Emily Arnim, Staff Writer
As part of our series on women in college leadership, I decided to profile the women leading the top 25 community colleges in United States (as ranked by Niche's 2018 Best Community Colleges list) as well as the women leading Aspen Institute's ten 2019 finalists for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Among these 35 high-performing community colleges, eight are led by women (or about 23%).
This figure is similar to the representation of women leaders across U.S. bachelor's- and master's-level institutions (also 23%), but slightly lower than the representation of women leaders at U.S. community colleges. A 2015 study by the American Council on Education (ACE) found that about 33% of community colleges employ female presidents (Aspen prize press release, accessed 7/20; Niche list, accessed 7/26).
Here is a snapshot of the eight women leading high-performing community colleges, including where and what they studied, as well as their priorities and accomplishments as community college leaders:
Karla Leach, Western Wyoming Community College
Alma mater: Texas Tech University
Major: Secondary Education
During Leach's tenure, Western Wyoming Community College has seen graduation rates rise above the national average.
Leach has also strengthened industry partnerships to help students enter the workforce after graduation. In 2014, she joined the ACT Work Ready Communities advisory board.
"As President of Western Wyoming Community College, I have seen firsthand how our strong partnerships with regional industry have better positioned us to provide relevant and high-quality workforce training and education, resulting in better outcomes for students and employers," she says (Jantz, Rocket-Miner, 10/24/17; News Desk, Sweetwater Now, 3/13/14; Zoominfo site, accessed 7/27).
Laura Urban, Alexandria Technical & Community College
Alma Mater: Northland College
Major: Business Administration
Laura Urban was appointed president of Alexandria Technical & Community College in 2014. During her tenure, ATCC achieved the highest graduation rate among two-year colleges in the state, in addition to a 96% job-placement rate across core industries such as manufacturing and healthcare.
In 2016, ATCC was nominated for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. "Our graduates out of a number of programs have multiple job offerings five to six months before they graduate," says Urban. "Employers just keep knocking on our door saying, 'more, give me more'" (Anderson, Minnesota State press release, 3/19/14; Olson, AACC 21st-Century Center, 3/3/16).
Also see: 5 steps to improve your pipeline of women leaders, according to 57 female CEOs
Susan May, Fox Valley Technical College
Alma Mater: University of Wisconsin-Stout
May has served as president of Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC) since 2008, after beginning her tenure with the college as an adult continuing education specialist in 1983. Under May, graduate employment rates have steadily risen, and in 2017, 95% of graduates were employed after six months—the highest figure FVTC has seen in 17 years. Last year, May was awarded the Shirley B. Gordon Award of Distinction for presidents and chancellors by Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society (Fox Valley site, accessed 7/27; Post Crescent news, 6/18).
Youlanda Jones, Tennessee College of Applied Technology-Newbern
Alma Mater: University of Memphis
Major: Business Administration
Youlanda Jones, president of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT)-Ripley/Covington, is currently also serving as interim president of TCAT-Newbern. Across TCAT campuses, Jones says her primary goal is to ensure students are workforce-ready by instilling in them the value of ethical behavior and by preparing them for a smooth transition after graduation (TCAT press release, 5/26/15; TCAT site, accessed 7/27).
Lori Weyers, Northcentral Technical College
Alma Mater: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Major: Psychology and Behavioral Disabilities
Weyers has served as president of Northcentral Technical College since 2006, after serving in the Wisconsin Technical College System for more than 28 years. As president, Weyers has focused on creating an equitable learning environment and expanding educational access for all students. She received an ATHENA Leadership Award in 2011 (NTC site, accessed 7/27).
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Louise Pagotto, Kapi‘olani Community College
Alma Mater: Marianopolis College, l’Université de Montréal
Pagotto began serving as chancellor of Kapiʻolani Community College in June 2018, after working for the college in different roles for nearly 30 years. As chancellor, Pagotto hopes to update campus infrastructure, and engage students to improve student retention.
"I believe in my role as a leader is to make a way possible for faculty and staff, to remove obstacles to achieving the goals of this campus," says Pagotto (Ladao, Kapi'o News, 4/30; University of Hawai'i site, accessed 7/27).
Denise Yochum, Pierce College Fort Steilacoom
Alma Mater: California Polytechnic State University-San Luis de Obispo
Major: Speech Communication and Rhetoric
Yochum has served as president of Pierce College Fort Steilacoom since 2006. Under Yochum, the college has been recognized four times by the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program in part for its focus on minority and low-income student access.
"Pierce College faculty and staff make an ongoing commitment to students and to delivering programs and services to help them succeed at the highest levels," said Yochum in response to the college's 2011 recognition by the Aspen Institute (Haines, Lakewood Patch, 5/4/11; LinkedIn site, accessed 7/20; Pierce College, Suburban Times, 10/14/17).
Brenda Hellyer, San Jacinto College
Alma Mater: Fort Hays State University
Hellyer started with San Jac in 1996 as the first director for the San Jacinto College Foundation, and became chancellor in 2009. In her roughly 20 years with the college, she has not only revamped its mission, vision, and strategic plan, but has also introduced the state's first associate degree maritime transportation program and established a variety of community partnerships.
Going forward, she plans to continue to expand programs in STEM and improve graduate outcomes: "This is a remarkable time to be at San Jacinto College. We’re producing more career opportunities for our graduates than ever before, through partnerships with global leaders in government, business and healthcare," writes Hellyer (San Jacinto College site, accessed 7/20).
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