A Major Departure at NC's Community Colleges
Multiple sources tell The Assembly that a closed session vote has brought the imminent departure of president Thomas Stith, triggering another round of uncertainty for the state’s 58 colleges.
Update: Thomas Stith, the president of the state community college system, has formally resigned, according to a statement issued Tuesday. State Board Chair Burr Sullivan said the board expects to name "an experienced interim president in the next few days" while it begins a "thoughtful and thorough search" for a permanent replacement.
A three-hour, closed-session meeting on Friday afternoon brought a months-long debate over the future of the North Carolina Community College System to a sharp conclusion, and the system is once again facing a vacancy in its top leadership.
Multiple sources with direct knowledge of the meeting tell The Assembly that a vote during the closed session has triggered the imminent departure of president Thomas Stith. An official announcement may come as early as Monday, July 18.
The departure would mean the system’s seventh permanent or interim president in as many years, throwing leadership of the 58-college system into uncertainty once again. As The Assembly reported last month, high turnover and low morale have plagued the system’s head office.
Stith became president of the community college system in January 2021, building on a career that included stints as Gov. Pat McCrory’s chief of staff and district director of the U.S. Small Business Administration in North Carolina.
Tensions over his leadership are not new. Throughout the spring, board members privately expressed unhappiness over questions of execution and strategy. In March, a tense closed-session board meeting led to an unveiling in April of new, more specific goals for the president in an attempt to improve the situation.
Stith’s departure, just 18 months after his appointment, would be in line with a recent trend of markedly short tenures at the community college system. Former president Peter Hans served just over two years before leaving to take over as president of the University of North Carolina System. Before him, Jimmie Williamson lasted just 13 months before an acrimonious resignation.
The immediate question will be who takes over in the interim. Two sources familiar with early discussions told The Assembly that the most likely option is a familiar one: Bill Carver, the former president of Nash Community College, who served as interim president after Hans departed.
Choosing the next permanent president would be more difficult. The State Board of Community Colleges is one of the few bipartisan institutions in the state, with 20 voting members—ten appointed by the governor, eight appointed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, and two ex officio positions controlled by the lieutenant governor and the state treasurer, who are both Republicans.
Unlike other statewide boards, the community college board is notable for its lack of partisanship. Presidential appointments tend to be bipartisan, at least on the surface. Both Hans and Stith, the two most recent picks, received praise from leaders in both parties, though one Democratic operative told The Assembly that the selection of Stith was less consultative than his predecessor’s selection.
The most prominent name floated as a potential replacement is state Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Republican who lost her primary to another Republican incumbent in May. Ballard is seen as one of Republicans’ most engaged members in the higher education space, and is respected by statewide education leaders.
But there’s also a strong preference among some in the system for the next leader to have direct experience in higher education, possibly leading to the appointment of a sitting or former community college president.
One source with knowledge of conversations among system stakeholders pointed to Laura Leatherwood, the current president of Blue Ridge Community College, and Garrett Hinshaw, the current president of Catawba Valley Community College, as possible leading contenders.
The next president will face a host of difficult questions. In a preview of Stith’s 2021 challenges, EdNC’s Nation Hahn listed a set of challenges that remain present more than a year later, including budget stabilization and faculty pay, system office staffing, and maintaining unity among the 21-member state board and the 58 different colleges and their individual boards of trustees.
The system has seen not only enormous turnover at the president level, but also the departure of at least nine senior staff members in a little over a year.
Administrative functions and processes are dated—“It’s a little like a charter for the last century,” said one board member during an audit report on Friday—and the system faces anemic faculty pay alongside enrollment declines.
There has also been continued interest in rethinking the system as a whole and how it interacts with both its constituent campuses and the broader education world.
Rural community colleges in particular are suffering enrollment challenges, and there have been proposals to combine them into regional hubs or otherwise innovate.
There may also be more fundamental change on the way, as legislators appear eager to make serious shifts to how education is governed and led in the state.
This summer, House leadership proposed a constitutional amendment that would overhaul the State Board of Education—which oversees K-12 education—so that members would be elected rather than appointed. The effort did not move forward.
And last fall, Senate leader Phil Berger told The Assembly that he was interested in combining the UNC System and the community college system under one governance structure.
“If we get them all in one building,” Berger said a year ago, “maybe we can get them into one organizational structure.”
The ensuing state budget set aside $115 million for planning and construction of a joint headquarters for the three offices that oversee public K-12 and higher education.
Kyle Villemain is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Assembly.
Cover Photo: Thomas Stith during a press conference for Gov. Pat McCrory in 2012 // Photo by Gerry Broome, AP Photo