At the end of the day on June 30, I will step down as president of Mid-South Community College to lead the Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce initiative. I will do so with extremely mixed emotions because I will be leaving the best job I ever expect to have. I can state with a significant level of certainty that I’ll never have another set of circumstances as empowering, energizing, and rewarding as this.
In a perfect world, we would all get to stay frozen in time at the place where we enjoy life the most. Unfortunately, that’s not the way life works; we have to evolve. My leaving is a part of a plan that is going to make this place better and certainly much more capable of moving this region in a positive direction. My leaving engineers a better opportunity to create something that is sustainable and will transcend anyone’s tenure.
In the last 20 years, I’ve had lots of chances to go do some pretty cool things at other places. Many people told me I’d lost my mind when I didn’t pursue those opportunities seriously: “Dude, don’t you know how cool this would be for your career?” But I never left because our work at Mid-South Community College is too important.
My new job, however, gives me the opportunity to continue that work by keeping the college at the forefront of regional workforce and economic development conversation. The GMACW is focused on the transformation of the Memphis Metro Area, which includes Mid-South Community College, into a huge economic engine. Our institution has the potential to play a seminal role in that evolution.
When the Tennessee folks first approached me about the position, I blew them off because I was having too much fun at Mid-South Community College. I told them on a couple of occasions that they were nuts. If you talk to the Shelby County mayor, he’ll tell that I offended everybody in the room at one meeting. But their argument/approach was persuasive – “We know what we want, and we understand how important eastern Arkansas is to Memphis’ evolution. We want someone who can walk across that bridge and have the ability to carry on a conversation in Tennessee, Arkansas, or Mississippi.”
Despite being intrigued, I had no real interest because I knew that unless my leaving would put us in a position where we could be better off as an institution, I could never leave. The day I recognized that what was best for this place was for me to move on so we could engineer the transition, I accepted the job. I realized that now is the time for us to pursue and achieve the next level of capacity that our region requires.
My family and I moved to Crittenden County almost 25 years ago when I accepted the job as principal of West Memphis High School. I received offers from two schools at about the same time – Fayetteville and West Memphis. My wife, Jody, knew I wasn’t crazy enough to go to West Memphis; we didn’t even know where it was. To make the decision even easier, on paper, we are both from western Arkansas, and the job at Fayetteville was one of the most prestigious positions in Arkansas. When I prayed about it, however, I was absolutely, totally convicted that I needed to come to West Memphis.
I feel that same conviction now about the job with GMACW. The context of my leaving is all predicated on the opportunity to get Mid-South Community College to a better place. I am confident and convicted this scenario gives us that opportunity. Nothing is ever going to change my commitment to this institution. If anything, my leaving strengthens it. This is where my heart is, and that’s never going to change.
Less than a month ago, I wrote about the ongoing successes of our students on state and national assessments and professional licensure exams, and almost before I made the last keystroke, more stories about high achievements came across my desk. Because our job is to help our students succeed, we are indeed proud of them when they triumph in the classroom or in their chosen profession. The following is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it is representative of additional good things happening because of our students’ ability to access higher education.
When the Evening Times published its annual graduation issues, we couldn’t help but recognize that eight of the Crittenden County valedictorians and five of the salutatorians took classes at our institution. By our calculations, 13 of 14 best students from the Academies of West Memphis, Marion High School, Earle High School, and West Memphis Christian earned at least some credit at Mid-South Community College before high school graduation. We’re not sure what happened with No. 14, but that gives us room for improvement in 2016.
Two of the students earned 34 college-credit hours, effectively giving them a year’s head start on a bachelor’s degree and saving themselves and their parents/guardians a ton of that can go toward their next three years or more if they pursue post-graduate work. Six of the honor students finished with at least 20 hours, and the overall credit-hour count topped 253, aided significantly, of course, by the Thomas B. Goldsby Concurrent Scholarship.
When the West Memphis School District announced its Teachers of the Year, we once again recognized several of the faces and names as former Mid-South students. Takelia Carter, a 2009 honor graduate of MSCC, received recognition as the top teacher at Richland Elementary School. Allison Covington, our 2002 Arkansas Association of Two-Year College’s Academic All-Star who graduated with highest honors in 2006, won the award at West Junior High. David Murray, a 2007 MSCC honor graduate, earned the honor at L.R. Jackson Elementary School.
