James King: 'I was not just Mr. Fix-It' for Northeast State

Rick Wagner • Dec 28, 2018 at 8:18 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Interim presidents of institutions of higher education often become footnotes in the grand scheme of things, either placeholders until the new leader comes along or agents of change needed to get things going in the right direction.

In a way, interim Northeast State Community College President James King was both.

But he and his accomplishments in 18 months in office are so highly regarded at the Blountville-based school that he recently learned his photograph will be shown alongside those of permanent NSCC presidents. He served after nine-year President Janice Gilliam retired in mid-2017 after a no-confidence vote by the faculty and will be succeeded by Bethany Flora, an East Tennessee State University official tapped for the position in mid-November.

The new president will take office on Jan. 2. King will remain at the college through Jan. 31, albeit housed in temporary office space at the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce.

“I will be around as much or as little as she (Flora) desires,” King said.

He has served 42 years for the Tennessee Board of Regents — as an administrator since January of 1983 after time as a vocational agricultural teacher in his native West Tennessee. At 62, he said he will do accreditation work and is open to interim work with the TBR up to the allowable 120 days a year, but “most of all I’m going to ride a horse occasionally” at his family farm.

“It’s time to reintroduce myself to my horses and my dog,” he said.

He also plans a beach trip.

“I’m going to enjoy life for awhile.”


King said he “came to solve problems” at the school, but that at the same time “I was not just Mr. Fix-It.”

Among the accomplishments he cited was the restarting of the Emerging Technologies Complex, renamed the Technical Education Complex. It had been halted for lack of funding under Gilliam’s tenure. At $28.2 million, the 114,000-square-foot facility is the largest single capital project in the history of NSCC and the TBR.

“I could not leave this site without that being started back,” King said.

He said the new space will allow the college to triple its machine tool project and provide more room for welding and other programs.


Another accomplishment he cited was the approval of the apprenticeship program, designed for companies that can’t provide their own, from the U.S. Department of Labor.  King said the program is the second-largest in the state, with the largest being the one Eastman Chemical Co. operates.

He said NSCC is critical for helping fill the skills gaps.

“You don’t hear the words ‘skills gap’ here as much as other places in the state,” King said.

Yet another accomplishment was the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval of the Aviation Maintenance program at the Gray campus. Getting engine certification is the next goal, likely coming in about two years, he said.

“We want to be in Aerospace Park” adjacent to Tri-Cities Airport, King said of the program’s ultimate home.


Not everybody was pleased, of course, with the changes he made, including the $5 million or so “right-sizing” of the school’s budget.

“Once they realized we were doing it the right way, everybody got behind us on this campus,” King said. “We’ve changed the culture. We’ve got people who enjoy coming to work.”

He came to a school with a $4.2 million budget deficit and in the first three months cut $234,000 in payroll. No full-time faculty were laid off, although some vacancies weren’t refilled. The college under his leadership also closed the Bristol campus that served 142 Entertainment Technology students and some others, but come January of 2018 he said “all 142 students showed up here.”

He cut $2.8 million in personnel costs, including some non-full-time-faculty jobs, and eliminated some initiatives. The rest of the almost $5 million included looking at every expenditure and cancelling the lease for the Bristol campus as well as renegotiating the lease on the Johnson City campus from $277,000 a year to $12,000 a year.

Another change: He said he let those who worked under him do their jobs within reason.

“I turned over academics back to the academic vice president and deans,” King said. “I let people do their jobs.”

He said much credit goes to the staff, including Chief Financial Officer Col. James Cline, who has taught cash-flow to anybody and everybody on campus who would listen.

“At the end of the year (June 30, 2018) we made a $10 million turnaround,” King said.

What do those who worked with James King say about him?

King drew praise from students and faculty alike at a recent reception honoring him for 42 years of service to the Tennessee Board of Regents.

But as new President Bethany Flora prepares to take office Jan. 2, what do two folks who have worked closely with him have to say about King?


“Northeast State was at its lowest when Mr. King arrived on campus, and during his short time with us, Northeast State has regained financial stability and employee morale has improved,” said Trish Crawford. “Coming into a challenging situation, Mr. King had to make some tough decisions. He handled those in a respectful manner and then made it a priority to became part of our campus family.”


“James King’s impact on Tennessee education and on more than four decades of students across the state cannot be overstated,” said Flora Tydings.

“He led the transformation of the state’s technical colleges from the vocational-technical schools that they were once known as into the Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology that they are today. As the Tennessee Board of Regents’ vice chancellor in charge of the 27 TCATs, he professionalized them and made them a true system for career-technical education. He has also been a national leader in SkillsUSA, helping shape it into the main, dynamic organization for career-technical education students at the local, state and national levels, and in the Council on Occupational Education, the national accreditation agency for technical colleges.

“And over the last 18 months, he has returned Northeast State Community College to sound financial footing, while building strong relationships with faculty and staff and improving services for students. It was a difficult assignment, but James did not hesitate for a moment in accepting it. James King’s leadership has improved lives for hundreds of thousands of students and their families.

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