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NSCC finalist Welch lauds community, will not commit to adding athletics

Rick Wagner • Oct 19, 2018 at 7:00 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Northeast State Community College presidential finalist Joel Welch said he would like to lead the school because the community has embraced it, and he said he loves Northeast Tennessee and its mountains as a place to finish raising his family, including an 11-year-old daughter.

And although he is an engineer and “data-driven person,” Welch said he very much supports the arts and humanities.

Welch, vice president of Instructional Services for Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C., appeared at a public forum Thursday morning at the NSCC main campus in Blountville in the Regional Center for the Performing Arts, the same venue for a forum Wednesday afternoon focusing on the other finalist, Bethany Flora, associate director of the Center for Community College Leadership at East Tennessee State University. A search advisory committee chose the two. Videos of both forums are available on the Tennessee Board of Regents website at https://www.tbr.edu/hr/executivesearches/president-northeast-state-community-college.

“I’m a data-focused person,” Welch said of his engineering education. “I know a lot about dirt and poop. I find in education, knowing about dirt and poop works pretty well.”

On Wednesday, Flora talked about walking barefoot through cow piles on the family dairy farm in Meadowview, Va., where she grew up.

Welch is a native of Greenville, S.C., and has spent most of his career in that state before moving to North Carolina. He said both areas are not that different from Northeast Tennessee.

RESUME, REASONING FOR THROWING HAT IN THE RING

Welch earned his bachelor’s civil engineering degree at The Citadel (but has no military service), his master’s of civil engineering from the University of South Carolina and his Ph.D. in educational leadership from Clemson. He has held his current position at Forsyth since 2016. Before that, he held a variety of positions at Greenville Technical College including dean of business and technology, dean of the technical division, associate vice president of administration and dean of the engineering technical division.

He said the arts and humanities are needed even by engineers so they understand the impact of what they do. He worked with a drama team at a church in Greenville and said it was “cool” that Barter Theatre in Abindon helps with NSCC theater classes.

“It was like the community had wrapped its arms around the college,” Welch said of his impression of NSCC’s relationship with the area. 

Welch and Flora were the finalists recommended to Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor Flora Tydings, and the timeline is for her to recommend one of them to the TBR in time for that person to take the helm of NSCC by Jan. 1. The new person will succeed interim President James King, who replaced Janice Gilliam. She retired in mid 2017 after a Faculty Senate vote of no confidence and a TBR probe into complaints about finances and a “climate of fear” at the school.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Among his responses to a variety of questions, Welch said:

— “My theory of leadership is servant leadership,” Welch said. “I think a leader works for people.” Integrity, transparency and consistency are essential. On the latter point, he said it is not right for administrators to say all employees wear nametags but not wear them themselves, something he once noticed in a meeting.

— On fundraising and finances, Welch said he would like to see some major capital campaigns get underway, saying NSCC can become an educational jewel not just regionally but nationally. He said he is impressed with Tennessee Promise, which provides two years of community college tuition to high school graduates, and Tennessee Reconnect, which helps older folks who may have started college but did not finish to earn a degree or certificate. “That’s what drew me to Northeast from a professional standpoint,” Welch said.

— Asked about a weakness, he said: “The obstacle is the things I think I know that I really don’t know.” However, working for two colleges under three presidents in 20 years and various other employees gives him connections to help find the right path. 

— Welch would engage with students “eye to eye,” such as the time he saw a student rubbing his ankle, found out he had sprained it and worked with him to find ways to be ambulatory on campus until the sprain healed. He also pledged an open-door policy as president, although he said he respects the chain of command. Students would serve on committees for the hiring of deans and he would meet with department chairs each fall and spring.

“Have pizza with the president, pizza with the dean,” Welch said. “You just can’t touch people too much.” However, he said folks need to know up front whether they are giving advice, making decisions or just providing information.

— He generally opposes outsourcing as a way to save money, saying that although he would consider it, the savings often are not worth hurting longtime employees, potentially reducing the quality of services and hurting morale. “The equation is not pure money,” he said, adding that a contractor might not fix an overflowing toilet at 4:55 p.m. on a Thursday before a 5 p.m. class.

When Forsyth outsourced its bookstore to Barnes & Noble, he said some employees were allowed to remain with the school until they had enough time to qualify for full retirement benefits. “I’m not in a rush to outsource anything,” he said.

— He would not commit to suggestions of adding athletic programs and additional classes in Carter County after questions from Carter County Mayor Rusty Barnett. He said resources are limited to add satellite classes unless there is a clear demand but he does “believe in taking classes where the students are.” He said the aerospace program, if it gets Federal Aviation Administration approval, will have stipulations but could offer some classes in Elizabethton, which like the main campus has an airport adjacent to it. As for sports, he said they increase school spirit and draw some students but often cost more than the benefits are worth, which is what Greenville determined when he was there.

— Community colleges need to sell the diversity they have, not just in race and gender but in socioeconomic status and age. Welch recalled that his son at Forsyth got to know a 40-something black woman through a class project team. “I’m not sure we sell that like we should,” he said

— As for increasing enrollment: “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. I think it’s a matter of meeting students where they are.” He said that means classes should be scheduled to be most convenient for students, not faculty, to help ensure student success. He said the newest University of Phoenix commercial, which shows a student locked out of class because she was a few minutes late, shows the need for schools to adjust for working adults. Being on time is a soft skill that is needed but can be hard when working and using public transportation or carpooling.

His son is at the University of South Carolina but went to Greenville Tech first. “The vast majority (of students) should start in community college,” Welch said. “It just makes a whole of of sense” financially. His older daughter is at Forsyth Tech and may become a history teacher after transferring to a four-year school. He also recalled meeting at Forsyth with a single mom in an engineering program overwhelmed with classes and an internship. He helped her drop one class and graduate a semester later, getting a job where she had her internship and her diploma. He said promoting success is done “one student at a time.”

— Community colleges must get better at retaining and graduating students as well as attracting them. For instance, a lack of bus transportation and daycare hurts working parents and especially single mothers, and “for a lot of students, the difference between success and failure is a flat tire.” He said NSCC needs to partner with social service agencies on both issues, as well as health care, and lauded a three-year $700,000 childcare grant but said that is not nearly enough for a campus of nearly about 6,100 students.

“I don’t have a great idea on transportation,” Welch said of NSCC’s far-flung, five-county service area.

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