Posted on Monday, February 5, 2018

Don “Robin” Sullenberger, III, retired in 2013 as CEO of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership, a regional economic development and marketing organization. He served five terms on the Board of Supervisors, retiring from that role in 2011. In 2013, he was featured in Virginia Business Magazine as one of the 50 Most Influential Virginians. That same year, the Virginia Economic Developers Association (VEDA) named him a Cardinal, its most distinguished status.

Sullenberger, a graduate of Virginia Tech in Marketing who began his career as a teacher and coach in Bath County, Virginia, was appointed to the State Board for Virginia’s Community Colleges in 2012 by then-Governor Bob McDonnell.

1. What do you think is the biggest challenge currently facing the State Board? What is the solution?
While there is no single challenge that is all consuming for the board, the most immediate concern is the decline in enrollment. Factors that affect it are varied, including an inverse relationship with a better economy (underemployment run amuck!), and we have to address the issue of whether there are actually enough people out there to improve the situation.

Overall, resources to assure both continuity and growth are paramount, especially in light of the wide variations we see in individual colleges. Much like the state as a whole, urban and rural issues are widely disparate in nature. The recent JLARC report can be interpreted as a positive factor, as it pointed out areas that need improvement. They too, will require addition resources.

The solution is not simple, but if summed up in a word, it would be commitment. Our board is well informed and steadfast in its resolve to make VCCS the best it can be, and we trust the staff to be the same. I can promise everyone we will not rest until that is accomplished.

2. You’re a member of the Chancellor’s task force on enrollment. What, in your opinion, is needed to get those numbers ticking back up again?
The enrollment task force has addressed this issue head on, and I have been especially impressed by the fact that members have not tried to hide from reality.

The status quo is no longer the finish line, and we need numerous changes. In particular, admission requirements and structure are antiquated, financial assistance is cumbersome and scheduling often doesn’t meet the needs of our students.

Some of the anecdotal stories in our sessions have literally left me dumbfounded! Advising and career counseling tend to be haphazard and less personal than students need — a fact that is exacerbated by far too few advisers for the number of students they must deal with.

Our promotional efforts need more relevance (let’s not call it marketing) because the competition is stiff. We are far more affordable, but the intimidation factors for attending “college” are off the charts for many students, especially the adult ones. They simply want a pathway to a better job and life, not an all-encompassing educational experience. This is difficult to accept for some educators, but it’s the reality of the world we live in.

We must accept the fact that it is not about dumbing down education – it’s about being realistic and relevant in the modern world. On the other hand, transferability is a very different issue, and it’s being addressed on many fronts, including at the General Assembly. We ooze quality education and are on a pathway to proving it.

3. Today’s workforce looks a lot different than it did just a decade ago. But, the so-called “skills gap” persists with thousands of good-paying jobs going unfilled. What do Virginia’s Community Colleges need to do in order to turn that dynamic around?
Virginia’s position as the best state for business has been tested in recent years, and a primary factor is workforce development. We have a sterling reputation for quality education across the board, but our delivery is fractured and convoluted by too many cooks in the kitchen. The business world wants a turnkey, single point of contact system with the ability to turn on a dime, and we aren’t there.

The good news, we can be soon! We are working hand-in-hand with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and other partners to reach this goal. The state Chamber Blueprint and GO Virginia’s regional approach (all nine regions listed talent development as a priority–the only thing on every list!) are both vital to our efforts, and direct interaction with each of them is occurring as we speak. Assessment of in-demand jobs is fluid, but our FastForward initiative has been phenomenally successful in a very short time based on its ability to react quickly with direct input from those we serve.

4. What exactly is student success and how is it measured?
Student success may have a slightly different meaning to me than others. I’m intrigued by the ongoing debate over whom we see as our client, the students or those who hire them. I think it’s both, but my background in business and economic development places me squarely in the latter camp.

I am comfortable that we have many highly qualified people focused on the former. Success for a student may mean a multitude of things, including a more worldly understanding of life, but in the end, our goal must be to create a person with confidence, the right perspective (that evasive employability issue that business would like to see a lot more of) and at least a basic skill set with which to pursue the dream and help their employer or their own business reach the bottom-line.

5. Please tell our readers a few things about yourself that we may not already know (i.e., personal interests, hobbies, etc.).
I live in Highland County on a large cattle ranch, which is run by my wife. We are in the mountains, almost within the shadow of Snowshoe Ski Resort along the WV border. Highland has only 2,300 people, the smallest population east of the Mississippi.

My passion for years was to be a cowboy (pseudo only), and I’ve owned many horses. That faded over time based on age and injuries, so I now enjoy more cerebral things like fly fishing, bird hunting and much to my surprise, rock and flower gardening (Garden Club founder Grandma would be ecstatic!).

The most important new event in my life has been the recent arrival of our first grandchild, and while I’ve never been too enamored with babies, everything has changed!! He’s awesome!

Featured image: Sullenberger confers with Chair Eleanor Saslaw during a recent State Board meeting.'

Craig Butterworth

A native of Richmond, Craig Butterworth is an award-winning broadcast journalist and communications professional. He has worked as a spokesperson, staff writer and editor for a variety of non-profit and for-profit organizations throughout the Richmond area.

1 Comment

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    Dr. John Downey

    We are so appreciative that a person as committed and thoughtful as Robin Sullenberger serves on the State Board for Community Colleges. I have been fortunate to have worked with him closely when he was the executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership for Economic Development. He understands the important link between workforce preparedness and economic development and that both our credit transfer and CTE, as well as our non-credit workforce development programs are important components of broad-based workforce development. Thanks for your service Robin!


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