The college’s new president says the school faces a ‘great opportunity’ to reinvent itself.
Adrien Bennings stepped into her role as president of Portland Community College in July, three months after the college’s board of directors announced she had been hired to replace Mark Mitsui, who led the school from 2016 until June of this year.
Bennings comes to Oregon from Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Michigan, where she had served as president since January 2020. Prior to joining KCC, Bennings served as the vice president of administration and finance and chief financial officer at Clovis Community College in New Mexico, and as regional director of small-business development at Texas Tech University. She has also worked in human resources development, academic development and retention, and small-business development. Additionally, she served as president of the Kellogg Community College Foundation, helping to lead the foundation’s strategic planning and fundraising activities, and advocating for equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Bennings joins PCC as the school — along with other community colleges around the state — faces a precipitous drop in enrollment (see Spotlight on p. 20) but also an infusion of workforce-development funding. She spoke to Oregon Business in July about her background, her vision for PCC’s future — and how the school can meet the challenges it currently faces.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
What drew you to higher education as a career?
I started my career in higher education as an executive assistant, in the health sciences library at Texas Tech University. I had a passion for people, so I went to HR and loved it. Then I did something I said I would never do and went into accounting. That led to work in small-business development. After a while, I wanted a greater level of challenge. I was like, “Well, you know, I’ve got my Ph.D. with focus on higher-education administration. I’ve been in accounting, I’ve been in finance, I’ve been in HR, I’ve been in all these realms pertinent to a higher-education administrator.” That’s when I started to seek out a presidency. You know, I didn’t have it in the books for me, but I was like, all these things I can bring together as a president, and I ended up applying for the job in Battle Creek, Michigan, at Kellogg Community College, and ended up becoming president there.
You have a background in small-business development. What’s your sense of how PCC can adapt to workforce needs?
I think there’s a great opportunity for PCC to tap into some realms that are yet to be discovered in terms of workforce. I am data-minded, so part of that does mean looking at what is happening in our service areas, what’s happening regionally, what’s happening statewide and nationally so that we can align our programs to meet those workforce demands.
We need to be flexible and adaptive, enough so that [students] will be able to participate in what we’re offering while at the same time maintaining their life and providing the basic needs of their families. I think that’s a great opportunity here, but I’m not sure what it looks like. We’re in a prime position to really change and shift what the landscape of higher education means, but also to shift how community colleges play a role in that moving forward.
Enrollment is down at PCC and community colleges around the state. How do you think PCC should adapt to that decrease? Do you see it as a part of the long-term trend?
One of the things that we’re investing in and currently in the process of working through is a strategic enrollment management plan. Enrollment doesn’t just start when a student comes to PCC. You’ve got the K-through-12 pipeline, you’ve got families, you’ve got adult learners out there. You’ve got demographic shifts that are happening. You’ve got what’s happening in the high school realm with graduation rates. You’ve got this complex network of factors and circumstances that impact enrollment.
I don’t know what enrollment is going to do over the long term. But I think that we have a great opportunity here to now say, “What can we do differently? How can we meet the needs out there? Part of that also is more flexibility in our learning modalities. You know, what can we offer besides just in-person? How can our scheduling help in this process?” There are so many nuances associated with strategic enrollment management that I think this presents, again, a prime opportunity, combined with our strategic plan and the SEM — the strategic enrollment management framework that we’re currently working toward, to really build that foundation for the institution — to now say, here’s what we’re dealing with, but at the same time, here’s our opportunity.
What types of students would you hope to reach in the future?
All students. There’s the early college dual credit, there’s the K-through-12 pipeline. But I think that there’s also an opportunity for us to enhance our efforts to reach those who may have already been in the workforce. Whether they’re considering career changes or upskilling, or exploring opportunities that, because of COVID, they need to consider other options. When I say all students, when you think “community,” that’s everyone — everyone who is a part of our community. I can’t limit it to just a specific demographic or specific type of student. I think as long as there are humans, as long as there are individuals, there’s always someone to reach. There’s always some life that we can impact through community colleges.
One thing that seems to be coming up a lot with community colleges is, Who do we want to be? Do we want to be a school that is providing career and technical education, because this is what our workforce partners are asking for? Or do we want to be a school that is setting students up to get transferrable associate’s degrees? Very often, you have a lot of both in any student mix. Where do you see PCC’s role in that conversation?
I think for PCC, it’s got to be a “both and” now. I think that, you know, the perception around colleges in general is that it’s to get an advanced degree, but we’ve got certificates. Some students might get their necessities in the lower-level division courses and transfer on to another institution. But then you have those who work very well in career and technical education — welding, agriculture. We’ve got some great things happening in that realm, such as the Think Big project, focusing on technicians for Caterpillars. You see those yellow Caterpillars out there, there’s a need for technicians in that realm. So I really think that we have to keep our mind focused on this colorful array of opportunities out there and not limit our mindset and not limit what we do in terms of providing programs and curriculum and education to our students. We can’t just limit it to degree focus. You might have lifelong learners, and some of those lifelong learners may see an interest in other areas as they partake in opportunities at PCC. It’s got to be a “both and.” We have to make ourselves available to reach and touch the full community. I think with the “one college” model that we have, I think we really are setting the stage to now be a premier institution. We’re large by nature of who we serve and how many students we serve. But now we’ve found our mojo, we’ve found our niche, and now we’ll be able to do even greater things because we’ve reestablished some foundational frameworks and principles of the institution.
What drew you to PCC?
I had only been to Oregon maybe once or twice in my track and field career. I didn’t remember much about it. But what drew me specifically to PCC was its mission. It’s very aspirational. It really sets a guiding point, a north star for what we hope to achieve and become and embed in all facets of how we operate. Given the institution, this size, you’ve got to have — by nature of how we operate — hierarchy. How can we collaborate outside of the silos? That gave me a strong indicator that we were really trying to become and establish ourselves as a team through collaboration.
I also really embrace the diversity, equity and inclusion component and the workforce component of the mission statement. Because of who we serve, our populations are diverse — different experiences, races, ethnicities, identities, ages, all of these things. Equity and inclusion are hot topics in our nation. Just to see that I, as a Black female, could have a positive role in helping to gain momentum and get true action to solidify this as a part of who PCC is — that, to me, was like, “Oh, I’ve got to be there at PCC.”
What are you doing when you’re not at work?
I’m really intentional about self-care, especially knowing this is a bigger role for me and knowing that there was going to be more responsibility. I start my days at 4:30; I get up and my husband and I go work out. At the end of the day, I do what I call just mindful detoxing, just to rest. I can get so inundated with information that if I don’t allow myself to be intentional about it, it can be really overwhelming, so I just have quiet time. And then I have two fur babies at home. They greet me with a smile, they’re always wagging and want my attention. And I really have a strong support system at home. My husband is very strong, because part of what I call detoxing from the day is just talking through with him how my day went.
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