The Grand Rapids Community College Board of Trustees held seven virtual interviews with candidates applying to fill a vacant seat. In April, community leader Deb Bailey died from complications with cancer leaving eight months left of her term on the board.
Live-streamed on YouTube, Chairperson David Koetje prefaced these interviews with noting the unconventional format they are being conducted in.
Speaking on behalf of the board, Koetje told each candidate that whatever decision is made, it isn’t about “skill” as each of the 11 candidates is highly qualified. They are looking for someone to best fit and work alongside with the other members in serving the students and staff of the college as well as the Greater Grand Rapids community, Koetje said.
As the Executive Director for Festival of the Arts and a friend and mentee of Bailey’s, Abbott felt it his responsibility to finish her legacy and support the balance of her vacant seat.
Abbott attended GRCC back when it was a junior college. He noted the advancements it has made since then.
“I know that the school is positioned very differently than it was in my day,” Abbott said. “It was seen early on as the place to go before you went somewhere else and now it is very solid in its reputation. It is not just a stepping stone, it is to prepare individuals for careers in multiple fields.”
Abbott told the board that he is a gay man who has had a lot of support from those around him but recognizes that isn’t always the case for everyone.
“I know that not everyone has had the same opportunities that I’ve had, but certainly with GRCC I would be an advocate to make sure that those voices are heard.”
To Abbott, everyone has “the right to sit at the table” and he wants to help facilitate that for others.
Trustee and Vice Chairperson Kathy Crosby asked Abbott if he had experience on a board that used a policy-based governance model.
“I still have a great deal to learn when it comes to how that’s run and yet, selfishly, I am also interested in this because I know the experiences I will have, even in a short period of time, I will be able to bring that learning back to Festival of the Arts to continually improve our organization,” Abbott answered.
Abbott said that, if he were to be selected, he will gain a lot of knowledge and it would be “daunting” to sign up for a full-term without having the knowledge this short appointment would afford him.
“I don’t know what tomorrow will bring but I know this would open a path and a door for me for the future,” Abbott told the board.
Being a civil rights attorney, Hendricks-Pitch has a diverse background in public service, particularly with the migrant and minority communities in West Michigan. She formerly served on the Cherry Health board and currently is on the board of the Heart of West Michigan United Way.
“I became passionate about making sure that children that come from disadvantaged backgrounds have the same opportunity for an education,” Hendricks-Pitch said. “To me, an education makes all the difference in the rest of your lives and in the lives of your community.”
Stable funding, good governance, and quality services are the three most important pillars for any institution, according to Hendricks-Pitch. She said a key role of the board is to work together for the better of the cause. Given her experience and background, Hendricks-Pitch believes she can offer a unique role in assisting those who need help to fill in their educational gaps.
Increasing and supporting the student population is important, as is retention and percentage of people completing training programs. Hendricks-Pitch said she wants to track those areas more closely with the hope of increasing those numbers. She desires for students to “brag” about the education they received at GRCC and how it impacted their career goals.
Hendricks-Pitch has filed to run for a six-year term on the GRCC board that would start at the beginning of 2021.
Owner of Carlisle, a curated and tailored women’s wear collection, McNamara is an image consultant and fashion stylist. She previously taught fashion merchandising at GRCC (what was then Grand Rapids Junior College).
McNamara is a product of the public education system and believes it to be important that people involved in the community college are dedicated and work diligently to guide students during the challenging times resulting from COVID-19.
“Given the situation with the pandemic, it requires of the board some real forward-thinking and the ability to get ahead of the curve – to think about distance learning and what that means,” McNamara said.
Citing the various economic, safety, health and educational challenges during this time, McNamara said, “I don’t know why you aren’t meeting absolutely everyday at the moment to look at those challenges.”
She noted disparages in the minority population at the college.
“You have a 24% minority enrollment, and while that is up by 5% over the last 5 years, it is well under the 32% state average for minorities so I think that there’s a challenge there that needs to be looked at and embraced by the board,” McNamara said.
When asked if there are plans to increase diversity, Koetje said that the college desires all students would feel welcomed.
“We look at diversity from a variety of lenses. Quite frankly, when we look at all of the institutions in Kent County, isn’t it interesting that community college is the most diverse institution of all of the institutions in Kent County?” Koetje said. “In the context of that, to have someone challenge us to be even more diverse feels kind of good because that lies on a bed of being an incredibly diverse institution the way it is now.”
McNamara said she believes she has value to add although she is “on the fence” as to whether she would run for a six-year term at the end of the year considering she may be retiring from her job.
Brandy Lovelady Mitchell
A first generation college graduate, Lovelady Mitchell, who has a doctorate in Educational Leadership, is the inaugural Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and Kent ISD.
Lovelady Mitchell and her husband have a combined 50 years in public service as educators. She is a longtime resident of Kent County and, as such, Lovelady Mitchell said that she sees the “value of living in the community” and has a unique insight into the needs of the area and aspires to further accessibility to quality education for students.
