Patricia Skinner, the president of Gaston College, recently retired after more than 25 years on the job. EdNC.org sat down with her to talk about what she’s learned in her time working at the college and in the community college system.
The following Q & A has been edited for clarity and length.
Question: How has the president’s job changed?
The biggest thing has been technology. When I came in 1994, we didn’t even have the internet. We met with people personally, and we had the telephone. But we didn’t have computers the way we have today.
One of the things is you’re inundated 24 hours a day. You’re never off. And not just technology as far as communication but just in general. All of our programs have changed as far as technology.
We were down for a couple of days. People didn’t know what to do. Especially some of the younger people because they had never been without a phone, or without a computer, or without technology. So people had to actually talk to each other.
That’s probably the biggest change. Just continual communication. And anyone can communicate with you. So if a student has a complaint — I don’t get very many — but they have my email address.
Also, student success has been a really big thing. When I came in 1994, it was always about access. And then we started thinking, “Well that’s just great, but how many are finishing?” So we really started working on student success before that became popular.
And the other thing is data showing the success for your students. So we focused more on student success and completion. How can we help our students?
It used to be that students would come in and they wouldn’t get anything from us until they got a mid-term or mid-semester something, and then at the end. Now we don’t wait that long. We send them all kinds of communication. We send them positive kudos. “Oh, you did a great job on that last test.” And some of our students are like, “Wow, somebody cares about me.”
That, I think, has been another big change in my lifetime here. Focusing on what can we do to help students be successful.
Question: Are there things here that you have left unfinished?
Of course things are a lot better than when I came. We’ve done a lot of great things. But I think about all the changes that are going to take place. We are just about to get approval for a second early college high school. We’re very excited about that. It’s going to require a lot of changes. We don’t have the space. The next person is going to have to raise the money and figure out how to get money to add to the building.
We’re just finishing the Vet Tech building, and I’m so excited because that’s the first program that I started when I came here. That will be finished I think in April. The faculty will be on campus. We are right next door at the animal shelter. The animal shelter is moving and we’ve always worked together. It’s a very tiny facility. We’re going from 4,000 square feet to 14,000.
The fact that the state hasn’t passed a budget to give money for people. I can’t do anything about it, but I hope that next year maybe they give double what they were going to. People who work in community colleges know they’re not going to necessarily make as much as they would make elsewhere, but there are rewards. But that only goes so far. I hope that someday they can get the pay for not necessarily what they’re worth — because that may never happen — but at least better.
Question: I know there are probably many things you’re proud of. But is there one thing that sticks out to you?
There’s so many things. But I would say the quality of what we do here. That’s been a focus since day one. That’s why we built new buildings, so we can have a quality learning environment. That’s why we’ve added equipment. That’s why we’ve raised money. So we can help students to be successful.
So I’m just really proud of the quality of our faculty and staff. We’ve got a great hiring process. Sometimes it takes us six months to a year to hire a position. It’s got to be the right person for the position and not just the person who’s available.
I feel very good about the people who are here and about the tone that we’ve set for quality and success, and the reputation we have in the community and the state.
Question: Do you have any regrets?
There are always thing you learn from. Probably the saddest day here was the day I had to tell the child care teachers — we used to have a child care center — we couldn’t afford it any more. And my own grandchildren, my two oldest grandchildren, actually benefited from it when they were little.
We had just a really top-notch program, but we couldn’t afford it. And then we transitioned and a lot of the people got hired doing other things.
It was just, I knew we had good teachers, but it just wasn’t something we got funding for. I don’t know if it’s a regret because there wasn’t a whole lot I could do.
Question: What are the biggest opportunities for the college going forward?
I think continuing on the student success initiatives that we are doing, and the next early college high school that we’re developing. The early college high school is going to be like a health academy — medical sciences I think they’re going to call it. And we are working with Belmont Abbey College, they’re developing health programs. So our faculty are right now helping them because they don’t offer anything in that area.
