Peter Hans, a government relations adviser and former member of the UNC system and community college boards, will be the next president of North Carolina's community college system.
Hans, of Raleigh, was announced as the ninth leader for the 58-campus system Tuesday after a vote of the State Board of Community Colleges. He will succeed the acting president, Jennifer Haygood, who stepped into the role after the abrupt departure of Jimmie Williamson last year. Williamson served a little more than a year and later said he was forced out of the job.
Hans, who will make $275,000 annually, will lead the state's community colleges during a time of increasing pressure to graduate more students, even as enrollment has declined in a robust economy. The number of students enrolled has declined by almost 19 percent since 2008-09, when the recession sent people flooding to community college campuses.
Economists predict that the vast majority of jobs will require some kind of training or education beyond high school, putting community colleges on the front lines of preparing a workforce for more complex, technology-driven work.
The community colleges serve nearly 700,000 students across North Carolina. Some are seeking two-year associate's degrees. Others are pursuing technical certificates, customized job training, high school equivalency or enrichment classes. And the system is taking in an increasing number of high school students who are earning college credits alongside a high school diploma.
"The challenges facing us are critical," Hans said. "How do we expand the number of North Carolinians with education beyond high school? How do we close the skills gap that we hear about from employers? How do we bridge the divide between the rural corners and city centers of our state? And what will the changing nature of work even look like in the coming years?"
He called community colleges "the next rung up on the ladder for so many" and for North Carolina, "the edge in workforce development and economic development."
In a rare show of unity, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, both Republicans, appeared at a news conference to praise Hans. They had previously written a letter throwing their support behind him.
"This is the right pick," Cooper said. "This is a guy who can reach across the aisle. This is a guy who can achieve consensus."
Berger added, "Now more than ever, North Carolina is relying on our community colleges to help prepare our students and our people for careers that train our workforce and grow our economy."
At Tuesday's event, the state's political leaders were joined by UNC President Margaret Spellings, outgoing Wake Tech President Stephen Scott and Jack Bailey, president of pharmaceutical giant GSK, representing the business community.
Hans is not an educator, but much of his volunteer service has been around North Carolina's educational institutions. He helped build a bipartisan government relations business at law firms with former Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker, a Democrat, and has been largely aligned with Republican elected leaders. He was a senior policy adviser to U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth from 1995-99, then-U.S. Rep. Richard Burr in 1999-2001 and U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole, in 2001-02.
With experience on both the community college and UNC boards, he is seen as someone who could bring the two systems closer together.
Hans served three terms on the UNC Board of Governors, including his tenure as chairman from 2012 to 2014. He served a six-year term on the State Board of Community Colleges, starting in 1997, and became vice chairman.
He was reportedly the preferred choice of Republican legislative leaders when UNC was searching for a replacement for former system President Tom Ross three years ago. Spellings was hired, and board members who served on the search committee ultimately were not reappointed by the legislature. Some said that politics had become too much of a factor in the search process.
Since 2016, Hans served as a consultant to Spellings, working on issues of technology, health care, strategic planning and K-12 education. He also was a consultant to UNC Health Care CEO Dr. William Roper, advising on the recent proposed deal to merge operations with Atrium, formerly Carolina HealthCare System. That negotiation dissolved earlier this year when the two parties could not reach agreement.
Scott Shook of Greenville, chairman of the State Board of Community Colleges, said a committee reviewed candidates. Six people were interviewed and three finalists were brought forward for consideration.
On Tuesday, the board voted unanimously for Hans, though in recent weeks members had debated the merits of Hans versus another finalist, reportedly Walter Dalton, the former lieutenant governor, a Democrat, who is president of Isothermal Community College in Rutherfordton.
"Anytime you have a selection as big as this, there better be some real debate, there better be some discussions, because what we're really talking about here is the future of the community college system," Shook said.
Shook said Hans quickly rose to the top because of his connections with business and lawmakers of both political parties, as well as his experience with the UNC system.
"He had a very good understanding of higher education and what it takes, and specifically how the community college system interacts," Shook added, "because we're a decentralized system of 58 institutions out there. The job of the president is a very interesting one, and an interesting role in the state of North Carolina. You have a lot of responsibility, but not a lot of authority."
Hans grew up in Southport and Hendersonville. He is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, and received a master's degree in liberal arts with a concentration in international relations from Harvard University. He previously served on the State Banking Commission and is a trustee of Rex Hospital.
Hans joked that a high school coach once called him "small and really slow, too." But the lesson, he said, was about the advantages of being underestimated and giving extra effort.
"You know who else is underestimated? The community colleges," he said. "Our students are balancing, really juggling, jobs, families, life, school. I don't know how they do it. But they're busting their tails, and I'm going to bust my tail to help them."