Slow but sure president pick looks good at Tacoma Community College

The Tacoma Community College campus is busy with students in September 2017.
The Tacoma Community College campus is busy with students in September 2017. News Tribune file photo

The mission of a two-year college is heroic. Creating affordable educational opportunities for those just beginning their college work, for working-class residents and for second-chance students is a job that should come with a cape and at least one superpower.

At Tacoma Community College, some of the nearly 14,000 students need transfer credits as they set sights on a four-year university. Others seek quality two-year technical programs to train for hands-on careers. Many come to learn English, pick up basic reading, writing and math skills, gain high-school equivalency, or prepare for a second career such as life after the military.

Enter Ivan Harrell, TCC’s new leader. He doesn’t have superpowers that we know of, but last week the Board of Trustees unanimously chose Harrell to be the 11th president in the school’s 53-year history.

TCC took it slow after the resignation of the former president 15 months ago. A search committee began poring over resumes last fall. It also conducted surveys and hosted an open forum for the three finalists.

Who can blame them for wanting to get it right? Harrell replaces Sheila Ruhland, who stepped down after less than two years amid faculty unrest and a controversy over TCC’s probationary accreditation status. It wasn’t a good fit.

Two-year colleges have unique challenges serving all kinds of students, many of whom juggle full-time jobs and family obligations.

It’s a struggle that won’t be foreign to Harrell.

He comes to Tacoma from his executive vice president assignment at Georgia Piedmont Technical College, designated a predominantly black institution by the U.S. Department of Education. He should be well suited to help with the healing at TCC after allegations of racial insensitivity surfaced during Ruhland’s tenure.

Students of color comprise 41 percent of the school’s enrollment, including undocumented immigrants facing uncertain futures.

Before his two years at Georgia Piedmont, Harrell served as vice president of success at Lone Star College in Texas, where he developed and implemented a college-wide system from recruitment to post- graduation. He’s also a former high school science teacher.

Harrell’s doctoral dissertation, rather than an esoteric ivory-tower exercise, involved an equation to predict student success in online courses — an expertise that could have an impact locally. Like many area colleges, TCC has increased access to online learning. It’s a convenience that helps students with busy schedules earn a degree, but retention rates are lower than face-to-face courses.

One look at Harrell’s resume and it’s easy to see why he ranked atop the 61 contenders vying to lead TCC.

“Dr. Harrell demonstrated the intellect, integrity and passion that represents our values, and will lead us well,” TCC Board Chairman Bob Ryan said.

And here’s a spoiler alert: We peeked at Harrell’s Twitter feed, and he likes to have fun. He uses the social media platform to promote school festivals, performances, fundraisers and glow parties. (Ask your child or grandchild if you don’t know what a glow party is.)

Let’s face it, fun is a great tool for building strong teams.

We asked Pamela Transue, TCC’s president emeritus, for a Post-It note of success to pass on to the next president. Transue, who led the school for 17 years, summed up: “Passion for the mission combined with affection and respect for those who are helping you to carry it forward. Commitment to excellence and continuous improvement. Dedication to helping students achieve their goals.”

Cape or no cape, Harrell can draw power from wisdom such as this as he settles in at TCC.