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State Board of Community Colleges elects new leaders

The State Board of Community Colleges held their monthly meeting this week. It’s the first in-person Board meeting with Dr. Jeff Cox at the helm as the new president for the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS). 

The meeting was marked by several key announcements, including Board elections and a new chief academic officer for the system.

On July 21, Thomas Looney was unanimously elected as the new Board Chair. After the announcement, Looney took the opportunity to highlight his vision for the Board and system. Looney said it was his hope to strengthen partnerships between business and industry and make it a priority for North Carolina’s community colleges to no longer be known as the state’s best kept secret. 

“We’re no longer going to be the Great 58. We’re going to be the Extraordinary 58,” Looney said. 

The Board also unanimously elected Dr. Grant Campbell as the new vice chair. Campbell was appointed to the Board in June 2022 after having stepped in to fill the unexpired term of former member, Lee Barnes. The chair and vice chair serve for two years. 

Ann Whitford, the honorable Chaz Beasley, and the honorable Ray Russell were all reappointed to the Board and sworn in on Friday. Tony Pile, the student government representative, was also sworn in. 

Board members Wade Bryan (Bobby) Irwin Jr. and Burr Sullivan’s terms expired at the end of June. Both Irwin and Sullivan will remain on the Board until their seats are filled. 

The Board voted to hire Dr. Brian Merritt as the system’s new chief academic officer. Merritt currently serves as the president of McDowell Technical Community College. Before Merritt can be hired by the system, he will need to be released from his current contract at McDowell Tech. If that occurs, Merritt’s proposed start date will be September 1.

In the interim, the Board voted to split the duties of the chief academic officer with two current system employees – Dr. J.W. Kelly and Dr. Lisa Eads. Kelly and Eads will receive salary increases – effective July 1 – until a replacement is hired. 

Remembering Dr. Darrin Hartness

Amid announcements and elections, many of Friday’s reports mentioned the late Dr. Darrin Hartness. Hartness, who served as president of Davidson-Davie Community College, passed away July 11. 

His memory and legacy flowed through the room Friday as his peers and colleagues talked about his commitment to education, economic development, and most of all, relationships. Hartness was known for investing in people – something he called “creating a culture for each other.” Being present for and taking care of each other – that was the resounding message in Friday’s reflections.  

Before Hartness passed, the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents (NCACCP) and superintendents across the state created a student success scholarship to honor Hartness and his commitment to people and education. So far, the two groups have raised $40,000.   

Jenny Varner was approved by the Board to serve as acting president at Davidson-Davie. Varner currently serves as vice president of external affairs and executive director of the college’s foundation.

State budget and student performance measures report

The new fiscal year is starting without a state budget.

Board member Lisa Estep said the system can maintain the prior year’s recurring budget items despite not having a state budget, based on a statute that was passed in 2016. However, non-recurring budget items will not be continued until a budget is passed. Those working closely with the budget hope to see something passed by mid-August. 

The Board approved the 2023 performance measures report. The annual report is based on data compared to the previous year and serves to inform colleges and the public on the performance of the 58 community colleges, said Board member Ann Whitford.

The performance measures report is the state’s major accountability document.

In 2010, a review process was established to ensure these measures and methods for evaluating colleges were current and remained focused on improving student success, Whitford said. The review process occurs every three years and the most recent review was conducted in 2021. 

The current measurements include student progress in basic skills, student success rate in college level English courses, student success rate in college level math, first year progression, curriculum student completion, licensure and certificate passing rates, and college transfer performance. The report also includes a table showing the performance measures for all 58 colleges. 

According to Board documents, “this report is designed to provide colleges and stakeholders with summary results related to the performance measures.” 

You can view the full report here. Additional analysis and insights based on student characteristics can be found here. 

Goals for the new system president approved

Last month, the Board discussed the proposed goals for Dr. Jeff Cox’s first year. Cox was named as the new system president in April and started the role on June 1, 2023. 

The goals are based, in part, on an organizational study and climate survey that were conducted over a year ago.

After last month’s discussion of these goals, the Board had the chance to make comments and provide feedback. Conversations with Cox and the system’s senior team led the Board’s governance committee to revise some of the goals. 

The honorable Ray Russell said he believes they are creating a model for how the Board should set goals for its senior leadership team. 

Some of the president’s goals for the first year include:

  • Develop an updated viable funding model.
  • Scale system capacity and responsiveness to address workforce development needs.
  • Develop a viable sustainability plan for rural colleges.
  • Build a senior management team.
  • Engage crucial constituencies.
  • Oversee the development and execution of a comprehensive, statewide, and national communications, marketing, and branding plan. 

Russell said the goals presented for the president’s first year are aspirational and they hope within the next month to develop the first draft of an instrument to measure performance. 

Russell also mentioned the preamble to the president’s goals which states:

“The goals outlined below align with the Strategic Plan and address issues identified in external assessments that the Board conducted in the last year. They are ambitious in nature and will not all be accomplished within a year but are critical to our long-term success. We will measure the President by ascertaining how well he leads the System Office and Community Colleges in making progress toward these goals over the next year.”

The Board approved the goals for the system president. You can view the full list of goals here. 

Other items to note

During Friday’s meeting, the Board recognized outgoing Chair Sullivan, Board member Irwin, and outgoing student government representative LaTasha Bradford with special awards. 

The next State Board of Community Colleges meeting is scheduled for Aug. 17-18. 

Correction: A previous version of this article stated Jenny Varner would be interim president at Davidson-Davie Community College. Varner will serve as acting president.

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst for EducationNC.