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Community plays vital role in selecting college president

Portland Community College — one of the nation’s largest — is about to settle on its next president after being led for nine years by the popular Preston Pulliams. This decision is the most significant one the PCC board of directors will make for the next several years, but it also comes with inherent risk.

Selecting a leader for an institution of PCC’s importance and complexity is tricky business. We have frequently seen large public agencies — whether they be school districts, community colleges or city governments — waste years of precious time and suffer damage to their reputations after making the wrong choice for a president, school superintendent or city manager.

PCC can’t afford to stumble when tens of thousands of students depend on it to provide the skills they need to find good jobs. With its three campuses and seven additional centers, PCC’s contribution to the Portland area’s prosperity is immense. That’s why it’s vital now for the community to pay close attention — and offer its participation — as the PCC board narrows its field from three presidential finalists to one.

Like a Swiss Army knife, a community college president must be capable of multiple functions. He or she is part administrator, part lobbyist, part fund-raiser and part cheerleader. Beyond that, PCC’s next president must be steeped in knowledge about higher education.

It’s a given that the three finalists for the PCC job meet the basic requirements. All three have already served as college presidents elsewhere. Success here in Portland, however, won’t be dependent primarily on experience. Often, less tangible qualities — dogged persistence, humility and the ability to listen — are the key to whether a public leader is a champion or a flop.

The next leader at PCC should be someone who truly wants to remain in Portland and accomplish long-term goals. Nothing of lasting consequence can be achieved in a couple of years. So, the board should rule out any candidate who is looking at this job as a short-term step to something better.

PCC’s next president also must be able to maintain positive relations with the board, the community, students and employee unions. That requirement should exclude anyone who is driven primarily by ego or a sense of individual — vs. collective — accomplishment.

While the PCC board will choose the person to replace the retiring Pulliams, the larger community has a role to play in the process. Beginning with a forum on Monday, March 11, the public can meet with each of the three candidates on various dates. (A schedule can be found on the PCC website — pcc.edu.) These forums and the ensuing public feedback will lead up to the announcement of a new president in April.

We have no doubt that all three candidates will demonstrate the necessary skills, but what the public can help determine is whether the chemistry is right between the college community and the person who would be its next leader.



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