don’t have any fat left. We are going to be cutting through muscle and heading towards bone next.”

John Gossett, president of A-B Tech, told us the fundamental question ahead without budget stabilization from the legislature would be to address the very mission of the colleges themselves. Scott Ralls, president of Wake Tech, said in a recent Virtual Town Hall that given our state’s pride in our colleges being open door institutions, we will have to ask ourselves what doors we are willing to close.

There’s a lot of work to do

And the issues do not stop with enrollment funding. 

The IT infrastructure for many colleges is dated at best. 

Faculty pay has been frozen since the budget impasse between Gov. Roy Cooper and the General Assembly. 

And if enrollment surges as the pandemic abates, all of these issues may well create a perfect storm as they try to serve more students with fewer resources.

The next system president must also continue to fundraise, increase awareness of the options offered by community colleges, and focus on the myFutureNC-endorsed statewide attainment goal.

The next system president has a tall job ahead, indeed.

The State Board-appointed presidential search committee has been meeting for months. 

I know they have interviewed candidates because the candidates have confirmed so in our conversations.

In the op-ed I referenced earlier, Blackwell and Stephens went on to write: “We are focused on the task ahead and we expect our system – the nation’s third largest – to attract excellent presidential candidates. The system’s next president has a daunting job ahead. He or she will lead the colleges out of the COVID era and into a period of recovery and resurgence for North Carolina.”

Education stakeholders are hopeful the pool has attracted excellent candidates, but too little information is publicly available. Here is the search committee. Here is the job posting. The committee was appointed on June 26, 2020, and according to the system’s website, the committee has met on Sept. 15 and 23, Oct. 1, 12, and 22-23, and on Nov. 6. For the most part, the committee has met in closed session.

Transparency matters

The system should hold itself to the same level of transparency as the individual colleges.

Colleges send a list of finalists to the state board for preliminary approval.

Colleges across the state announce the finalists for their presidential vacancies.

The colleges hold town halls where the candidates share their story and vision, take questions, and meet with stakeholders, faculty, and students.

The task ahead for the next system president is too important for the merits of the finalists not to be vetted and considered by the hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians who will be affected by the committee’s choice.

Will the system president be up to the task outlined by Blackwell and Stephens? It would help to know who the candidates are as the committee approaches its decision. 

The committee should share the finalists. A decision this important deserves greater transparency.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.