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PCC's next president is a key hire


Portland Community College — Oregon’s largest educational institution — is about to settle on its next president. This decision is the most significant one the PCC board of directors will make for the next several years. It comes with inherent risk, but also opportunity.

Selecting a leader for an institution of PCC’s importance and complexity is tricky business. They got it right nine years ago when they hired Preston Pulliams, who is retiring at the top of his game.

But we have frequently seen large public agencies waste precious time and suffer damage to their reputations after making the wrong choice for a top administrator.

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.

The college’s impact is evident in Hillsboro, where more than 1,000 students are taking classes at PCC’s Rock Creek campus, a satellite facility at the corner of 8th Avenue and Baseline.

Located a few steps from a downtown light rail stop, the Hillsboro Center offers easy access to an array of classes, from digital photography and introduction to psychology to intermediate algebra and English as a second language.

PCC’s connection to the city grew even stronger Tuesday night, when city councilors agreed to kick in $100,000 to fund a new initiative aimed at shepherding 50 low-income, first-generation college students through their entire higher educational career by offering supplemental financial aid, personal coaching and other academic support.

Access to higher education is critical not only to the students themselves, but to prospective local employers who fuel the local economy.

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 must be capable of multiple functions. So must its president. 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.

All three finalists for the PCC job meet the basic requirements. All have served as college presidents elsewhere. Success here in the metro area, 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 must continue to forge relationships like the one city councilors moved forward this week in Hillsboro.

And, the next president needs to be someone who 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 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 — versus 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 next week, the public can meet with each of the three candidates on various dates. 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.