Debra Derr will assume presidency of Mt. Hood Community College on July 1

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Incoming MHCC President Debra Derr returns to the college after 11 years away. She calls Mt. Hood a school that belongs to every person living in this community.

After 11 years, Debra Derr is returning to her stomping grounds, taking the helm as president of Mt. Hood Community College.

“This is where my roots are, a place that was very supportive of my professional development,” Derr said. “It feels wonderful — just amazing — to be back.”

With outgoing President Michael Hay retiring June 30, Derr will begin her presidency July 1. She will become the 10th president in MHCC’s 47 years.

Derr, 56, was selected as one of three candidates from 38 applicants by a search committee of students and employees and approved by the Board of Education as the finalist Saturday, April 6.

She returns to MHCC after serving as the school’s vice president for student development and services 11 years ago.

“Mt. Hood has always been a college where students are safe and welcome, where we have met them where they’re at but had high expectations of them,” Derr said. “Students have to understand they will leave here not only trained and educated but with the opportunity to engage in this community and really take away gifts that will make them better citizens, employees and parents.”

Born in British Columbia, Derr grew up in Spokane, Wash., and at age 13 moved to the Portland area, where she lived most of her adult life before taking a job as vice president for learner success at Madison College in Wisconsin in 2002.

Derr received her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Linfield College, a master’s degree in counseling from Portland State University and a doctorate in community college and higher education administration from Oregon State University.

“Business was really what my dad wanted me to do, but I was always interested in education and thought I’d like to go back to school and teach high school,” Derr said.

After graduating from Linfield and working several years in business, Derr returned to Clackamas Community College for education prerequisites in 1980. There, she developed a love for community colleges and discovered disability services, a newer office within higher education at the time.

Her time at Clackamas Community College transitioned her career track from secondary education to community colleges.

“I loved what I was doing — the environment, the diversity in the classroom, the diversity of students’ experience and age,” Derr said. “Especially during that time, it was really just the beginning of colleges and universities working with students with disabilities. It was a very exciting time to start with community colleges.

“For me, it has always been about opportunity,” Derr said. “About not making assumptions about an individual’s potential — whether it was a disability, where they lived or how much money they had — it didn’t matter.”

Derr sees her new role as being a facilitator who will look at the priorities for the community and students and move that direction forward in a positive way.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Derr said it was a gift for the presidency to open up at Mt. Hood, as she and her husband knew they wanted to retire in the Portland area.

She said she is focused on students’ success and completion of their programs; reconnecting and strengthening the school’s relationship with East County communities and K-12 schools; and looking at the needs of businesses and industries in East County.

“This is a fun time to be in community colleges,” Derr said. “They used to be considered the ugly ducklings and redheaded stepchildren, but community colleges are so incredibly important in the economic vitality of an area. That to me is at the heart of what community colleges do and do well: To bring together partners to meet students where they are at.”

In facing funding challenges for schools across the state, Derr said she wants to focus on advocating not only for MHCC but all Oregon community colleges and universities.

“I do not believe we should be competing against the university system,” Derr said. “We should be partners. It’s always tough because the pie is small and you can only divide it into so many pieces.

“K-12 also has many challenges. We need to be collaborators and partners with them — to see education as a system and along that journey, work together to strengthen the system.”

Derr said she considers students, community members and business and industry leaders to be the best voices in advocating for school funding.

In approaching labor negotiations after MHCC faculty almost went on strike two years ago, Derr said the key is open lines of communication.

She wants to engage all employees in the process of what’s going on at the college, and listen to faculty members’ issues and concerns.

Derr believes it’s important to ensure majors are relevant to today’s workforce and will work to review, assess and reengineer programs. She said the college will need to look at its nearly 50-year-old infrascruture and explore maintenance upgrades in the near future.

“The college belongs to every person in this community,” she said. “We want to keep the college up as you want to keep your home up-to-date or maintain your car.”

Derr and her husband of 30 years have a blended family of five children and four grandchildren. Along with gardening, Derr enjoys hiking, camping, fishing and quilting. She is more than thrilled to return to East County.

“One of the catalysts (in moving) was we knew we were going to retire here,” Derr said. “When this position opened up, it was a gift. I may have complained before about the rain, but I’m not going to complain now.

“Watch out,” Derr said. “We’re going to move and shake and be out in the community connecting and asking questions, having a real presence in the Mt. Hood Community College district.”

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