June 30th will signal the end of an era at Wytheville Community College. After nine years as president, Charlie White will be stepping down. White began his career with VCCS at New River Community College 43 years ago. All those decades of experience prompted us to take a closer look at the man and his thoughts on the ever-changing landscape of higher education.
1. You’ve spent nine years as president of WCC and more than 40 years working for Virginia’s Community Colleges. What’s the biggest change you’ve observed?
A lot has changed during the time I have spent in the VCCS. One of the biggest positive changes that I have seen, has been an increased respect for community colleges, both from four-year colleges and universities and from the public. Years ago, community colleges were viewed as “second-class citizens” in terms of higher education. Today, WCC and other community colleges are well-respected and are often the “first choice” for students who recognize that they can get a quality education with more one-on-one instruction at a much more reasonable cost than they can get at four-year colleges and universities.
Beyond community colleges gaining more respect, other key changes that I have observed include the increase in distance learning and dual enrollment programs. Both of these changes have greatly increased access to higher education which is especially important in rural areas.
2. What solutions seem to work best in getting remedial students on the right path to academic success and how can educational technologies help in this regard?
Educational technology helps in many areas, but any technology is only a tool, and not the primary means of helping students to help themselves to succeed. The best solution to get developmental students on track for success is selecting and supporting passionate professors. No technology tool will ever replace a caring person who knows his or her discipline and applies sound pedagogical practices in course design and delivery. With that being said, developmental classrooms need computers for every student and a multiple array of technological devices and apps available to enhance the teaching-learning process.
So, at the end of the day a professor who keeps up-to-date with his/her field and who is willing to push his or her students to read, write, and solve math problems on the page and on the screen is the single best technology solution we can offer remedial students. Technology is always changing so success means supporting faculty at what they do best – motivating and challenging students with everything they can dream up.
3. What types of workforce development issues are working at WCC?
WCC has built strong relationships with business and industry in the service region. Industries know to contact WCC in order to construct customized training for their employees at the worksite or on campus. Topics this year for training ranged from welding, safety, leadership, management, and more. The business community views WCC as a great source for recruiting or training employees. We have partnered with several long term care facilities to provide nurse aide and CPR training. We have numerous trucking companies who employ our truck driving students typically before they complete the courses. WCC provides training that allows employees to upgrade their job skills in areas like dental radiation, Microsoft Office applications, Vet Assisting, and water/wastewater treatment training. Just this year, we have enrolled and trained over 430 individuals who work for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services in topic areas that are applicable to their work. We are actively involved with economic development officials and bring a wealth of resources for the recruitment of new businesses and the expansion of our current businesses.
4. Please explain what you think are the most pressing issues and challenges being faced by WCC today and what you think the future looks like five years from now.
Enrollment is clearly one of the most pressing current issues for WCC. During the recent recession, our region of the state experienced the loss of thousands of jobs in the textile and furniture industries. For several years, WCC had tremendous enrollment growth as unemployed workers came to WCC to train or retrain for new job opportunities. Now that those workers have completed their education, enrollment has begun to decline. Declining enrollment is directly tied to budget which will continue to pose challenges for WCC. Also, in looking toward the next five years, I think that WCC will continue to face challenges in terms of how to recruit students in an increasingly competitive environment, particularly with the proliferation of distance learning programs at other institutions of higher education.
Beyond these issues, many people who joined the VCCS when it began are now retiring. While retirements bring opportunities for new people to bring innovative ideas, there are also challenges in that institutions lose knowledge and experience. I believe the next five years will be an exciting time for WCC but will also bring challenges as the college works to meet the needs of our changing economy.
5. What advice would you offer your successor?
I’d advise my successor to take adequate time to get to know the good people at WCC, including faculty, staff, and students, and to get out into the community as much as he possibly can. I’ve made it one of my priorities to be as visible as I can on our campus and around our service region. It’s amazing how much you can learn by interacting with people in every kind of setting–from formal meetings to casual events like a basketball game or a trip to the store. At a community college, the President needs to be seen and he or she needs to do a lot of listening, too. Even if you can’t always satisfy everyone, you make a lot more progress on difficult issues if people know you heard what they said and you took it into consideration before you made your final decision. I’d also suggest that my successor continue to do everything within his power to make WCC a great place to work, as I hope I have done over the last nine years. I firmly believe that if your employees enjoy what they are doing and they like the people they work with they’ll do a better job of serving our students.
Photo: Dr. White and his daughter
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