Candid conversations with presidents

Mineral Area College President Joe Gilgour prepares for his YouTube series "Community College Presidents Talking About Community Colleges." (Photo: MAC)

Lee Ann Nutt, president of Lone Star College-Tomball, Texas, didn’t know what she wanted to do in college, and even after graduating college she wasn’t so sure. After driving a tour bus for a while and returning home, she answered an ad in a newspaper for a job at a local community college. The entry-level position she eventually took at the college changed her life.

John Rainone, president of Dabney S. Lancaster Community College (DSLCC) in Clifton Forge, Virginia, also wasn’t sure what he wanted to study in college. He thought he would be an accountant since he enjoyed a bookkeeping class in high school. He focused to become a CPA in college for about a year and a half before changing his major.

Kimberly Beatty, chancellor of Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Missouri, thought she would go into her family’s barbecue business after a stint with a four-year institution in Baltimore where she taught adult basic education in a prison system. But a job at a community college set her on a new career path.

All three presidents discussed their journeys into community colleges and a whole more on a series of YouTube interviews hosted by Joe Gilgour, who is completing his inaugural year as president of Mineral Area College in Park Hills, Missouri. The series, called “Community College Presidents Talking About Community Colleges,” delves into an array of topics that challenge two-year college leaders, from handling issues surrounding the pandemic — such as campus safety and enrollments — to diversity, equity and economic mobility.

Learning from each other

Gilgour, who is a first-time president, says the idea for the periodic one-on-one interviews using Zoom originated with him wanting to learn from more-seasoned two-year college leaders, especially in how they are addressing the health pandemic and the challenges it has presented to colleges and their students. He tries to include a variety of colleges from across the country, noting that colleges have some common challenges as well as ones that are unique to their campuses and area.

“It’s an opportunity to learn from each other,” Gilgour says.

Below, the latest episode of Joe Gilgour’s interviews with college presidents, featuring Lee Ann Nutt of Lone Star College-Tomball, Texas.

In the latest episode, Nutt of LSC-Tomball shared what she learned from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which caused catastrophic flooding and many deaths in Texas and Louisiana, and how some of those lessons apply to the pandemic. As a result of that experience, she knows that people are resilient and that communities come together to help in a crisis. She recalled when the local police chief called her around 10 p.m. after the monster storm to ask if her college could shelter displaced residents; she didn’t think twice and was calling for volunteers as soon as she was off the phone.

Amarillo College President Russell Lowery-Hart, meanwhile, outlined the extra hardships that at-risk students have faced during the pandemic. To help students who didn’t have access to computers or the internet and other supports during the campus closure, Lowery-Hart kept one building open to ensure they could do their work. And he took shifts on the circle desk, noting that he couldn’t ask other people to do it if he wasn’t willing to do it himself.

Gilgour says he’s inspired by how his guests find ways to celebrate students’ differences and to find the supports they need to succeed.

“All of them are so student-centered and so passionate about their students,” he says. “These people are doing really tremendous work.”

Light-hearted moments

While the conversations cover issues that weigh on the minds of college leaders, they also provide a glimpse into the personalities of the presidents, often exploring lighthearted topics. Beatty discussed the differences of barbecue in Kansas City, Texas and Virginia. Lowery-Hart explained that he learned to tie his signature bowties — which he hasn’t worn since the pandemic started — by watching YouTube videos. Thuy Nguyen, president of Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California, said she relaxes by watching Korean dramas. Margaret McMenamin, president of Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey, is learning to play the guitar.

“It’s nice to hear those personal things,” Gilgour says.

It’s important to show that college leaders have personal lives and interests outside the college, and to model that for employees, Gilgour says. College presidents often encourage employees to carve out time for themselves, especially during the current environment, but they don’t always follow their own advice.

“Community college presidents are just like everyone else,” he says. “We go through struggles as well. We’re humans. Dealing with these things is a challenge for us as well. I think it’s important that people see it.”

Gilgour also always asks his guests what are some of their professional pet peeves. Those range from using jargon when talking with students, to “higher ed-ing,” which means making something more complicated than is needed. Among Gilgour’s main peeves is calling college students “kids,” since so many students are not the traditional college-age and have families themselves.

Selecting guests

In selecting guests, Gilgour mainly has reached out to colleagues he knows from previous jobs, met through various events or follows on social media. The first episode of his series, which launched on April 1, featured Steve Robinson, president of Owens Community College in Ohio. They spoke about Robinson’s campaign to end the stigma around community colleges (#EndCCStigma). Gilgour was on Robinson’s podcast about a year ago and the two have stayed connected.

Since the first episode, Gilgour has chatted with nine other community college presidents in episodes that are less than a half-hour each. He gives his guests an outline beforehand about what the conversation will focus on, but that’s usually a starting point.

“We just kind of talk and take it wherever it wants to go,” Gilgour says.

With Rainone, who he follows on Twitter, the two discussed using social media as a tool. The president of the rural Virginia college explained how he uses Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to help him learn about promising practices, access data and network. Rainone says social media has helped him connect with donors, local media, legislators, alumni and, of course, students (he’s learning to use Instagram to reach more of them on their preferred medium).

If you’d like to be on Gilgour’s program, contact him on Twitter at @MAC_President.

“Send me a message on social media. We’ll get it set up,” he says.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.