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Northeast on track, says interim president who isn't looking back

Rick Wagner • Jan 1, 2018 at 10:30 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Watch for the RCAM expansion opening this month and work on the Emerging Technologies Building at Northeast State Community College  to resume in 2018, as well as the school’s aviation offerings at some point moving from Gray to the Tri-Cities Airport next door to the main campus.

“This is what Northeast is all about now, moving forward and not dwelling on the past,” interim President James King said in a recent interview. “Those who are kind of dwelling in the past can hold the whole campus back.”

In 2016, the school marked its 50th anniversary, and the celebration ended with the burying of a time capsule near the library.

However, the first year of the school’s second half-century proved tumultuous, with 2017 kicking off with a faculty vote of no confidence in then-President Janice Gilliam in February, followed by a campus visit by Tennessee Board of Regents officials, corrective financial measures taken and Gilliam retiring June 30 after more than eight years at the helm of NSCC.

King was appointed interim president effective July 1.

“Anything that happened before July is ancient history,” King said.

 

King’s forward focus

Soon after King took over, NSCC began layoffs, although not of full-time faculty, and received a TBR Audit Committee report that found reserves had been depleted because projected enrollments did not materialize, yet spending continued. The audit also found a poor climate for faculty and staff and communications issues.

Under King’s leadership, the school decided to close the Bristol, Tenn., site that housed the entertainment technology program, which will move to the Blountville campus. The audit found that rental of the downtown Bristol campus was simply too expensive. NSCC also put the Gray campus housing the aviation program on the market, although the program remains there for now. The school also had $5 million in budget cuts, including $2.2 million worth of non-faculty layoffs. NSCC also trimmed expenses by not refilling vacant positions.

Money from the sale of the Gray campus will go toward the local match needed for the Emerging Technologies Building. This month a fundraising donor campaign will kick off seeking about $1.1 million in pledges in addition to $2.2 million. Tennessee already has funded about $26.7 million for the project, contingent on $3.3 million in local matching funds for a total of $30 million. Proceeds from the planned sale of the Gray campus will go toward the local match.

Donors needed

“We are pursuing donors as we speak,” King said. “Ideally, we’d like to kick this back off in the spring, but in my mind no later than July 1.”

He said the facility is needed now at Northeast. It will be the largest building on campus and among the largest of its kind in Tennessee.

“The hottest programs on this campus are the technology programs,” King said. 

However, he said Northeast is about more than industrial training, citing the school’s Theater Department and debate team.

“We have a lot of the best students and best faculty,” King said.

King says finances on track

King also said he sees no need for a Comptroller of the Treasury audit of NSCC that some lawmakers are seeking. He said the TBR audit was exhaustive and that TBR officials, including Chancellor Flora Tydings, every three months look closely at community collage and TCAT financing.

“They’ve learned a lesson. They are not going to let this happen again,” King said of over-reliance on reserves and enrollment over-projections.

King said the school has made “huge strides” in financial issues since he began his work there, holding department meetings across campus. Instead of complaints, he said most of the feedback has focused on what could be done to improve things, such as offering coffee in some buildings and putting up directional signs.

“We’ve done things the right way,” King said. He said NSCC already has repaid a $1.8 million loan from the Tennessee Board of Regents that helped stabilize the school’s finances. By the end of the current fiscal year, June 30, he said the school will have a growing fund balance and reasonable finances.

“We’re not back to where we should be, but we are getting there,” King said.

King has been adamant that the cuts not impact students or impact them minimally. He’s also reaching out to folks on campus, with Phi Theta Kappa working to enhance social media on campus.

“We did not fill some positions, but we cut no faculty,” Kings said. He said adjunct faculty remain an important resource but that instead of having multiple sections of some classes up-front, new sections are not formed until the existing ones fill up.

“I don’t think we will see any reduction in the number of students from the closing of the Bristol campus,” King said. In addition, he said, Tennessee High School students who had been going to dual enrollment classes there in entertainment technology instead will be taught by NSCC instructors on site at Tennessee High, meaning they won’t have to travel to Blountville.

For the record, King’s focus is NSCC 

“I’m officially, totally on leave form the Board of Regents,” said King, who prefers not to dwell on the “interim” in front of his title. He is on leave as executive vice chancellor for TBR, a position he took earlier this year after being vice chancellor over TCATs since 1999.

He said he finished up some projects for the TBR after he become the interim NSCC president, but he said now his total professional focus is on the college. Since the school opened in 1966, it has had only five permanent, full-time presidents.

“This is my only job, and I can assure you it keeps me busy,” King said.

“At the end of the day, there will be a search for the position,” King said. “While I’m here, we’re going to move the campus forward every day.”

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