Four of our former Teacher Education students who graduated from Arkansas State University in May secured jobs before their commencement. Crystal Daniel, a 2013 honor graduate, will be teaching sixth-grade math at Faulk Elementary School. Morgan Capps, a 2014 MSCC grad, will be teaching Career Prep at West Junior High, and Chasterdee Jones, also a 2014 grad, will be working with kindergarten students at Faulk Elementary. Haley McNabb, who took Mid-South classes from Fall 2008 through Spring 2013, will be handling third- and fourth-graders at Memphis Cornerstone Prep Academy.
Looking at on-campus certification efforts, 20 of our Spring 2015 Information Systems Technology Applications Specialist students passed Microsoft Office Specialist exams in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access. Overall, our students earned certification at 91 percent clip, a significant jump from the 69 percent in 2013-2014. In addition our full- and part-time business faculty members earned six certifications in the new Office 2013 applications.
Community colleges often take it on the chin when folks – especially those who look at us as through university lenses – focus on retention, persistence, and completion rates, but we’re doing some great things with some great people. In many cases, we’re having a dramatically positive impact on students who might not pursue higher education if they had to travel beyond the borders of Crittenden County. We may not always have the most glittering statistics, but our success stories are a match for anyone anywhere.
On June 5, Arkansas State University System President Dr. Charles Welch announced the selection of a former Mid-South Community College employee as the first chancellor of what is tentatively scheduled to become ASU Mid-South on July 1. Pending approval by the Higher Learning Commission at its June 25-26 meeting, the college will join the university system at the beginning of the new fiscal year, and Dr. Debra West will serve as the chief executive officer starting Aug. 1.
The ASU System conducted an extensive national search for the position, and the 14-member Chancellor Search Advisory Committee – with members representing faculty, staff, students and the community – reviewed 57 applications. Four finalists, three of whom featured Mid-South Community College backgrounds and work experience, came to our campus for comprehensive interviews in May.
As someone who has been involved in countless employee searches, I commend the search committee for its efforts because the decision had to be a difficult one. All four of the finalists brought amazing talents, experience, and communications skills to the table, making the selection process a challenging one. While not a front-line participant in the process, I understand that the candidates made excellent impressions while meeting with the various campus constituencies. I am certainly glad the decision rested with a bunch of folks who know and understand what Mid-South Community College has meant to this region and what ASU Mid-South will mean in the future.
Based on what I’ve seen, heard, and know, I have complete confidence in Dr. West’s ability to continue to move this institution forward. Her familiarity with the college in its formative years and her experiences since leaving us give her unique insight into meeting the needs of our students and the many businesses we align with for workforce education.
As far as I can tell, she’s only had a couple of significant lapses in judgment – when she left our institution in 2002 to return to East Arkansas Community College before coming to her senses and resuming her Mid-South career and when she left our institution in 2004 because her husband, in her words, “dragged me kicking and screaming to Mississippi.” But as she will tell you, her work with the Mississippi Community College Board, the rough equivalent to the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, prepared her for a return to eastern Arkansas as a chancellor.
As Program Specialist for Career and Technical Education; Director of Postsecondary Career & Technical Education; Associate Executive Director for Workforce, Career, and Technical Education; and, most recently, Deputy Executive Director for Programs and Accountability, Dr. West developed the skills set that made her a viable candidate for the challenge of leading the Mid-South campus.
As a native of eastern Arkansas, a first-generation college student, and a first-generation high school graduate, Dr. West understands the challenges of the people we serve. During a question-and-answer session with Mid-South employees, she related a story from her first semester as a student at our sister institution in Forrest City. Knowing she needed some general education courses to begin working toward a degree, she enrolled in Western Civilization. She wandered the campus in search of the class for week, but was so afraid to ask a question that she dropped the class rather than inquire about its location. Many of our students come to us with that same kind of uncertainty.
Dr. West will also tell you that her husband can attest to the fact that she has complained for the last 13 years about leaving Mid-South Community College because “this institution is one of the best places I’ve ever worked.” But now she’s back — well almost — and I encourage you to greet her with open arms and minds. With your help, Dr. West will do a great job.
On June 8, I enjoyed the distinct pleasure of awarding Board of Trustees members honorary associate of arts degrees from Mid-South Community College, likely the last that will ever be bestowed. Pending Higher Learning Commission approval of our merger with the Arkansas State University System, we will become ASU Mid-South on July 1, and all subsequent honorary degrees will bear that name.