“I know that Grand Rapids Community College has been and will continue to be a critical ingredient for our community to thrive and grow in an inclusive way,” she said. “ I think it’s important that there is a P-12 – meaning preschool through 12 – connection. I think my background positions me to bring that P-12 insight as well as my understanding of DEI issues.”
Lovelady Mitchell noted the “emergent thinking” that will be required to handle the extraordinary unique challenges COVID-19 has and will continue to present. She wants to create pathways for students to attain the education they need at a price point that is inclusive.
“(My personal experiences) positions me to ask questions like, ‘how do we cast the net wider and broader to ensure we’re creating on-ramps for all students to have the opportunity to access quality education?’” Lovelady Mitchell said. “…Who as leaders do we need to be to make the right decision that help address the inequities and bring more people in to have the opportunities that help them have a better quality of life?”
When asked if she plans to run for a full-term board seat, Lovelady Mitchell said she has “every intention” of campaigning and has already begun filing to do so.
First generation college student and GRCC alum, Schoenborn-Preuss is involved in the Workforce Development program at DeWys Manufacturing, an industry partner of GRCC. She said she believes that education can be for everyone and desires to play a role in connecting students with the resources they need to be successful.
“One definition doesn’t define education for all,” Schoenborn-Preuss said. “…I’ve been able to show people what that community college can do for them in multiple different ways and showing the K-12 what it can be doing for them and the various different genders and races of which I have been able to work with that community college (GRCC) really does have a community feel. It has the ability to be something for everybody if that is what they want to do.”
Her desire is to be actively involved in the “bigger conversation” of higher education. When asked if she would campaign to be elected onto the Board of Trustees at the end of Bailey’s term came to a close, Schoenborn-Preuss said she “absolutely would.”
“My goal is to get more active in this community; to get more active in this college one way, shape, or form. If this is not it, it certainly isn’t my last way of working with the college.”
Founder of the marketing strategy company Humanoid Digital, Urbanowski attended Central Michigan University and said that he understands what the younger generation is dealing with being that he graduated in 2010. To him, students are the “most important stakeholders” in the college and serving them is what he desires to do.
Aware that the fiscal situation incurred as a result of COVID-19 has greatly affected the Western Michigan community, Urbanowski wants to avoid a tuition increase.
“We can only cut so many costs without starting to impede the mission of the college,” Urbanowski said. Later adding, “I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses and pretend that we’ll be able to go another four or five or ten years without having to raise tuition at some point.”
Believing that the board should be a liaison between the public and the college, Urbanowski said he wants to help fulfill GRCC’s commitment to the community.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand what GRCC has to offer – I think especially a lot of members of the public who might not be in college or might not have anything to do with GRCC,” Urbanowsi said.
“I think we can do a lot better in terms of making sure that GRCC, that people understand what GRCC brings to the table.”
Urbanowski referenced his time at CMU on a number of occasions, looking back fondly on that “transformative time.” It is there that he learned what his “place in this world” is and hopes that GRCC students can have that opportunity, also.
Urbanowski indicated that he would “run for the full term” if he was selected to the vacant board seat.
President and CEO of West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) since 2015, Williams has an interdisciplinary leadership doctorate from Creighton University. Formerly, he was the principal of Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy (UPrep) where he was accused of insensitivity and mishandling of a sexual abuse case that occurred between students and a teacher at the school.
An MLive article posted in 2013 details the circumstances of the incident. A letter sent to the now retired superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools, Teresa Weatherall Neal, from Eugenie Eardley, the lawyer representing the molested teens, alleged that Williams was “making derisive comments” to the victims and their families.
“Eardley wrote that the principal in separate instances ‘rudely suggested that (a victim) was not welcome to return to the school this fall,’ denied a report card to one family and reversed course on a transfer request from another,” the article states.
Brian Cloyd, founding board member of UPrep and WMCAT, told reporters at the time that he could not specifically address the letter, though he did defend Williams.
“I can speak to the character of Daniel, and I have the highest regard for him as a person and as a leader,” Cloyd is quoted as saying in the MLive article. “I would be shocked if he acted in any way that would be inappropriate to any student or parent at the school. It’s just not his character.”
According to his LinkedIn profile, Williams remained the principal of the academy until August of 2015.
In his Wednesday interview with the GRCC Board, Williams said leading with empathy and “paying attention to people and being human-centered” is critical. According to Williams, the college plays a “vital role” in supporting lifelong learners and he wants to assist those efforts.
“I care deeply about the college and its role in our community,” Williams said. “You know, I think just the incredible staff, the instructors, the students, that make up who and what the institution is, I just have great respect for.”
Williams told the board he has already filed to campaign to be on the board after this appointment would end.
There are four more people to be interviewed: Andrew Erlewein, Linda Goulet, Craig Noland, and Judy Whipps. The board will meet with these candidates Wednesday, May 27. Times and the link to stream the interviews can be found here.
Trustees will vote to appoint a candidate during the next board session on Monday, June 15.