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Q & A: Preston Pulliams looks back at his nine years steering PCC
Photos and Story by James Hill
By July, Portland Community College President Preston Pulliams will officially be known as President Emeritus Preston Pulliams.
Pulliams is calling it a career after nine busy years guiding Oregon’s largest college through dramatic enrollment surges as state funding declined. As a result, he sought out resources, steered the state’s largest-ever bond levy to successful passage, oversaw dramatic growth in the PCC Foundation’s endowment and fostered more efficient ways to help serve the region’s educational needs.
But if one thing remained constant has been his devotion to creating access for students who would not otherwise have had the chance to earn a college degree. His Campaign for Opportunity is raising money for first-generation college students who need financial assistance and student support to attend PCC and complete their degrees.
To learn what people think about President Pulliams, watch his tribute video.
As a young man, Pulliams was expected to join his father as a foundry worker, but became the first in his family to attend college thanks to a $600 scholarship award from his local Rotary Club to fund two years of school. That first gift of opportunity to go to his local community college inspired Pulliams to make access to higher education the cornerstone of his vision at PCC.
That first gift of opportunity to go to his local community college inspired Pulliams to make access to higher education the cornerstone of his vision at PCC. On May 16, the PCC Board of Directors recognized that vision by conferring him with the honorary title of President Emeritus on his retirement.
Did you ever think you would have been at PCC for nine years and how have you changed during your time here?
Preston Pulliams: When I came to PCC, I told the board that five years would be my max. I felt that I could get myself oriented and probably work on the bond, raise the profile level of the organization and at that point my job would be done. First of all, I was a having a great deal of fun doing what I was doing as a college president here. The second part of it was that we’re having turnover in some key positions that I wanted to make sure I was around to fill those key leadership jobs. Thirdly, I felt that we could do more in raising money so I really wanted to devote several more years working with the PCC Foundation. That work has really paid off for the Foundation, and the college in general, and it added to the whole access agenda I had. I thought I could finish in five years, but I felt my best contribution could be made by extending that term. And there is still a lot of work still to be done. But it’s time now I stepped down and get some of these folks with all the new ideas and energy to step in and take this organization to the next level.
When did you know that it was time to retire?
Pulliams: About a year ago when I felt that this job takes a lot of time, takes a lot of commitment and what happens is your other part of your life suffers. And so you find less time for leisure activities and you find less time for avocations. For example, I love to go out and do photography, play golf, and spend time with my family. As you get older you want to make sure you devote some time to that at some point. In my 45-year-old marriage it’s time my spouse, who retired eight years ago, and I devote time to each other now. It’s part of the passage that I think each individual goes through in different places and different ways so it’s kind of natural in way. I don’t regret it in any way although I’m having a good time.
Compare and contrast your leadership style to your peers through the years?
Pulliams: I was the first one in my family to get a formal education, and the first one to learn to read and write. So I really work hard to identify with those that are challenged like I was. If we do a good job with that population we are guaranteed to do a great job with the rest of it. I tend to want to focus on that. And I tend have this kinship in certain ways with that population. My style also tends to be rather casual. I was never big on formality, or on the accoutrements of being a college president like the things that come with additional power, formal and informal. I am most comfortable walking around the organization, sitting in a class, or when I’m sitting in the back of the room for a committee meeting. I don’t need to be in the front all the time. I just don’t engage that way very well. And that makes me a little different, I think.
Do you have any favorite moments leading PCC?
Pulliams: My biggest moments occur every year at commencement. When I participate in that ceremony I get to see the results of a lot of hard, quality work over a number of years by the students. Commencement also represents the hard work and graciousness of our faculty and staff. That’s always a high point. Every year, I get to experience that and I get to shake all those hands. I have people who stop me on the street later on and say, “You shook my hand at commencement!” or “You said this to me at commencement!” That really keeps you going. Another big thing has got to be the passage of the bond because of the impact of that $374 million will actually affect us for years. And we really don’t realize how big that is yet in terms of new buildings, new facilities, new programs, how accessible the locations will be, the expansion of the Southeast Center to a campus, and those kinds of things. My biggest moment when I realized that passed, was not only a reaffirmation of what we were doing, but it was like putting yourself up to the voters and saying, “Is this place relevant?” That was fun.
What facet about the 2008 bond measure has stuck with you the most?
Pulliams: The high point was, of course winning it, but what was just as crucial for me was that people really believed in what we were doing. People really stepped up and would invest, and not only just any people. Not just anyone in the community, but people who engaged with us all the time, who are on board, and are willing to make this financial investment which was iffy (in terms of passing). I mean who knows if this was going to pay off? But they were willing to step forward and make that contribution. That was a high point for me quite honestly.
What would you say was your biggest hurdle during your tenure?
Pulliams: We still struggle with adequate funding from the state. It is one of those hurdles that will be with us for a long time and it is a result of several things – the lack of revenue and resources from the state, and being in this period where there is such a need for workforce development and for us to strengthen the pipeline of skilled labor. We still struggle with that because of the tax structure for the state and how the funds are distributed. I am hopeful for the Governor’s reform that will redirect some funding to strengthen our resources.
What are your memories of the 50th anniversary celebration?
Pulliams: It was great to celebrate the legacy this place has and the individuals who contributed to that legacy. For example, my high point was meeting all the retired former PCC presidents. It was like a former presidents’ club. It was fun getting together with our former presidents and talking to them about old times, old problems and new problems, and the challenges they faced. That was kind of cool. I didn’t really think it would be that significant for me, but it really was. And the event downtown where we took over Pioneer Courthouse Square was kind of PCC’s way of say, “You know, we have really arrived in this community.” All the events were really great. I think the most important part of it was continuing to raise our profile in the community, which makes it easier for us to make our case and to raise money. I think that is all good.
Any words of advice for the PCC community?
Pulliams: I would say to the PCC family, faculty and staff to never underestimate your relevance to this community. I think that sometimes community college folks carry an inferiority complex of, “Well, we aren’t a four-year college or university.” There’s nothing to be ashamed about. What we do is great work. I think we’re more critical than any other sector of education, to be honest. We are between university and high school, so we can have these very creative partnerships between all three sectors. We get to help those who perhaps don’t get the best experience in high school and need to be developed, and can’t operate at a college level. We get to offer development courses to give them that opportunity. We are a very good economic body due to the cost of education. We are still a reasonable buy and have a very relevant place in all of this in the economic development of a community and the social life of a community. We should be very proud of ourselves.
What does your future look like in retirement?
Pulliams: I want to stay engaged in education and one way of doing that is to do consulting. I want to be laser focused in that work. One of our biggest challenges in that sector is grooming leadership. I think we are going to face a record number of retirements from college CEOs and chancellors, and community college presidents. I want to do two things – be able to create interest in these positions and groom talent from those who are interested in pursuing a presidency. I’ll do seminars and things like staff development activities. But really, it will be focused on working with boards to search out and recruit great leaders for these organizations.
How do you want to be remembered when you leave the college?
Pulliams: If there is any legacy that I would love to have is that somehow I contributed, and the college contributed, to allowing more individuals access to higher education. Whether they are transferring or are in a professional technical program, whatever it is, that they had an opportunity to gain a college experience. Through that story of my life, where somebody saw something in me that I really didn’t see myself, I feel a personal and professional obligation. I got this opportunity and it has been great for my life and this was a way for me to give back.