College chief up to challenges

The Baltimore Sun

When she arrives at Howard Community College this morning, Kate Hetherington will bypass the office she has used for eight years on the second floor of McCuan Hall and head for the one marked Office of the President.

Hetherington starts her job as the college's top administrator today, replacing Mary Ellen Duncan, who held the post for nine years. Hetherington was hired as the college's vice president of student services in August 1999 and has spent the past three years as executive vice president.

Hetherington attended the Community College of Philadelphia and started her administrative career there in the financial aid office, where she worked for 12 years. She became that college's dean of student systems and served as acting vice president for student affairs. She also taught social sciences at Delaware County Community College.

She earned a bachelor's degree in social sciences from Pennsylvania State University, a master's degree in counseling and human relations from Villanova University in Pennsylvania and a doctorate in higher education leadership from Widener University in Delaware.

Hetherington, 54, is in the process of moving from Baltimore to Columbia.

She sat down with Sun reporter Sandy Alexander in her office this week to talk about her new role and her plans for the future.

What about community colleges made you decide to make your career there?

When I went to school [at the Community College of Philadelphia], it was a time of change in the country. There were ex-GIs returning from Vietnam. The women's movement was right in its heyday. I had in class a very diverse assortment of people. So it was a whole new world that was opened up for me at community colleges.

When I was growing up, there weren't that many options for women. You were a teacher. You were a nurse. But I remember seeing someone working at the community college, and she was an administrator. I said, "You know, that's kind of interesting work."

[The students at Philadelphia and at Delaware County Community College, where she taught] had these wonderful stories and they would be, again, a cross-section of people, from students right out of high school to single parents to divorced women coming back and trying to find their way.

I think that's what makes community colleges unique. ... I do think they offer the opportunity for people to get their first start, and they also offer the opportunity for people to get their second chance. And, of course, I feel like I am working at the best one right now.

Was there a specific point during your time at HCC at which you decided you wanted to pursue the position of president?

It think it was in terms of taking steps in my life. ... I've been at the college for eight years. Three years ago, I was asked to take on the capital campaign. The goal was $12 million and we raised $14 million. Two years ago, I was asked to take on the responsibilities of executive vice president. It gave me a change to see first-hand what the experience would be like.

I actually had been getting offers to apply for jobs when I became the executive vice president. That was the opportunity for the board [of trustees] to see me in a different kind of way, and also to see how I would be suited.

What is appealing to you about moving to the top role in the organization?

I think the thing that is the most exciting is that you can create, along with other people, a vision for an organization. ... We have a great legacy here at the college, but the opportunity to move the college forward and take it on to even better things is very appealing to me.

We foster a culture of servant leadership at the college, and basically you provide the opportunity for people to really become the best that they can be. ... As the leader of the institution, you can do something with the culture.

They always say it starts at the top, and I really do belive that. ... Getting people on board to think positively and focusing on what you're doing and focusing on something greater than yourself, I don't think there is anything better that you could ask for.

Do you think the challenges facing HCC have changed in recent years?

I think we got a hint of it this year. The county was extremely generous [with funds], but this was the first year we didn't get a full compliment of capital funding.

[HCC wanted to start designing a new health sciences building. It also requested funds to add classroom space to the Clark Library building.]

This is a growing college. We're getting close to one quarter of Howard County high school graduates coming directly to here. We also have career changers, we have [the Base Realignment and Closure program] coming, so the demand is going to increase.

When you don't do anything for 10 years and you keep growing and you're playing catch-up, it's a challenge. It think that it's going to be particularly difficult for us. ... I think part of it is going to be looking at partnerships and what you can do with other people, other organizations, other schools.

Also, part of it is looking at ways we can make the college affordable and accessible to students. We have focused on the capital campaign, which is building and scholarships, but we're going to have a special focus on building up our endowment.

How do you plan to balance the needs of traditional college-age students, those seeking second careers, people taking continuing education classes and other diverse groups of students?

I say that this community college is the first responder to the educational needs of the community. One of the things that we're doing in the fall is we're going to have a Commission on the Future. This will be the third one that we've had, and we're going to be asking members of the community what is it that they need.

We'll be looking at things like the health professions, programs that we need for the future -- either credit or noncredit -- [environmental] sustainability, what we need to do to provide a global education, what keeps us as a leading-edge organization.

We're going to get the best minds in the county and the region to help us with those discussions. And those of us in the college are going to sit back and listen. That will be the hardest thing for us to do. ... Then we'll gather the ideas together and incorporate them in our strategic planning for the next five years.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I think part of that is, you kind of lay the groundwork and get out of the way and let people do what they need to do to get the job done. You have to have faith and trust in people that you hired so they can do the work. It makes it more interesting for them if you allow that process to happen.

The other thing is, you can't keep everybody happy, but you try to be fair.

What do you plan to do on your first day.

I want to go around to all the offices here on campus and, first of all, thank the people who have already told me how supportive they are of what I'm going to be doing, and really ask them to continue to support not only me but the students of HCC.

I'll be learning. That's what makes it interesting. I'll learn from the board of trustees. ... I continue to learn from the people I work with and people out in the community. To me, that is the beauty of your work. Once you think you have all the answers, you are not doing your job. You have to be open to new ideas and new ways of thinking.

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