Laurie Chesley, the new president of Central Oregon Community College, plans to spend her first year at the Bend campus learning the issues rather than making drastic changes, noting that she will stick with plans the previous administration has set in motion.

“I’m really fortunate that I inherited an institution that is strong and vibrant,” she told The Bulletin. “There’s such a strong foundation here.”

The plans in place include the addition of more online courses, analyzing the needs of students at the community college’s satellite campuses and making changes to the school’s campus security force in the wake of “Kaylee’s Law,” Chesley said.

“COCC welcomes Kaylee’s Law, because it gives us clear direction about what we need to do to keep our students and our campus safe,” said Chesley, 56. “Our goal is to exceed the expectations of Kaylee’s Law.”

On May 24, Gov. Kate Brown signed “Kaylee’s Law,” named after a COCC student who was abducted by a college security guard in July 2016, raped and bludgeoned to death. The law’s goal is to make sure the public can distinguish campus officers from traditional law enforcement.

Chesley pointed out that COCC’s campus security was in compliance with the law before she became president on July 1. Security officers now wear bright-yellow vests, have improved record-keeping practices and are instructed to not make arrests or carry handcuffs, among other changes.

Jim Porter, chief of the Bend Police Department, praised COCC’s campus security force for making “significant changes” before the law was signed.

“They deserve some credit for being proactive about that and being ahead of that law,” said Porter, who has not met Chesley.

When it comes to reversing the college’s dipping enrollment — which has fallen by more than 30% since 2012 — Chesley touted two plans that were in place before her term began. One strategy is to increase the amount of online classes.

Also, staff members are analyzing students at COCC’s satellite campuses, as well as students who live outside of Bend, to assess how they can be served better and why there might be a disconnect between the school and non-Bend students. Chesley said she hopes to improve communication with her students in general.

“My goal is to continue to assess strengths and areas where we can be even stronger, then work on becoming stronger in our responsiveness to students and the community,” she said.

Chesley said she’s building a relationship with the leader of Central Oregon’s other higher-education institution: Becky Johnson, the vice president of Oregon State University-Cascades.

The two plan on meeting monthly to maintain a strong relationship between the two schools, Chesley said.

“I’m really looking forward to that collaboration and working with her to help bolster the college-going culture in this area,” she said.

When Chesley visited COCC during the interview process, she said she wanted to strengthen the college’s connection with OSU-Cascades by easing the transfer process.

Chesley said she’s “very interested” in that, but doesn’t have immediate plans to change the transfer process between Central Oregon’s two higher-education schools.

“It’s not something I’m working on right now because I have no idea if that’s something that needs to be worked on, but it’s always been a passion of mine to try to give students the best transfer experience that they could have,” she said.

Chesley was chosen by the COCC board in February to succeed Shirley Metcalf, who retired in June after five years leading the college. Chesley, who is COCC’s sixth president, spent 18 years as an administrator at multiple community colleges and four-year universities in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Laura Craska Cooper, chair of COCC’s board, said she appreciates Chesley’s reluctance towards major changes, as she believes doing that immediately could be “dangerous.”

“I think she has the exact right approach,” Craska Cooper said. “How can you make changes at an organization before you understand it and understand what the ramifications of changes will be?”

Craska Cooper said she was “extremely optimistic” about Chesley’s tenure, praising her preparedness and willingness to listen.

Chesley told Craska Cooper that she was enjoying her new role, something that made the board chair happy.

“If you’re not having fun, you won’t stay, and we want (Chesley) to have a long, successful tenure,” Craska Cooper said

A first-time resident of Central Oregon, Chesley said she loves the local community and the friendly culture at COCC.

“There really is an exceptionally warm nature to this community, both within the college and in the greater community,” she said. “Everybody’s willing to help, give you tips and advice and just be very friendly (to you).”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com

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