West Michigan colleges and universities saw significant leadership turnover during the spring, bringing in a new crop of presidents as workforce development proves crucial during a widespread talent crunch.
Throughout a three-month span this spring, Ferris State University, Calvin University, Muskegon Community College and Aquinas College all announced the appointment of new presidents. Grand Rapids Community College named an interim president as it searches for its next leader.
Higher education sits on the front lines of the talent crisis as a key cog in preparing new crops of workers for local employers. With so many West Michigan-based institutions transitioning to a new leader, it’s fair to wonder how that might affect workforce and economic development efforts.
“The answer to that, I believe, truly lies in institutions being mindful and intentional around what their next leader will bring to the table,” said Bill Pink, who wrapped up his five-year tenure as Grand Rapids Community College’s president and now takes the reins of Ferris State.
“It’s vital that institutions are bringing in leaders — whether it be leaders who were already here or from outside the state — that have an economic development lens as well as, in my mind, an equity lens,” Pink added.
Pink has been heavily involved in economic development efforts and brings that lens with him to Ferris State. Pink sits on the boards for both Lakeshore Advantage Corp., an economic development organization serving Allegan and Ottawa counties, and the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
Despite transitioning to lead a four-year institution, Pink said he is looking to leverage partnerships with the state’s 31 public community colleges. Two of those local colleges feature new leaders as John Selmon takes over for retiring Dale Nesbary at Muskegon Community College and GRCC seeks a new president.
“I have great faith that the partnerships and collaboration will continue to be what it was, if not heightened,” Pink said. “None of this will happen if we’re not collaborating together. It’s going to be an all-hands-on-deck thing, and if we’re not doing that and trying to get this done siloed, we’re going to miss out badly.”
Selmon has served with MCC since 2011, most recently as provost and executive vice president. He doesn’t expect to “miss a single beat” in terms of continuing relationships with employers and economic developers.
He credits diligent succession planning on behalf of MCC in addition to training through organizations like the Michigan Community College Leadership Academy, the Aspen Institute and Thomas Lakin Institute for Mentored Leadership as reasons why he expects to take the baton in full stride.
“No matter if it happened now, or 10 years ago, when you come into a community there’s a certain approach that you take,” Selmon said. “You have to know your own internal team and your external team, so it’s a balancing act.”
“There are strategies and ways of doing that. I don’t think it’s a major issue other than timing,” he added. “There will be some time to transition and that’s the challenge — how fast will that transition take?”
Meanwhile, GRCC Board of Trustees Chairperson David Koetje said the board hopes to identify a candidate by the end of the year as Juan Olivarez serves as interim president.
“President Pink frequently stated that our role is to be the community’s college, and to be focused on our mission of serving all of our community,” Koetje said in a statement to MiBiz. “He built on a solid foundation created by his predecessors. We expect our next president will continue to look for ways to keep a life-changing, quality college education within reach for all residents, and to continue exploring opportunities to partner with employers to provide in-demand career skills for students of all ages, leading to rewarding careers.”
A business lens
Matthew Scogin, who was named president of Hope College in 2019, brought with him significant experience in the private sector. He served as chief administrative officer at global financial advisory firm Perella Weinberg Partners in New York City before coming to Hope and wielded a rich employment history in finance and investment. He also had served on Hope’s board of trustees.
“Someone from the business world who’s also been on a governing board or has had past academic experience is a great win-win,” said Lakeshore Advantage President Jennifer Owens. “Matthew very much came in with the business mindset of: How do we drive toward no-cost college and how do we get our donors and investors more engaged? He’s made great strides at Hope with that lens.”
This same dynamic is playing out at Calvin University, whose new President Wiebe Boer has a professional history in both the private sector and social advocacy organizations. He has worked in four countries and currently serves as the CEO of Shell-All On, a Shell plc-funded renewable energy investment company that operates in Lagos, Nigeria.
Owens also highlighted that leadership turnover hasn’t been confined to local higher education alone. She pointed out that, over the last two years, six of the 11 superintendents in the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District have left their posts, most of which carried 20-plus years of education experience.
“There is always a new opportunity when you have those roles filled with new, great leaders, but you’re also losing a lot of historical knowledge,” Owens said. “I think, in the K-12 schools, the retirements may have been somewhat accelerated because of COVID and the stress and strain that it put on those leadership roles.”
Lakeshore Advantage and other economic development organizations forge workforce development programs with those younger students, which prove just as crucial as collaborating with higher education institutions.
“Most kids at least have some idea of what they might want to do or what they might choose to do … in middle school,” Owens said. “That’s a key time where you’re forming what you might like to do. The earlier we can get those kids exposed to our employers to keep them local and shape them, the better.”