Former Tri-C President and Barnes & Noble Education board member, Dr. Jerry Sue Thornton, shares her unique story and how she’s paying it forward by working with first-time college presidents, providing guidance in the areas of higher education leadership, coaching and mentoring.
Dr. Jerry Sue Thornton has lived an extraordinary life. Rising from coal miner’s daughter to community college leader, she served as the third president—and first female leader—in Cuyahoga Community College’s (Tri-C) 50-plus-year history. After serving 21 years as president of Tri-C, guiding the school through unprecedented growth and development, Dr. Thornton retired as president emeritus in 2013. Before joining Tri-C, Dr. Thornton served as president of Lakewood Community College in Minnesota from 1985 to 1991 and has held several senior-level leadership positions at Triton College in Illinois.
In 2011, Dr. Thornton was appointed co-chair of the 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, a national task force convened by the American Association of Community Colleges. She currently serves on the boards of University Hospitals Health System and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum as well as several corporate boards, including FirstEnergy Corporation, Applied Industrial Technologies, Inc., Barnes and Noble Education, Inc., and Republic Powdered Metals, Inc. Dr. Thornton recently spoke with NEXT about her life, the importance of community colleges and how she’s helping to shape the future leaders of higher education.
You’re known as one of the most distinguished and well-respected presidents to lead a community college. Can you talk a bit about your background and how your upbringing has shaped your career in higher ed?
I was so inspired by my teachers in Kentucky in elementary, junior high and high school that I aspired to be a teacher. They opened worlds of learning to me and I soaked up all of the information, insights and teaching that they provided to me. Growing up in a farming and coal mining area, so much of our entertainment and many of our social events were focused around our schools, so I spent a lot of time there. Later, I was enamored with the idea of being a college professor, given that I encountered many talented and devoted scholars in the universities that I attended. For me, education is a noble profession that requires caring about the futures of students. That is what I received and what I tried to “pay forward.”
Your career has emphasized developing collaborative solutions to challenges. How did you use this approach to inform your presidency and develop your vision for Tri-C?
When I attended The University of Texas at Austin to acquire my doctorate, I was in the “Community College Leadership Program,” which was organized in a collaborative, rather than competitive model, and I really learned the value of coming together as a team to achieve a goal. At Cuyahoga Community College, I was fortunate to have a wonderful team of over-achievers who aspired to provide the best education and resources to students—so we were in sync. No leader possesses all of the knowledge, skills, talents and creativity needed for high performance, but a team of professionals with those attributes can change the world. Our shared vision, supported with innovation, hard work and tenacity, enabled us to achieve greater outcomes for students.
What do you feel are some of the greatest challenges facing higher education today?
Technology has certainly changed higher education in many ways and forced educators and institutions to adapt and adopt different instructional methodologies. It has created a fast-pace, individualized approach to teaching and learning, which puts pressure on colleges and universities to incorporate technology into the dissemination of education. Likewise, the cost of instruction has increased along with a decrease in funding support. With a financial model that places greater value on graduation rates/completion of degrees, there are many competing forces for the attention/focus of colleges and universities. It will take partnerships and collaborations between educational institutions and the business sector to address these and other challenges. Together, they can forge new relationships that enable the success of students, which is mutually beneficial to all. The innovations and entrepreneurship emerging from corporations, coupled with the long-standing mission of colleges and universities, can produce pathways to outstanding careers for graduates.
Can you talk a bit about how faculty success fits into student success? How did you address this connection at Tri-C — and in your work today?
There has always been a close and binding link between student success and faculty involvement/engagement in the teaching and learning environment. Whether in the classroom, laboratory, library/study areas or via the computer, the synergy between faculty and student exists. I often utilized my memories of times with my teachers to remind myself of the unique relationship that exists in education. As Parker Palmer wrote in The Courage to Teach, “Teachers choose their vocation for reasons of the heart, because they care deeply about their students and about their subject.” Sharing their discipline with their students is the highest form of caring between teacher and student. My role as president was to support faculty development and growth, create environments that were conducive to instruction and garner the resources needed to enable them to do their work.
One of your lasting legacies as president of Cuyahoga Community College is the annual Presidential Scholarship Luncheon. Through the Tri-C Foundation, students in financial need are helped with completing their education through scholarships. What does the foundation mean to you?
The College Foundation was a pathway for individuals, corporations and other foundations to financially support our students. It was a connection between a need and a means. It was through the generous support of people who cared about the future and success of local students that enabled us to “fill a financial gap” for students. The gap scholarships were the last dollars provided to students. The Presidential Scholarship was created as a signature event for the College Foundation based on mutual benefit. Through that event, the donors were able to hear outstanding speakers such as Tony Blair, Oprah Winfrey, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—and many more speakers, in exchange for their financial support of our students. Everyone benefited and that truly made giving enjoyable beyond the intrinsic value of philanthropy.
After retiring from Tri-C, you founded DreamCatcher Educational Consulting, a consultancy company that works with first-time college presidents and provides guidance in the areas of higher education leadership, coaching and mentoring. What motivated you to work with first-time college presidents?
I had been the beneficiary of so much wonderful coaching and mentoring during the pursuit of my doctorate degree by such outstanding professors as Dr. John E. Roueche at The University of Texas, that upon retirement, I thought that my consulting would be a way to share some of the lessons that I had learned over the years. Given the large numbers of community college presidents that are retiring, I saw a huge pool of new entrants to that level of leadership and knew the value of having someone who could be a confidant and listener. It can be “lonely at the top” and a confidential coach can truly help with the transition from Provost to President—or whatever position in the college from which the leader come —to a very different executive level. I saw a need and hoped to be part of filling it.
What do colleges and universities need to do to attract high-quality leaders, and how can institutional leaders better prepare future presidents?
Higher education can attract high-quality leaders by providing a welcoming and attractive environment where their talents, skills and experiences can support shared values and goals. Institutional culture and climate play a role in attracting high-quality leaders to a place where integrity, respect and collaboration are part of the fabric of the organization. Leaders thrive at colleges and universities where academics are valued, students are the center-piece and there is a common goal of student success. Future presidents have an obligation to become familiar with every aspect of the institution and create pathways of inclusion for faculty, staff and administration in the strategic directions of the organization. The presidential preparation should not only include studying educational leadership, but business, military, political, etc,. to gain ideas and insights from multifarious approaches. Opportunities for fellowships that allow shadowing of current presidents provide outstanding insights for future leaders. These are but a few of the ways to prepare for these new dynamic roles.
What advice would you give college presidents and other campus leaders to successfully lead their campuses now and in the future?
The first piece of advice that I would give is to listen. Listen to the ideas, views, dreams and challenges of those you serve. They have great insights into what success looks like and the pathways to success. Presidents and other leaders need teamwork to achieve college or university goals, and when constituents feel respected and included, they will enable the win.
It is important that leaders stay true to their values and ensure that they are evident in their actions. Appreciate and enjoy the leadership opportunity that has been gifted with the position. It is not ownership, but rather a gift of service that requires preparation, dedication, passion and humility. The greatest reward occurs at commencement when graduates are walking across the stage to receive their degrees. Leaders should cherish that moment and know that is the purpose for the hard work of overcoming institutional challenges, so that students can succeed and reach their educational goals.