Larry Stephenson, the new board president of Gila Community College (GCC) hopes he brings accountability and transparency to the once conflict-ridden board during his tenure.
“My term only lasts one year,” he said, “I have to be realistic about what I can do.”
By state statute, GCC must elect new officers every year. Stephenson says he’s not sure he will get re-elected, so he’s shooting for “realistic goals.”
Stephenson got involved with the community college in part to repay the debt he had to a community college that gave him a second chance, that ultimately led to earning an advanced degree in geology.
Now head of a community college district, he first wants to focus on how the board administers itself.
He has already implemented changes such as revising the order of business during board meetings. He plans to send out meeting agendas a week before the meeting.
Another board member, Tom Loeffler, suggested carrying old business over to the new meeting and Stephenson has already added that change.
The president has chaired one meeting so far using the new rules and says he has covered a lot of ground.
Stephenson next will focus college operations, including course offerings, coordinating with the hoped-for university next door, pursuing solar energy, and addressing building maintenance and campus upkeep.
He also wants to do away with the monthly furlough days that have reduced staff salaries and productivity in the past several years as the district struggles with dwindling state funding.
Most importantly, Stephenson said he hopes to improve the relationship between the college and both the Legislature and the community. So he said the board should focus on getting people to think of GCC as a full-fledged district, not simply as a provisional community college.
As a provisional college, GCC must contract with Eastern Arizona College in Safford to gain accreditation so students can get academic credit for their courses. A state accounting office audit concluded the EAC contract doesn’t provide the board with enough information about its own finances.
During the 2010-11 legislative session, the GCC board supported legislation that sets the stage for GCC to become an accredited community college, but that will take time and money — two things Stephenson does not have.
But he can begin to make sure members of the Legislature start to consider GCC as its own community college district.
Stephenson’s path to becoming a board member started soon after he graduated from high school.
He had no idea he would ever have anything to do with college.
“I was one of eight kids,” said Stephenson, “My dad was a carpenter and no one from my family had ever been to college.”
Stephenson was not a stellar student in high school, he barely graduated and although many of his friends applied to college, he had no ambitions to attend.
That changed when he decided to become a physician, which clearly required a college degree. He had no idea what to do next — then he met a man who told him about a two-year junior college in Winatchee, Wash.
“So I packed up my ’54 Chevy and headed across the country to attend the Winatchee Junior College,” said Stephenson.
He showed up at the admissions office without any prior planning. The admissions staff was stunned. Recognizing his commitment, the staff took him under their wing. They got him admitted and found him a job picking apples to pay for his tuition. By the end of his first semester, Stephenson was on the dean’s list.
But when he realized how expensive it was to pay out-of-state tuition at a university, Stephenson returned to Phoenix to attend Arizona State University. He ultimately earned a Ph.D. in geology.
“I owe my career to Winatchee Junior College,” he said, “I wanted to give back to education.”