Our institution has flourished for a number of reasons. I’m very proud of the number of people who have worked for our institution after starting out as our students. I’m very proud of the caliber of people we’ve been able to attract in terms of our faculty and staff. The college has also been blessed immeasurably in terms of our campus, technology, equipment, and the surroundings. Everyone who comes to our campus for the first time says essentially the same thing. They can’t imagine that they’re on a two-year college campus, and they certainly can’t imagine that they’re in eastern Arkansas.
The one most important key to our success, however, has been the extraordinary leadership of our board. We have had a group of people who were both visionary and practical, and they approached this challenge with a sense of moral conviction. They certainly understood that this was a charge that we had to fulfill in the right way so that the people of our community could have the chance they deserved to achieve their God-given potential.
Whatever this institution becomes in the future is going to be directly linked back to what the board has done, particularly to those who have been here since the board’s inception. I can tell you there weren’t very many people anywhere outside of Crittenden County who were very supportive of us having a community college in the first place.
If not for the conviction of those first folks to stay the course, this thing would have never made it off the ground. The reason we were successful is that our board members wanted us to have access to higher education like other communities in our state enjoyed. They weren’t sure how to get there, but they were sure that we had to do something positive for the future of our community.
Time after time, when most boards might have backed up or at least taken pause or said ‘We’re not sure we want to do this,’ ours never blinked. They said, ‘You do what you have to do to make it work.’ We need every ounce of that support, moral conviction, and dogged determination to make it.
People like Lynn Allen, Solon Anthony, Dr. Marian Barr, Herbert Carter, Bill Clarke, Alex Coulter, Zelma Denton, Denny East, Clara Ferron, Linda Graham, Velma Griffin, Loutelious Holmes, Ross Hooper, the late Roberta Jackson, Gary Masner, the late H.J. Meadows, Phil Neri, Milton Nicks Jr., Hershel Owens, Butch Pike, Harold Scifres, the late Famous Smith, Marvin Steele, Mary M. Toney, and Richard Williford have performed Herculean tasks to lead us to a better place.
While all have contributed mightily, I believe one has distinguished himself both through his length of service and his determination to see us succeed – Alex Coulter. It didn’t really matter what obstacles we encountered, how dire the circumstances looked at the moment, or what the odds were against us, failure in his mind was not an option.
For years his support and leadership, both on individual and professional levels, helped us not only survive but thrive. I’ll be the first to admit that Alex and I have had our share of “discussions” about how things should be done, but I know he has always had the good of the college and the community in his heart. I believe that Alex Coulter was put in the right place at the right time to help create this institution.
I hope you will join me in thanking current and past trustees and their families for what they have meant to our community and our region.
While it isn’t the absolute final step, Mid-South Community College moved closer to a world-class hospitality management program with the dedication of the
Jeremy Jacobs Hospitality Center on June 2. The traditional African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” may not have direct application to the effort, but its reference to the need for many people working together to accomplish something significant certainly fits.
The list of partners is long, but it’s something that we’re going to make certain we fully recognize.
Obviously, the list begins with the Jacobs Family, Delaware North, and Southland Park Gaming and Racing. It would be impossible to overstate their role, not just in our efforts to grow a hospitality management program, but in the overall evolution of this institution. I just can’t imagine where we would be today if not for their major contributions.
The Arkansas Community Foundation – which engages people, connects resources and inspires solutions to build community – also played a role in this effort. Heather Larkin, president and CEO of that organization, has done a fantastic job, and the Foundation has certainly made positive investments in this program.
The Delta Regional Authority, particularly through the leadership of Federal Co-Chairman Chris Masingill, provided significant assistance along the way. If you walk around our campus, you can’t very many projects that the DRA hasn’t had an investment in, and this is yet another example of such.
We’ve also received unwavering support from our members of the Arkansas General Assembly – Senator Keith Ingram and Representatives Deborah Ferguson and Milton Nicks. They have invested heavily in this effort, and I can assure you that this wouldn’t be a reality without their continued support.
The Assisi Foundation, like the DRA, has been a major player in this facility and program. You can’t find very many cool things on our campus that the Assisi Foundation hasn’t invested in. They’re a fantastic partner.
