As Central Oregon Community College President Jim Middleton nears retirement, he’s finally able to start dusting off his plans to pen a sci-fi novel.
“I got to prove to myself that I can do it,” he said, joking that if he shared the plot, it may be stolen and turned into a screenplay.
Another post-COCC project Middleton has under consideration is the pursuit of macro photography, which entails taking very large and detailed pictures of very small things.
“You miss a lot when you don’t look closely enough,” he said.
Unfortunately for his artistic side, a few things have prevented the 66-year-old Middleton from bowing out as planned. After announcing a year ago his intentions to retire this June, the college’s search for a replacement failed when the top choice was accused by a colleague of sexual assault. To give COCC another year to look, an interim president was appointed, and Middleton agreed to stay on a few extra months.
However, even when autumn arrives, Middleton will not really qualify as a retiree. In June, he was appointed to an eight-month state post, where he will help coordinate activity among Oregon’s 17 community colleges and facilitate a change in how the state oversees the colleges.
These delays won’t be the first setback to Middleton’s literary ambitions. As a Rhodes Scholarship finalist after college, Middleton aspired to become a Dickens scholar and to lead a life of “pure academic research.”
After failing to win a spot at Oxford, he didn’t fall far, eventually earning a doctorate in English from the University of Michigan. Nonetheless, during his career, Middleton gravitated away from teaching and research and toward administration, saying, “Dickens does alright on his own.”
“Some people say they wish they worked at a ‘real college,’” Middleton said. “For me, there’s nothing more real than what we do here. At elite institutions, students are going to achieve no matter what; they are well motivated, and their parents, in general, support them. People come here with real challenges.”
Challenges and accomplishments
During his tenure, more and more such students arrived, with the number of credits being taken doubling in a four-year period beginning in 2007. According to Middleton, as the Great Recession decreased job opportunities, more students enrolled to develop their skills, a trend that peaked in 2012.
Middleton cited this growth as one of the greatest challenges faced by the college under his tenure, and noted that COCC’s adaptation to the needs of these students is one of the college’s greatest accomplishments.
“For three years running we were one of the 50 fastest-growing community colleges in the country,” Middleton said. “The region and individuals were in crisis, needing to rebuild lives as their jobs were pulled out from under them and plans failed. Education became a way of building a new future, and I think we helped fulfill that missionary role.”
Another challenge Middleton faced is a decline in state support, which dropped from 31 percent of funding in the 2004-05 school year to 12.6 percent in the 2012-13 school year. This past academic year, the rate rebounded a few points.
“As an individual, you like to feel like you have control and can select what you’d like to do,” Middleton said. “However, we’re as much a victim as we are a creator of events. A lot of the areas I focused on weren’t because of some grand plan but because I had to.”
Middleton said he has also witnessed a philosophical shift in the thinking about how community colleges should be funded, characterized by a change in focus from the number of students who enroll to the number who graduate. Given that community colleges traditionally serve a great number of disadvantaged students, funding tied to outcomes as opposed to enrollment has become a controversial issue across the country.
In Tennessee, one of the first states to adopt such a model, colleges are funded based on a formula tied to different measures of student success. Critics have complained that such a system punishes colleges willing to serve the neediest of students, while proponents contend such a model holds schools accountable.
“If we’re going to get rewarded for getting people to the finish line, we are in danger of cheapening the degree and making it easier to graduate,” he said. “But there’s a similar issue when we’re just focused on enrollment and we admit students who aren’t likely to succeed. We want to have an open door, but not a revolving door.”
Middleton cautiously embraces the idea of outcome-based funding, noting “it’s not a panacea.”
“To say that two institutions in two very similar areas should be paid the same regardless of outcomes doesn’t make sense,” he said. “I don’t think we should go 100 percent in this direction, but it’s worth exploring.”
A ‘bridge’ president
In his temporary role with the state, Middleton will have a part to play in how or if the state adopts outcome-based funding. But at COCC, how the college prepares for such a shift will be left to Shirley Metcalf, currently the college’s extended learning dean, who will become interim president Sept. 2. Because of how the last-minute contracts were written, the college will technically have two presidents for a few days, though both Middleton and Metcalf seem more amused than concerned about the overlap.
Metcalf said she will use her time as president to focus on promoting student success, highlighting efforts that target and prepare first-year students and help to identify and contact students who are very close to completing a degree and seem to have stalled.
“We’re very good at opening the door, having single parents, those who didn’t do well at a four-year institution or those one can’t afford one,” said Metcalf, 62. “What community colleges don’t always do so well is making sure (students) meet their goals, whether that’s getting a job or moving on to a university.”
However, the shift from focusing on enrollment to success comes at an odd time for the college, as enrollment at COCC is dropping, most recently causing the college to cut sections from the current summer term. To combat this decline, Metcalf said the college will continue to look for new programs that are needed in the region, such as an upcoming program focused on ground transportation logistics that will train students to manage shipping fleets. This new program, Metcalf said, was spurred by a suggestion made by a trucking company in Redmond.
“Even though enrollment is down, we need to respond to industry and work to address the workforce development needs of the region,” Metcalf said. “I’m going to work with faculty who have started new programs so we can plan how to go about this.”
Metcalf’s ambitions to grow the college’s offerings, however, are trumped by her desire to continue what she calls a “very successful” college.
“When I think about what I may be able to say a year from now, I want to be known as the bridge president,” Metcalf added. “I may be asked what am I proudest of, and I hope I can say I kept the ship going, retained students and that they were successful, that I built up shared governance among the staff and that I listened to the community.”
Despite the modest characterization of her role as a bridge president, upon taking the reins, Metcalf will already have accomplished something major — she will be the college’s first female president.
“The faculty noticed right away, and slowly other people have figured it out after looking at the portraits in the board room,” Metcalf said. “With me, it’s now 10 female (Oregon community college presidents) to seven male. It’s good to be in the lead.”
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