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A diverse group of finalists vying to lead Cuyahoga Community College

Cuyahoga Community College

Cuyahoga Community College is on the brink of a new chapter. Current president Alex Johnson is set to retire after nine years at the institution.

Three finalists are vying to take his place: Michael Baston, president of New York’s Rockland Community College; Annette Parker, president of Minnesota’s South Central College; and Colette Pierce Burnette, president of Huston-Tillotson University in Texas.

Whichever candidate is selected will inherit an institution, like its peers nationwide, that’s been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Emerging from this chapter is one of the biggest challenges for the college, according to Victor Ruiz, the executive director of Esperanza Inc. and a Tri-C board member who’s chairing its presidential search advisory committee.

“How do we come out of that to ensure the college continues on its path that it’s always been — being an innovative institution, providing workforce solutions, and being a place of choice and access of higher ed for Cuyahoga County?” he said.

Enrollment woes have been amplified during the past two years at Tri-C. Community colleges fared the worst in terms of enrollment drops nationwide. The pandemic’s impacts disproportionately affected both women and people of color, groups that make up the bulk of community college enrollments. Tri-C’s full-time enrollment fell 19% in the fall of 2020 and 8% a year later, coming in at about 9,000 students in fall 2021.

Ruiz listed additional institutional priorities the next leader will have to tackle. There’s figuring out how to meet local workforce needs amid the Great Resignation and making sure the college is on good financial footing.

Officials have been busy since Johnson — a beloved leader who leaves “big shoes to fill,” per Ruiz — announced his retirement in October 2021. The college is paying national firm AGB Search $80,000 to facilitate the process.

“When you think about community colleges in the nation, it is certainly well-regarded and well-respected as one of the top community colleges,” Jeanne Jacobs, an executive search consultant with the firm, said of Tri-C.

Nearly 30 candidates applied. Seven were invited to virtual interviews, and out of that group, the final three were invited to campus earlier this month for various in-person interviews, meetings and town hall events.

In a region where the majority of college presidents are white men, the Tri-C search committee and finalist pool were notably diverse. The 22 members of the committee represent a variety of races, genders, experiences and jobs. All three of the finalists for the job are Black. Two are women.

Diversity was specifically taken into account in the process, says board member Ruiz. They selected a search firm with a proven track record of sourcing diverse candidates. It was embedded in the process of the questions candidates were asked and how they were evaluated.

The college itself is one of the most diverse institutions in Northeast Ohio. Nearly 40% of its students are nonwhite, and 61% percent are women.

“We want to make sure that we are truly representative of the individuals that we serve, and we know that people want to see themselves in their leadership,” said Ruiz. “We also know that our students demand diversity and intersectionality and equity.”

Getting the Tri-C job would be a homecoming for Pierce Burnette. She grew up in Cleveland’s Lee-Harvard neighborhood, graduated from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s John F. Kennedy High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Ohio State University. She’s set to retire from Huston-Tillotson, a private HBCU, at the end of June.

“My approach, what I’ve learned there in Austin, Texas, would be transplanted easily into Ohio,” Pierce Burnette said at her town hall event.

Baston, the president of Rockland Community College, isn’t from Cleveland. He’s visited, though, including what he dubbed during his town hall as a “secret shopper” trip. Baston and his wife came to the area recently and posed as parents of a prospective Tri-C student.

The pair went to all of Tri-C’s four campuses. They also hit up local restaurants — a Perkins, a Cracker Barrel, the Marble Room — and talked to the wait staff: Hey, what have you heard of Tri-C? They wanted to get a true sense of the community, Baston said, one that wasn’t gleaned strictly from information passed along during interviews or by flipping through brochures.

“I believe you have the ability, we have the ability, to be the most consequential community college in the country,” he said.

Parker, the president of South Central College in Minnesota, said the city of Cleveland would be a playground for her due to the level of community engagement. She told the crowd during her town hall about how her research has been on public-private partnerships.

“I know about what’s going on (with) all the different sectors of the economy here and how important they are, but Cuyahoga Community College is an important player in the long-term sustainability in the global competitiveness of this region,” she said.

The board is now set to receive feedback from the college community before announcing its decision in May.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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