Donald Tomas, the new president of Southwestern Community College since July 1, believes local institutions such as SCC will rely more and more on private donations as state funds continue drying up.
Private fundraising is already a fact of life for neighboring Western Carolina University and other schools in the University of North Carolina system. WCU, under former Chancellor John Bardo, raised more than $51 million in 2009 with its first comprehensive fundraising campaign in university history. New Chancellor David Belcher, who like Tomas took over July 1, is promising to lead the university through an even more successful fundraising campaign.
Tomas isn’t a stranger to raising private money to help fund public institutions. His last post was in south Texas, where he served as vice president of instruction at Weatherford College. He grew the campus from a single 2,400 square foot building with just five parking spaces — he personally parked on the street to save the spots for others — to 95,000 square feet, replete with 25 classrooms, a library and book store, during his 18-year career there.
“We were able to rally the community,” Tomas said.
But in Texas, they’ve been doing things a bit differently than here in North Carolina. Buildings and rooms weren’t named in honor of community do-gooders or public leaders who served as college boosters. Rather, naming rights were given to those who donated money, whether it was a private business or philanthropist. Tomas said he’s not above selling brick pavers engraved with donors’ names.
“You have to be creative,” Tomas said in his first interview with area news outlets after taking over as SCC’s president. “You have to cultivate these relationships, all the way along. After building relationships, if you have that need, you go back and say: ‘This is what we’re doing,’ and ask for a level of support.”
Tomas, 55, said he believes the communities served by SCC will be responsive to calls for funding help.
“The community is very supportive,” Tomas said. “Southwestern has a tremendous positive relationship in the region.”
Tomas believes Macon County, which has a new satellite campus, likely has the most potential for growth. He pointed to the new Macon classroom building, which is already at capacity shortly after opening its doors.
But that, Tomas said, is something that needs fleshing out with a better assessment after studying where growth is taking place.
“In six months from now, I could probably tell you ‘yes, here and here,’” Tomas said.
Still, it seems obvious the Jackson County campus is fairly landlocked, and a new building under way there will take care of its needs for the immediate future, Tomas said.
Tomas also wants to assess possibilities for SCC in Swain County, and plans to soon meet with tribal leaders with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
SCC’s new president takes over after a short stint by Richard Collings, who resigned the post suddenly. Longtime SCC President Cecil Groves retired last summer. Collings suffered a stroke after coming to North Carolina to start his new job and was forced to delay his start date. Collings resigned after just six months, and an interim president had to take over for the second time in less than a year until Tomas was put in place.
Tomas said SCC has continued to serve the region even through the year of turmoil in leadership.
“It might have been a little bit of a holding pattern, but it wasn’t noticed,” Tomas said.
If there has been a leadership vacuum, Tomas said it could well be in areas such as growth.
He is interested in evaluating where, exactly, SCC is at, and where the communities it serves wants the college to proceed. A strategic plan for the college will get under way this fall.
Tomas added that he isn’t “a field of dreams-type person, ‘build it and they will come.’”
Community colleges, by nature, shouldn’t be seen as an isolated institution.
“You have to meet people on their own turf,” Tomas said.
Tomas plans a three-county, meet-and-greet tour next month
Tomas said a virtue of community colleges is their ability to pivot quickly and respond to needs in the community for training and workforce development. For example, SCC is providing GED classes at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino to make it easy for the employees there.
Tomas stressed the importance of students leaving SCC with an “employable exit.” He also hopes to work with WCU’s new chancellor to make the transition for students going beyond a two-year degree.
“Out students are gong to be Western students,” Tomas said. “I look forward to that relationship.
And, for that matter, the same goes for the new superintendant of Jackson County Schools, ushering in a new era with leadership change at the public school, community college and university level in Jackson County at the same time.
As did Chancellor Belcher in a public meeting a few weeks ago, SCC’s new president promised open, honest and visible leadership, and a highly visible role in the community.
“We try to maintain a fabric of openness,” Tomas said.
Tomas plans to be equally visible on campus. He likes to get out of his office and just walk around campus. People will know what he looks like, he promised.
“I have high expectations,” he said. “What comes along with that is accountability.”
At some point, you can expect to find Tomas teaching in the classroom. He believes doing so helps keep administrators grounded and tuned in to faculty and student concerns.