It’s always nice to have partners that have clout, and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, with Jean Noble, Director of Grants Management, in the lead, certainly provided that.
The City of West Memphis, including Mayor Bill Johnson and a number of folks within the city infrastructure, have played a very significant role in us being where we are today.
The Delta Cuisine Board of Directors, with Paul Luker at the forefront, has never wavered in its support. Without their conviction, this may never have occurred. On the front end of this project, Paul probably spent about as many hours as anybody trying to make certain that we got it right.
As is often the case, Fidelity National Bank has a played a seminal role in where we are today. Like many others, they are a perennial partner that we can always count on, and we appreciate their continued support.
On the federal level, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also assisted with our efforts.
While the University of Memphis and The Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality & Resort Management did not contribute directly to this particular effort, they certainly provided us with something of immense value – instant credibility. The articulation agreement we have in place gives our students tremendous opportunities. That’s a huge addition to what we’re doing.
In terms of individuals, John Auker, Delta Cuisine Project Manager, provided leadership, information, expertise, and direction. His research and site visits helped us gather valuable information that helped us make sound decisions about all phases of the project.
We are blessed to have had the opportunity to take some good ideas and turn them into something great. Our Hospitality Management Program and this facility are certainly going to change lives and put people to work, which has been our goal since Day 1. Add to that the Delta Cuisine component of what’s occurring here, and you’re multiplying the lives and the positive impact.
Mid-South Community College recently aced its State Performance Funding Methodology “exam,” and our students continue to excel in variety of academic, technical, and professional pursuits. Both our institution and our students persist despite what many would consider overwhelming obstacles as we repeatedly demonstrate what can be accomplished when commitment, effort, and divine intervention come together.
MSCC earned 9.87 points out of 10 (98.7%) on the annual Performance Funding Methodology assessment conducted by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. We outperformed 16 of the state’s two-year colleges in the process and ranked sixth overall for such factors as course completion, progression, credentials, and region/mission.
While we’re not completely satisfied with anything less than a 10, we’re proud of the amazing accomplishments of our institution while working with one of the most resource-challenged student populations in the state. According to the most recent state statistics, only one two-year college in Arkansas deals with more challenges than MSCC, and we easily eclipsed that institution’s score.
If you’re starting with people who are ill prepared academically (which we are), who are generally the first in their families to attend college (about 90 percent of our students), who need significant financial aid to even consider pursuing higher education (around 90 percent again), and you’re funded at 55 percent of the what the state says you really need to have to operate, you might have some serious issues. But we’re overcoming many of those issues because we have a lot of folks working really hard to make a difference for our students.
For someone on the East Coast looking at us with a traditional university mindset, we’re abject failures. What they don’t understand is that our goal is take students where they are and move them as close to the front of the line as we can. To some, that’s an associate degree; to others, it may be one or two classes that make them more employable. It could also be a high school equivalency certificate. Some, if not many, of our students will never earn a degree from Mid-South Community College. But if they can get the basic education or technical training that can help them land a decent job, they, and we, have succeeded and reached a real-world goal.
And our students are definitely meeting the challenges. Here is a partial list of their recent accomplishments:
- Of the 2015 graduates required to take the Career Readiness Certificate exam, 28 earned gold-level recognition, 77 earned silver, and 18 earned bronze
- Of the 137 graduates eligible for honors (students must complete an associate degree), 66 earned either cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laud recognition
- Of the 28 Tech Center (high school) students who participated in ACT KeyTrain® training and took the WorkKeys® assessment, 20 earned gold CRCs and 3 earned bronze
- All seven Emergency Medical Technician students from the spring 2015 semester who took the state practical skills test passed to earn Arkansas certification
- Twenty-four developmental math students completed two or more courses during the spring term
- Two MSCC students who completed the Teacher Education program on our campus through Arkansas State University received master’s degrees in May
- All students who have taken machining classes in the past three semesters are working in jobs related to their training
- One young man who first came to us in 2004 (before taking a seven-year hiatus from higher education) managed to land a machinist job at Smith & Nephew based on what he learned in our classes even though he didn’t complete all of them.
So while we’re facing significant challenges, we are engineering some phenomenal turnarounds in the lives – and futures – of our students. Considering the significant lack of funding that we battle every day, I would put our performance up against anybody’s in the country.