New Tacoma college president can overcome flawed hiring process

New Bates Technical College President Lin Zhou signs her two-year contract alongside Board Chairman Layne Bladow at Monday's board meeting at Bates' South Tacoma campus.
New Bates Technical College President Lin Zhou signs her two-year contract alongside Board Chairman Layne Bladow at Monday's board meeting at Bates' South Tacoma campus.

Tacoma’s newest college president, Lin Zhou, signed a contract Monday to lead Bates Technical College, and with that pen stroke she began the next chapter of her inspirational personal story.

Zhou was born in China and emigrated to the U.S. in 1999 with bare-minimum English language skills. She tirelessly chased her American dream by studying computer science, business administration and educational leadership (as well as English); she rose through administrative ranks at Bates; and she now emerges as a trailblazer.

She’s the first female president in the 78-year history of Bates, and the first Chinese-American woman to lead any public two-year college in Washington.

Zhou’s status as a naturalized citizen should make her a role model for the many immigrant students at Bates’ three campuses. Her credentials are impressive, and we wish her success.

But we also have concerns about the shortcut hiring process, done without sufficient notice or time for public input, that the Bates Board of Trustees used this spring.

What should be a time of reflection and community engagement at the college seems to have been interrupted by a coronation.

A majority of the board voted to offer a two-year contract to Zhou, who was already serving as interim president, just a week after the messy firing of President Ron Langrell over his alleged sex harassment and other inappropriate treatment of staff.

The result was a split 3-2 vote that deprived Zhou of consensus board support, which all presidents desire in order to get off on the right foot.

Even more important, it denied students, staff and other members of the Bates community — including those feeling confused or wounded at the end of the Langrell era — a chance to help shape the college’s direction.

The hurried hiring at Bates contrasts sharply with Tacoma Community College’s 15-month quest to select a new president. At both colleges, the forced exit of a president led to a leadership void, but TCC took a more orderly, transparent approach to filling it. A search committee started collecting resumes last fall, stakeholder surveys were taken, finalists were chosen and the three top candidates participated in an open campus forum before Ivan Harrell of Georgia was named president in March.

That’s not to say a national search is always necessary, only that being an insider can come with baggage. Langrell hired Zhou as a Bates dean in 2013, then promoted her to a vice president post in 2016. She was interviewed by investigators as part of the probe into his misconduct.

The public has a right to question how she’ll distinguish herself from the former regime and lead administrative culture change at Bates.

Again, we predict Zhou could develop into a fine president. She shared an introductory letter with us that radiates humility, energy and optimism. “I fully believe that if a person who started their journey like me can get this far, anyone else can,” she exudes.

A two-year contract also provides an out if either party determines this isn’t a good fit.

But we can’t disagree with a TNT letter writer who complained that Zhou’s administration “begins under a cloud of suspicion and distrust created by the Bates board.”

Board vice chair Cathy Piersall-Stipek seemed to acknowledge the cloud at Monday’s signing ceremony for Zhou’s $202,000 annual contract: “We’ve had some people who are a little skeptical, but I look forward to that skepticism being set aside.”

It would help if board members did a better job explaining the accelerated hire of their new president — and perhaps even expressed regret. While they probably didn’t violate state open government law, they certainly didn’t uphold its spirit.