Chief PCC money-raiser prepares to step down
President Pulliams to retire as college marks 50th anniversary
Preston Pulliams jokes that he's adopted a new handshake: hand out, palm upward in the universal position that can only mean one thing. He's asking for money.
As president of Portland Community College for the past eight years, Pulliams has tapped nearly every local business, organization, government, school district and taxpayer for money at some point.
And, as they'll attest, he's darned good at it, too.
Observers say PCC will have big shoes to fill as Pulliams prepares to step down from his role just as the college celebrates its 50th anniversary. This spring, he announced he'll retire in July 2013.
"I've been involved with the community college for probably 50 years now," says Jim Harper, chairman of the PCC board. "I've known every college president we've had, and Dr. Pulliams is absolutely the best. There's no question."
Those who know Pulliams say his skill in fundraising comes from his own story, as the first in his family to get a formal education and go to college.
"He's single-handedly raised more scholarship money for people to go to college than anyone I know," says Jim Francesconi, a member of the State Board of Higher Education. "A lot of people talk about it, but he's actually done it."
Pulliams often shares the story of how he wanted to be a Motown singer, and didn't have great grades, until his dad straightened him out.
"My parents really felt embarrassed by the fact that they were unable to get an education," says Pulliams, the oldest of six children. "They drilled that into all our heads: They can take everything away from you, but they can never take your education away from you. They would tell stories of how jealous they were of friends who could go to school, but they were working in the farm."
He earned a scholarship to the local community college, then went on to obtain his doctorate. His five siblings all graduated from community colleges as well.
"He's a real person; he can identify with people," Harper adds. "He feels comfortable with any situation I've seen him in."
That's helped Pulliams become a national figure who has won numerous accolades.
TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ • PCC President Preston Pulliams shares a laugh on Tuesday with student Edward Musafiri, who organizes cultural events at the Sylvania Campus.
During his years as president, Pulliams has helped boost the institution's enrollment by 40 percent. PCC's endowment has doubled. Scholarship awards have tripled. The foundation's funds have increased five-fold. Minority students have grown by a quarter, as have the number of minority part-time faculty members.
And his biggest feat of all: voter approval of PCC's $374 million bond measure in 2008, smack dab in the middle of the recession.
Although polls showed high public support for the bond measure, "Those last three months, I was very nervous about it," admits Pulliams, a 66-year-old New York native who'll stay in Portland to run his own consulting business after he steps down.
While other bond measures have sunk, Pulliams feels voters saw PCC's proposal not as a handout but as part of the solution to getting people back to work.
PCC's reach is expansive. It is the largest institution of higher learning in the state, serving portions of Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington, Columbia and Yamhill counties. Total enrollment is 92,500 full- and part-time students, about one in 16 residents.
More than half the students had no previous college, and a third have had some college. Forty percent are working toward a bachelor's degree. Fourteen percent are exploring a new career. Eleven percent are gaining skills to get or keep a job. Still others come for personal enrichment, to complete a certificate or technical degree, to complete a high school equivalency program, explore a new educational opportunity, learn English or improve writing, math and reading skills.
"These things are a referendum on how you're doing," Pulliams says. "If they like your organization, they will support you."
The bond construction program already has brought upgrades to the Sylvania Campus, and will soon kick into high gear with expansions at the Southeast Center (where there's a waiting list of 1,500), and at North Portland's Cascade Campus (which saw 40 percent increased enrollment from 2006 to 2010).
The Cascade expansion could include underground parking, a new student library, student center and classroom space.
The Cascade Campus is also the new shared space for the Jefferson Middle College for Advanced Studies, a partnership Pulliams helped grow and formally bring to the table last summer.
Pulliams says the biggest challenge for the remainder of his term -- and the thorniest problem for the incoming president -- will be dealing with the state school funding picture.
Portland school activists will be pressing the Oregon Legislature to provide a larger state allocation for education as well as other revenue streams.
Funding aside, Pulliams says Portland is a paradise compared to the East Coast when it comes to the ease of forming partnerships to leverage resources.
"The politics are very moderate here compared to the East Coast, where it's more of a blood sport," he says. "If you provide the leadership, you can get partners, get people to work with you. On the East Coast, everybody has their own thing going, their own silos. You're in the silo or you're out of it."
TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ
Preston Pulliams helps unload photography equipment from instructor Mike Riches' vehicle in preparation for his photography class at the PCC Southeast Center.
New York import
Eight years ago, Pulliams came to PCC after serving as vice-chancellor for community colleges for the State University of New York.
He served in other administrative positions in New York and Michigan before that, getting his start as dean of student services and counselor at Michigan's Muskegon Community College.
There, Pulliams recalls being gratified with the work helping kids like himself connect to college. But he felt he could make a bigger impact -- with ideas and funding -- by working as an administrator.
After Pulliams landed at PCC, Portland Mayor Sam Adams appointed him to his education cabinet to develop a scholarship program that would soon be known as Future Connect.
"Our No. 1 question was, 'What can we do to improve the graduation rates and the students going on to higher ed,' Pulliams says. "He said, suppose we provide a way to raise money for college? I suggested why not also do wrap-around mentoring services, cohorts of support. He was very supportive of the idea."
Sponsored by PCC and the city, Future Connect gives graduating seniors throughout Multnomah County the chance to apply for at least $500 per year for two years, plus a college support coach, job and internship help, enrichment activities and career guidance classes.
The city matches each gift to the PCC Foundation for Future Connect by doubling it, up to a total contribution of $500,000 each year.
The program has served 150 students since it started last fall.
In his final year on the job, Pulliams says he'll continue to fight for state and local funding and partnerships.
The PCC Board of Directors plans to name a search committee for his replacement this month and develop a national search plan this summer. The board is looking at external as well as internal candidates and will select the new president by next spring.
Pulliams provided more than one year's notice of his departure so that he'll have time to get the new president acclimated to the job.
In the meantime, Pulliams looks forward to maintaining his fundraising for PCC. His new job -- a small consulting firm he's purchasing from a friend in New York -- will help colleges recruit and hire top leaders.
It'll be hard to stray from PCC even if he wanted to. He's taking a yoga class, part of his commitment to take at least one class per term. He lives in Beaverton with his wife, Joan, a retired elementary school teacher. They have two grown daughters: one a married nurse in New York with a 5-year-old son; the other an international student advisor at PCC, having followed her parents west after graduating from the University of Michigan.
Pulliams hopes to be able to visit his grandson more often after stepping down from PCC. "Every day he calls me to tell me how he's doing in T-ball," he says.
No doubt, he'll be talking about college at some point.
Over the years, Pulliams has made it a point to squeeze in fitness classes at PCC, as well as classes in technology, cooking and his biggest love, photography. His photo classes over the years have helped him turn his hobby into a discipline, and he saves many of his prints to auction off for scholarship funds.
"He walks his talk, and that's what he's done as PCC president," says Francesconi, the State Board of Higher Education member.
"His partnering really gives a shot for first-generation (college goers), poor folks and working people to get a degree. ... We talk about the American Dream, but Preston's helped a lot of young people fulfill it."
PCC by the numbers:
• PCC received approximately $28.8 million in grants and contracts in 2010-11.
• Almost 35 percent of all full- and part-time credit students received financial aid in 2010-11.
• Average student age, 33; most frequent age, 20
• In 2005-06, state revenue provided 42.2 percent of PCC's total operating revenue. In the years since, it's fluctuated between 41.9 percent, 42.7 percent, 41.9 percent, 42.7 percent and, in 2009-11, 33.8 percent.