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Searching close to home for new PCC leader might be wise move

Oregon’s largest public institution of higher education is looking for a new president. For the sake of this region’s students, workers and businesses, we all should hope Portland Community College’s next leader works out better than the last.

We say this not because we believe Jeremy Brown, who was fired by the PCC board on May 18, was a terrible choice for college president. There were few outward signs, in fact, that his tenure was troubled until he starting applying for other jobs in the past few weeks.

But now it is clear the PCC board had concluded, after less than two years, that hiring Brown was a mistake. The high cost of that error includes $300,000 in severance that the board has agreed to pay Brown to go away. Those are the kinds of public-sector parachutes that cause ordinary citizens — people who cannot conceive of receiving $300,000 for getting fired — to become even more skeptical of government institutions.

So Brown’s departure not only comes at great expense to the college, it also delivers a costly blow to PCC’s credibility. But institutions, as well as individuals, are resilient. Both PCC and Brown will recover from this failed marriage and have new opportunities to succeed.

The volunteer, elected board that oversees PCC and its president now has a chance to find the right person to follow Brown and to pick up where longtime president Preston Pulliams, who preceded Brown, left off. This is an important decision for the Portland area because of PCC’s essential economic role. Oregon’s economy is being held back by a lack of skilled workers, particularly in the area of manufacturing. PCC can do even more to train the employees that local industries need. In looking for the next college president, the PCC board can learn from its misstep with Brown.

It’s not always necessary, or even wise, to look for a polished, charismatic leader from someplace far away to lead an institution such as PCC. We’ve seen many examples of college presidents and other public administrators being recruited through nationwide searches. Occasionally, they fulfill their potential in Oregon, as Pulliams certainly did. But more often, they fail to understand the culture of their institutions and the desires of their communities.

Two other community colleges in the Portland area have had better luck in hiring people who already knew something of their colleges’ cultures before taking over as president. Clackamas Community College President Joanne Truesdell, who has been on the job since 2007, got her start in higher education as a student at CCC in the 1980s. She held leadership positions at CCC and other Oregon colleges before being hired as president. Her longevity in the role is proof that understanding an institution and community is perhaps the most important trait a leader can bring to the job.

Similarly, Mount Hood Community College President Debra Derr, who replaced a two-year-and-out president from far away, also had held leadership positions at MHCC before being named to her current role. She left Oregon in the interim, but she never lost her grasp of what MHCC means for the Gresham and east side community. Her return to MHCC two years ago brought a new energy and sense of stability to a college that was headed for trouble. Contrast their visible competency with that of Brown, who apparently didn’t meld with the PCC culture. People with inside connections say Brown didn’t understand the importance of allowing autonomy among PCC’s four comprehensive campuses. As a result, he failed to build support among those campus presidents, and when the PCC board began to have doubts about Brown, those presidents weren’t there to back him.

When college boards, school boards or city councils launch searches for presidents, superintendents and city managers, they look for the right credentials and experience. The hardest quality to judge, however, has to do with chemistry. Will the person have the right touch? Is his or her leadership style a good match with the people already in place? To be clear, we aren’t saying the PCC board should avoid a national search for a president, but it also shouldn’t ignore talent that might be closer to home. PCC got lucky with its hiring of Pulliams, who stayed for more than nine years. It struck out with Brown. The college can’t afford to repeat that mistake, as its leadership must be well aligned with this community’s aspirations.