By Mia Kerner, Blace Carpenter, and Shane Madden
The three finalists being considered for the role of GRCC’s next president are beginning to share their visions for the future of the college, as well as undergoing their public board of trustees interviews.
On Tuesday, Oct. 18, Stuart Blacklaw, one of the presidential candidates, fielded questions from GRCC faculty, staff, students and community members during six sessions held throughout the day.
During the Board of Trustees interview and longest session of the day, Blacklaw, provost and executive vice president at the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, was given the opportunity to tell his story in his own words and to address his previous short tenure at GRCC.
“I grew up in Chelsea, Michigan down near Ann Arbor and ultimately ended up attending Olivet College…,” Blacklaw said. “That was a formative experience in that I really, really loved education. I loved being a student. I came out of that and worked in media for a number of years… I enjoyed that work but still had that affinity for education and decided to get my master’s degree… At that time my mother said to me ‘oh you would stay in college forever if you could,’ and so I have. I found a way to do that.”
He continued, mentioning his ascension from faculty, through administration and finally to his previous post at Jefferson Community College in New York.
“It was there I learned what community colleges were about…” Blacklaw said. “That was my introduction to the mission of being tied to that community. That development of the community and the opportunity we could give to students really resonated with me. So when I left there I came here… I loved being here, brief though it was, because then I ended up in a relationship, I fell hard for somebody and so I went and moved to be with that individual who I am still with today.”
Blacklaw took a moment to clarify why he was fired from his job as vice president of instruction at Washtenaw Community College, referencing an instance in 2013 in which an incoming president wanted to hire their own people. It is worth noting, there was significant pushback from the college community following his firing.
“So I moved my career also… and eventually came back to Michigan for an opportunity at Washtenaw Community College to be an executive leader for the first time. It was there that I learned some things about executive experience, not the least of which that a new president can sometimes change her mind about the people around her and so she actually replaced the entire cabinet.”
Blacklaw appeared right at home during his interviews and was sure to make his vision for the college very clear during the community forum.
He laid out five specific goals: teaching and learning, completion and transfer, equity, community impact and infrastructure/sustainability.
“We need to work in a culture of respect,” Blacklaw said of his vision for teaching and learning. “We need a culture that values growth. Those opportunities need to come forward out of that culture.”
Blacklaw continued to explain how to operationalize this view, stating that the employees of a college, staff and faculty, must first and foremost possess the resources to grow as teachers.
He then went on to address the issue of equity within a college atmosphere, explaining the five commitments that he plans to adopt at GRCC.
He emphasized “the commitment to care, to serve the whole community with a focus on social justice, to build a culture of equity on campus, to identify and dismantle campus structures that breed disparities and redesign the college for equity,” and finally, “the commitment to fund what matters most.”
Blacklaw then explained the impact of community colleges, recognizing that providing a “pipeline” of students with excellent jobs will create opportunities for generations of students to come.
He also emphasized, in regards to infrastructure/sustainability, the importance of establishing a “beautiful,”“comfortable” and “safe” atmosphere for students whose homes may lack those qualities.
“Community colleges are an oasis,” he said. “They are more than just the education that the students need. They are sustaining their dreams in a way far beyond what our degree programs will do.”
Putting his own spin on Shorouk Mostafa Ibrahim’s famous quote, Blacklaw said, “We need to be the reason why someone loves to sing. We need to be the reason our students never give up. We have to be the ones who motivate them by showing up with our appreciation, with our support, with our respect and with our passion.”
When asked the question, “Should a college president respond to current events related to these issues” Blacklaw said he believes it is important as a president of a community college to address these issues for the support of students and the community
“To the extent that there are issues that are around any of those populations or others, you have to talk about it, I don’t know how you don’t. It also undercuts the ability of your students to feel like you have their back if they feel like you are avoiding topics,” Blacklaw said.