The CaroMont is building a new hospital in Belmont. So now we have a partnership with the Gaston County Schools, Belmont Abbey, and Gaston College to work together in that whole health care area where there is going to be a need for more jobs. So I think that’s going to be a big thing in our area.
In Lincoln County, we’ve got the apprenticeship program. Actually, we’ve got that in both counties. All of our business, particularly manufacturing, are looking for employees. We just got started with the pre-apprenticeship program and I think that’s got tremendous opportunities for growth.
And for those kids who want to get a good job — we had a meeting this morning and we had four high school students who are all seniors in Lincoln County who have all signed up for the pre-apprenticeship program. And they were so excited. And I just hope that expands and grows.
And we’ve got apprenticeships in health also. So I think that’s another area of expansion for the future.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Well I think the way things have changed — worrying about safety I think is an issue for all of us. There are things you have control over and things you don’t. We’ve put in a lot of measures. We have full-time campus police here. We have put in cameras. We have a messaging system. So that’s one thing: Are we doing enough to help make sure we’re as safe as we can be on all of our campuses?
And funding has always been a challenge. We’ve reallocated resources since day one. You’re never going to get enough state money to do what you wanted to do. So every time a position has opened up, you look at: Do we need that? Do we need something else? Or do we have to not hire anybody because we don’t have the funds right now?
And I take pride that we have not laid off people here. We have tried to figure out how can we make the most of our resources. And we might not fill a position because our enrollment, up until this year, has gone down.
It’s gone up for the last three semesters. We’ve looked really hard at what we can do, but it’s hard to control that. We’re not like the universities who have a idea of who’s coming in. So that’s something I think everybody worries about. I’m happy to see it turn around and I hope it stays that way.
Question: What do you see happening with community colleges in North Carolina over the next five years, 10 years, 20 years?
I came here from Ohio. And North Carolina has always had a great reputation for its community colleges. It’s one of the reasons that I decided to come here, because I knew that.
So I think that in North Carolina, the leadership cares about the community colleges. Do we get all the funding we need? No. But they’ve supported us. You look at the kinds of initiatives that are going on. The state is involved in student success. We have all these new presidents. We have a trustees association. We have the presidents association. We have the State Board of Community Colleges. I think they’re working very well as a team right now.
We’ve gotten some support from the legislature. We’re one of few that got a budget this time. So that speaks highly.
The same challenges are out there in terms of, you’re never going to have enough money but you have to continue to advocate.
The whole political scene is changing. I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. But I know that there is such a need for people to have good jobs for our economy. We are critical with the way that jobs are changing.
I was talking to one of our faculty today and he was telling me that his son is involved with Google and doing all sorts of things. Those jobs didn’t even exist five years ago. So that is going to continue. We’re going to have to continue to figure out how we’re going to support that.
Question: Do you have advice for the next person in this position?
I feel like I’m leaving things in good shape. We’ve got good people. As all of us need to do, come and learn, listen to people, learn about the culture, appreciate what’s here before making huge huge changes. There’s always changes that need to be made. I mean, we’ve made a lot of changes over the years. But people are anxious when a new person is coming in.
I’ve had a lot of the faculty say, “Well you’re the only president I’ve ever known.” So I have faculty who are very anxious just for what’s going to happen. So I hope that the person comes in appreciating the talent that we’ve got.
Appreciate the partnerships we have. We work well with our schools. We’ve got our business community that has been very supportive, and then you know, they’re going to come in and they’ve got their own way of doing things. I hope they are respectful and care about people. Because that’s what we’re all about. We are like a family. People care about each other here and we care about our students.
Question: Is there anything else you would like to add?
I feel like I have been so fortunate to be here. I had never been to this area of the country. The people have been wonderful and I love the community. I’m staying here, I’ve got four grand kids in the area. So I just feel like this has been the best job in the world.
And I’m not going to be one to be hovering — I have other things I want to do. But I will help and answer questions. I’m looking forward to not having the responsibility. It’s huge.