Peter Hans, flanked by Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, speaks at a May news conference in which he was introduced as the ninth president of the state community-college system. Provided by the North Carolina Community College System
The ancient Blue Ridge Mountains rise in the background, but from Peter Hans’ view, it’s the future of Tar Heel education that’s on display here. On the campus of Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute in Hudson, about 60 high-school students will graduate in 2019 with half the credits needed for a two-year degree.
After another year, graduates of Caldwell Career Center Middle College will be trained to go directly into career-track jobs or can transfer credits to one of the state’s 60-plus universities and colleges offering four-year degrees.
“We have to provide as many education opportunities as possible for as many North Carolinians as possible,” says Hans, who became the ninth president of the 697,000-student community-college system in May. Caldwell underscores his goal to “simplify, align and accelerate” higher education.
“Forecasts show North Carolina is going to need about two-thirds of its workforce to have credentials beyond high school within a decade,” Hans says. “We know that’s about 40% now.” Programs such as Caldwell’s — Hans says about 44,000 students are enrolled in them statewide now — can also help mitigate the 2017 average student debt of nearly $26,000 in North Carolina for a four-year degree.
With a budget of about $1.6 billion — about $1.2 billion from the state, the remainder from fees, local taxes, federal and other sources — it’s one of the state’s largest fiscal commitments. No wonder, then, that it’s not immune from politics. Just ask Hans’ predecessor, Jimmie Williamson, who held the job a little over a year before the system’s board ousted him mid-2017.
“They were looking for a political appointment,” says Williamson, who notes he was never told why he was forced to resign. “I was set up for failure, and I’m too talented to sit around and play with that level of foolishness.” He now heads a staffing company based in Columbia, S.C.
Hans, on the other hand, has backing from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republicans Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore. Hans was picked from about 30 candidates, including finalist Walter Dalton, who is president of Isothermal Community College in Spindale.
The move came two years after Hans was a finalist for the UNC System presidency, a job claimed by former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings after an intense search process. Reflecting Hans’ strong political connections, Spellings hired him as an adviser in 2016 at an annual salary of $240,000.
Even in a heated political environment, the value of the community-college system is widely accepted as an economic driver. About 30,000 employees took part in customized training last year, and many campuses have small-business centers and other business-friendly features. Still, enrollment has declined since peaking in 2011, with some schools reporting 20% decreases. Since 2007, per student spending has declined 11%, according to Brian Long, the system’s executive director of public affairs.
Hans, 48, grew up in Southport and Hendersonville, then earned a bachelor’s in political science at UNC Chapel Hill and a master’s in liberal arts from Harvard University. His early career involved working for politicians including Lauch Faircloth, Richard Burr and Elizabeth Dole. Most recently a lobbyist and public-relations adviser, he’s no stranger to academia.
The N.C. House elected him to the community-college board in 1997. In 2003, at age 33, the Senate named him to the UNC System’s governing board for the first of three four-year terms. He was chairman for two years.
That experience positions him well as Berger and others push for efficiency and coordination from the two-year and four-year systems. “Right now, the education maze is confusing for many,” Hans says. “We have to simplify registration, the financial aid process, make it easy on the student to enroll and provide support they need to be successful. That means we have to better align with our partners, the public schools and universities.”
Hans resists suggestions that the system needs to consolidate some of its campuses. “Not on my agenda,” he says. “Community colleges are a source of pride and identity.” He does see potential for regional cooperation such as pooling back-office operations, procurement or similar functions.
“It’s collaboration rather than consolidation,” he says. “Our service regions are drawn along county lines, but increasingly, people don’t follow county lines in where they work, go to school, shop and so on.”
A few weeks after he was installed in May, lawmakers upped the annual community-college system budget by about 3.8% overall, including $15 million extra for workforce training and $24 million for employee pay raises. By comparison, lawmakers boosted the allotment for the UNC System by 6%.
Though Gov. Cooper didn’t get his full wish list for education, one of his priorities called Finish Line Grants received $7 million in federal funds. Under the grants, community-college students who have completed three-quarters of their degrees can get as much as $1,000 to offset unexpected setbacks such as medical expenses that would prevent them from graduating.
To achieve some of his priorities, Hans will face competing pressures. Encouraging more students to begin higher education in less-expensive, more-convenient community colleges and then transfer to four-year schools could stress attendance at some of the 16 UNC campuses. While most reported increased fall enrollment in September compared with 2017, East Carolina University registered a 1.1% decline.
Alternately, some universities might benefit by attracting transfer students who otherwise would not attend college, Hans says. “The four-year institutions that are thinking ahead see the community colleges as a pipeline for their universities,”he says. Hans says he and Margaret Spellings “see this as a partnership.”
That partnership, however, will have its boundaries. Community-college presidents, often among their region’s most prominent leaders, need autonomy to respect local needs. “I want to support those local leaders and help them any way I can,” he says. “But sometimes that means just staying out of their way.”
[media-credit name=”Jimmie Williamson” align=”alignright” width=”300″][/media-credit]
It’s the North Carolina Community College System: Those who forget the “community” part do so at their own peril. Take Lloyd Hackley, president for less than two years in the 1990s, and Jimmie Williamson, who, when forced out in 2017, likewise had barely gotten his chair warm.
Hackley departed in 1997, saying he was targeted by some of the 58 local college presidents who felt he was “trying to turn this into a system controlled by Raleigh.” Williamson, who resigned his $285,000-a-year job after just 13 months, felt the same sting.
“There were presidents who felt I didn’t support them,” he says.
The community-college board declines to say why Chairman Scott Shook asked Williamson to leave. Though the system’s annual budget totals $1.6 billion, the board hires presidents with no contract and can fire them without explanation. “In retrospect,” Williamson says, “I should have allowed them to fire me. Then I might have had some legal grounds.”
Williamson, who had worked in South Carolina’s technical-college system for 27 years before coming to Raleigh, suspects his demise was linked to alleged fiscal mismanagement at Martin Community College in Williamston. A state report in 2016 blamed former Martin President Ann Britt for problems at the community college, sparking friction between local and state officials. Earlier this year, North Carolina lawmakers passed a bill enabling the state board to intervene more freely in such cases. Some community-college presidents see that as a power grab, particularly with local governments providing some funding.
“I don’t know if [the departure] was initiated by a politician, a local community-college president or some of my staff,” Williamson says. ”I think there’s some truth to all three of those.”
The state board wanted him to promote its legislative agenda, despite local presidents’ concerns, he says. “How would it have looked if I’d publicly gone against the wishes of my board?”
Williamson now heads Columbia, S.C.-based LTC Health Solutions, which provides staffing services for skilled-nursing and assisted-living homes.