Education

N.C.’s new community college leader seeks better legislative ties

James “Jimmie” Williamson talks after he was named Thursday morning, March 31, 2016, to lead North Carolina’s community college system.
James “Jimmie” Williamson talks after he was named Thursday morning, March 31, 2016, to lead North Carolina’s community college system. eboffetta@newsobserver.com

The state’s community college system, fresh off a loss of special salary funds, has a new leader who says building legislative relationships will be job one.

Jimmie Williamson, the former president and CEO of the South Carolina Technical College System, became president of the North Carolina system July 1.

On Friday, at his first meeting with the state board, Williamson said getting to know North Carolina’s 58 community colleges will be a steep learning curve. By the end of September, he plans 10 regional gatherings where he will meet all presidents and trustee chairs.

“I will be working vigilantly,” he said. “You will see me all over, probably. The car is gassed up and ready to go.”

Williamson had 20 years of experience in the 16-campus technical college system in South Carolina, the state where he was born and raised.

His first act in North Carolina was to appoint a chief of staff, Jennifer Haygood, who will run some day-to-day operations as Williamson focuses on external relationships. Haygood has been the system’s chief financial officer since 2008 and executive vice president since 2014.

“My job is to bring the resources to the table for us to fulfill our mission, whatever that entails,” Williamson said in an interview after the meeting. “I just see that as No. 1 priority. It’s a space that I’m very comfortable with, and that I feel that I can make a difference.”

Before serving two years as head of South Carolina’s system, Williamson spent six years in a leadership role at a health care company, where he saw firsthand the workforce that community colleges had to offer. Before that, he served as president of two technical colleges in the state. That experience helped him understand what college presidents need in a system president, he said.

During the presidential search, leaders said they wanted someone with strong political skills, to position the system for more legislative wins. The need was evident in the recent budget process. While the system secured the same raises as other state employees, it did not get an extra $10 million in special salary funds that had been included in previous versions of the budget.

My job is to bring the resources to the table for us to fulfill our mission, whatever that entails. I just see that as No. 1 priority.

Jimmie Williamson, new president of N.C. community college system

Donny Hunter, president of the N.C. Association of Community College Trustees, said Friday he was “disgusted with the way it happened,” in the final days of closed-door budget negotiations, adding, “$10 million out of a budget really hurts people.”

Hunter said there’s talk of forming a coalition of key business leaders to carry a more persuasive message of support for community colleges.

Williamson said he hoped to meet with lawmakers in their districts before they convene again early next year. “I think that when I have a relationship with a House or Senate member, so that I’m at the point that I can text them and say, ‘I really need to talk to you,’ or they are texting me and saying, ‘How does this affect you?’ that’s the kind of level that I need to get to with members of the General Assembly.”

In return, he said, the system must demonstrate how it serves the state. “We certainly have to show the return on investment, our value,” he said. “We have to build the case, and constantly remind people about who we are and what we do.”

The new president also relishes recruiting industry. He has spoken with Gov. Pat McCrory about it, he said, pointing out that he’s traveled to Europe on recruiting missions four times in the past 14 months.

The first thing he hung on the wall of his office here was a 2015 photograph of himself and other South Carolina officials at the groundbreaking of a Volvo plant. South Carolina has scored significant wins in manufacturing over North Carolina, especially in the automotive industry. “It was a big part of sealing the deal for Volvo. The role that the technical colleges played in the decision for Volvo to come to the U.S., and specifically to South Carolina, was huge. I enjoy that kind of work.”

Williamson already has visited four colleges in North Carolina. Only 54 to go – a huge territory to cover. “It’s going to be a challenge, but it will be a challenge for me because I’m not a native North Carolinian.”

When he crossed into North Carolina, he said, he picked up a map at the welcome center. He’s been studying it since.

When he crossed into North Carolina, he said, he picked up a map at the welcome center. He’s been studying it since.

He has a meeting scheduled soon with Margaret Spellings, the UNC system president.

The two systems had been at odds over a legislative mandate called the N.C. Guaranteed Admission Program, or NCGAP, which would divert the least qualified university students to community colleges for their first two years of study. The university system wanted a delay in the program; the community college system said it was ready to implement NCGAP.

The legislature ended up giving Spellings until January to come up with an alternative to improve graduation rates at university campuses. Williamson said he’d still like to see community colleges included in the strategy.

“I think that part of my conversation with President Spellings will be that we’re part of her response to that,” he said. “I don’t see it as anything negative. I think that it forces some collaboration that needs to be there.”

Another topic of conversation is likely to be the new $500 per semester tuition rate approved for three UNC campuses – Elizabeth City State, UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina. That has community college presidents in those regions on alert for what could be more fierce competition in the higher education market.

“Their interest is heightened,” Williamson said. “You know, for 50 years we’ve been providing a great quality education at an affordable price. In some ways, I might say to those four-year institutions, ‘Welcome to the party.’”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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