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Mt. Hood will find new president with passion

Recent news that Mt. Hood Community College President Dr. John (Ski) Sygielski has decided to leave Mt. Hood and accept an offer to become the president of Harrisburg Area Community College in Pennsylvania has raised important questions about the future of Mt. Hood. How will his departure affect the direction of Mt. Hood? What qualities will the board seek in Dr. Sygielski's replacement?

Three years ago, before Dr. Ski arrived, Mt. Hood was experiencing some serious problems. The enrollment had fallen from a high of 9,755 ('full time equivalent students' or 'FTE') in 2003 to 8,306 in 2007. Only 14 percent of the graduating seniors from in-district schools were choosing to attend Mt. Hood, down from 20 percent three years prior.

News from the governor's office and the Legislature was depressing. The state was reducing its support for community colleges.

Many people at Mt. Hood could remember the college's good years and lamented that our best days were behind us. Some were resigned to accept the stagnation as inevitable and even suggested that we consider 'downsizing,' as though we were in the grip of fate. But the board was not ready to accept that vision. We knew we had problems that needed to be fixed, and we knew that we needed to hire a president who had the leadership qualities necessary to inspire a fundamental change in the collective vision of our future.

The Mt. Hood board embarked on a search for a new president. We identified the critical challenges that a new president would need to address. We needed a president with the experience and skill to strengthen our relationships with K-12 schools, our business community and the public in general. We needed a president who could analyze our enrollment decline and turn it around. We needed a president who knew how to apply modern business practices to best utilize our limited resources as well as manage an academic institution.

As soon as we hired Dr. Sygielski in 2008, things began to change. Dr. Sygielski brought his passion for education and his dedication to excellence to Mt. Hood. Numbers of highly motivated and talented people began to recognize that Mt. Hood is a good place to work. Dr. Sygielski hired several outstanding administrators from both the private and the public sector who all share a passion for the mission of Mt. Hood. It is no coincidence that new instructors with a passion for education are also seeking careers at Mt. Hood.

The results of new leadership and highly motivated, talented employees are clear. The Mt. Hood faculty and counselors are more engaged with high school staffs and students. Administrators are more engaged with the K-12 superintendents and the business community. Plans have been developed and are being implemented to increase and manage enrollment. Our Information Technology division is recognized as the best among state community colleges. We have improved our marketing and strengthened our foundation. Our enrollment in fall 2010 was 12,879 (FTE), up from 10,667 in fall 2008. More high school seniors from in-district schools recognize that Mt. Hood offers high quality, affordable educational and training programs.

Will the departure of Dr. Sygielski affect the direction of Mt. Hood? We hope not. Dr. Sygielski has made some great contributions to Mt. Hood, and he will certainly be missed. Perhaps his greatest contribution will be something that he will leave behind, the high quality team of leaders he has assembled. The board knows how important it is that they remain. That will be foremost in our minds as we transition to a new president. These dedicated employees share Dr. Ski's passion for Mt. Hood and its mission and for that reason we are confident they will keep us headed in the right direction. They understand why we need to listen to our business community, communicate with other schools and engage our citizens. They understand what must be done to increase our enrollment, which is the measure of the level of our service. And they understand that efforts to grow and improve our programs will fail if we don't keep our fiscal house in order - especially given the ongoing challenges of decreased state funding in Oregon. These leaders, a dedicated faculty and all of Mt. Hood's employees will maintain our momentum.

What qualities will the board seek in Dr. Ski's replacement? Among the many qualities one is essential - a passion to help people make their lives better through education. Passion is more than love for your work. It also means being committed to achieving your work's purpose. It often means working hard until you are exhausted. It means having the courage to do what is right in the face of obstacles. Dr. Ski has this passion. The employees at Mt. Hood have it. Our next president must have it, too.

Brian Freeman is the chairman of the Mt. Hood Community College Board of Education.