Dorcas Helfant-Browning, who was appointed to the State Board for Community Colleges by Governor Tim Kaine in 2009, succeeds Bruce Meyer as chairman. “I’m very honored to chair a board of individuals with such diverse business backgrounds and such intellectual capacity,” she says. “If I look at those individuals and add them up, it’s overwhelmingly intimidating.”
1- What is the most important issue facing the board in the coming year?
The board has many challenges before it. We’re approaching 50 years in the community college business and we’re really doing a great job in areas that we know about. Academically, we’re attracting that younger student who needs a pathway to a four-year institution. On the business-partnership side, we’re also identifying that not everyone needs a full academic set of credentials. But they do need a credential to maximize their ability to be productive members of society. That’s equally important to the board members’ understanding for the commonwealth to grow and prosper – we must have a workforce that is either educated, certified or a combination of those things.
The board also has to look at doing more with a budget that is not substantially higher, other than we’ve received some very, very good treatment on those workforce issues in terms of having the best equipment to train with that is used in manufacturing today.
2- How important are partnerships to the state board?
Absolutely critical. The partnerships that the state board can endeavor to conduct are those multi-national corporations that are in the commonwealth, helping us identify the colleges in the system that can best serve their needs, particularly if that corporate citizen has different facilities in the commonwealth with different needs. And the state system is the deal-maker there so they can all come together. Many times, those businesses will go directly to the community college. But with the chancellor in the middle, he can work with economic development officials and the secretary of commerce and trade on bringing businesses in who may be in need of a variety of different skills in different areas and in different geographic areas in the commonwealth.
Our goal is to ensure that the community college system is a partner with the best value out there for the dollar – not only for our students but for business and industry.
3- Looking ahead, how will Virginia’s economy factor into the board’s decision-making process?
The state of the economy is a very interesting one. Our challenge in Virginia and as Governor McAuliffe has clearly stated, is to do more differently because we can no longer count on government contracting and the presence of government to be our growth employer. Therefore, we need to look at attracting more business and industry that can bring jobs to that skilled workforce which we have and creating the environment that the commonwealth is the place to do business and to be headquartered.
I keep talking about economics, but that means jobs and that means students who are prepared to take those jobs or prepared to go onto a four-year institution and get the credentials that they’ll need to get those jobs at the higher levels.
4- What does governance mean to you?
Governance is a system. It is the order that is in place to get from point A to point B. The board members need to be committed to the system and analytical of it. We have a great responsibility. Those 23 colleges, our 40 campuses and centers that those colleges have are business locations that are of value. The state has a responsibility to ensure that those facilities meet the needs and that is a tremendous economic responsibility.
At the same time, that’s just the shell. It’s the staffing, the personnel, the administrators and the educators who are well in-tuned to outreach to the communities that we serve and that that system work like the communities that we serve.
One of the things that we’ll be doing at the next board meeting is receiving the task force report on diversity and inclusion. It’s a very important part of the way we grow the college system for the future – our student body should not only look like the commonwealth but those people who are teaching in it and their administration should also.
5- What are a few things that folks would like to know about you that they may not already?
My Mother was a “Rosie Riveter” and my Father – who was 4-F – worked in the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. At the conclusion of the war, they moved back to West Virginia where I was born. When they discovered that there were no real good jobs for the future, my Dad reapplied at the shipyard and we moved back to Portsmouth, Virginia.
I work out. I always feel like I’m being mentally challenged but I like to physically challenge myself. Lifting weights and doing light cardio and those type things help keep me in shape. And, I’m a Facebook junkie to the extent that I keep track of my friends and family and folks that I’ve run into across the country. I had the honor a number of years ago of becoming the first woman president of the nation’s largest trade association (National Realtors Association – 1992). I did that because I had to fight to get the position. I was not endorsed so we drove to practically every state to campaign. That’s why I keep track of those friends on Facebook.
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