Mark Heinrich, the newly selected chancellor of Alabama’s Department of Postsecondary Education, knows that his new job does not come with the best track record.
“If I hadn’t been chosen, the new chancellor would have been the fifth chancellor I’ve worked for in five years,” said Heinrich, who is currently the president of Shelton State College.
Indeed, Heinrich, who was chosen in a unanimous vote of the State Board of Education, will be the seventh person to lead the Alabama Community College System since 2006. He will take over a system that has been plagued by corruption, instability, underfunding, and a poor public image, but he says he is ready for the challenge.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my eye on the fact that there’s been some difficulty,” Heinrich said. “It really doesn’t scare me off, though, because I’m so focused on what we can do for the students in the state of Alabama.”
Heinrich will take over for interim chancellor Susan Price, who stepped in for Freida Hill in March. Hill, who received mixed feedback from the board – some members supporting her fully and some criticizing her leadership – resigned after less than three years on the job.
Many saw Hill’s resignation as a sign that Alabama’s two-year college system had not yet recovered from a slew of scandals, corruption, and federal investigations that led to the 2006 firing of chancellor Roy Johnson, Jr., who eventually was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for charges involving bribery and nepotism and opened the revolving door of the chancellorship.
Johnson’s interim successor, Thomas Corts, lasted just seven months. He was replaced by interim chancellor Renee Culverhouse, who left two months later. The board brought in Bradley Byrne as her successor, but the appointment was controversial and many criticized the board for not conducting a formal search. Byrne headed the system for two years before he left to pursue other opportunities and was replaced by interim chancellor Joan Davis, who served until Hill was hired.
Board members acknowledge that it’s been a roller-coaster ride, but with Heinrich’s selection, they are hopeful the system might have turned a corner.
“We’re poised for a whole new era,” said board member Betty Peters. “I’ve been on the board since January 2003, and this is the most excited I’ve been about anything. Everyone’s ready for a permanent chancellor.”
Heinrich certainly knows what he’s getting himself into. When he took over the presidency of Shelton State in 2008, the college was deeply entrenched in the financial scandal and the federal investigation.
“When you’re dealing with the kinds of issues that were swirling around [at Shelton], it’s pretty distracting and pretty hard to focus on the main issue of educating students,” he said.
Still, he’s confident those issues are in the past. So is Byrne, who took over the system right in the midst of the investigations and controversy.
“The community college system in Alabama is widely considered to be the most corrupt part of state government … but I don’t see corruption in the system anymore,” Byrne said.
Part of Heinrich’s challenge, then, is convincing the public that the system has reformed and reminding people of its role.
“If [the business and civic communities] know that by investing more in the colleges they will get the high-tech, highly trained workforce that will command $60,000-$70,000 annual salaries, I think they will be more willing to make this investment,” said Stephen Katsinas, the director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama, who has studied the Alabama community college system and those of other states.
Public investment is going to be critical, Katsinas said, because the community college system faces significant budget problems and needs to increase its revenue. Heinrich agreed that drawing up a budget will be one of his biggest and most immediate challenges, but he said he wants to do it in the context of a long-term strategic plan, something Peters said the system desperately needs.
“The department needs to do some immediate visioning about where to go and what our north star is going to be,” Heinrich said.
Byrne sees it as a time for the state to do some planning and rethinking, as well. He believes it is time to change the structure of the Department of Postsecondary Education, which is currently run by the same board that governs K-12 education.
“It’s such a big job that I think it’s very difficult, if not impossible, for a board to oversee both effectively. K-12 gets more of the attention, and it needs it, but there needs to be a board to give equal attention to postsecondary,” he said.
Alabama is the only state with one board that coordinates K-12 education and the community colleges, according to Katsinas. Byrne believes such a set-up can place unnecessary political pressure on the chancellor, and he said other community college leaders have advised him that it works better to have a separate board to oversee community colleges.
“It wasn’t the time to make that change when I was chancellor,” he said. “But now that we’ve gotten through most of that, I think now is the appropriate time to do that for the benefit of the two-year system.”
In the meantime, Byrne said Heinrich will need to do his best to avoid the political power plays he believes have been common in recent years.
“The new chancellor has to let everyone in the system know that he’s the CEO, and that no subgroup within the system is going to control the system,” Byrne said.
Heinrich said he is ready – at least, as ready as anyone can be – to jump in to the job, and he’s not worried about politics or about the problems of the past.
“I’m much more focused on rolling up my sleeves and getting busy,” he said.