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CWC finalist a college president; Valdez says he wants to move west

Apr 18, 2014 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

The third presidential candidate to speak during a public forum Tuesday at Central Wyoming College already has experience in the top administrative spot.

Cristobal Valdez is the current president of Edison Community College in Piqua, Ohio. The school serves a total population of about 200,000 people, prompting a question from John Wood, CWC's chief information officer.

"You're already a president at a larger institution -- why do you want to come to CWC and be president?" Wood asked.

Valdez said he doesn't correlate size with success. He was born and raised in Anaconda, Mont., a town of about 12,000 people, and he said he wants to return to a more remote location.

"I understand the values of rural institutions and rural areas," he said. "That's my passion. I want to be associated with that."

He also is excited to move west again.

"If you've been east of the Mississippi River, it's a different place to live -- the quality of life is different," Valdez said. "We still have four kids at home, and we want them to be raised around here."

When he accepted his job at Edison, Valdez said the college was in a situation like CWC's: The previous president had retired after 23 years on the job.

At CWC, current president Jo Anne McFarland will retire this summer after a quarter-century at her post.

"So there are a lot of similarities to what the opportunity is here," Valdez said. "(The change) can bring anxiety, excitement -- a whole host of emotions. So I empathize with where you're at. ... That's why I'm interested in this institution."

During his first six months as CWC's president, he said he would work to learn more about the school's culture, in part by scheduling one-on-one meetings with every member of the staff, regardless of title.

"I think it's somewhat of a falsehood, that in order to be a leader you have to have a title," Valdez said. "There are so many leaders throughout this institution, and we need to be able to find them and leverage that."

At Edison he said he formed a "president's council" that includes students and employees from throughout the college who meet with him monthly to keep him informed about school issues. The council helps him make decisions and communicate with the rest of the people on campus, Valdez said.

"We also have a monthly all-college meeting," he continued. "We try to be as transparent as possible."

Questions

CWC Foundation member Barbara Gose asked Valdez about his success in securing a $2 million gift for his school's foundation.

"I want to know how you got that," she said.

Part of the effort has to do with community involvement, Valdez said. For example, he makes sure to leave some time open in his schedule every week so he can visit potential investors if the opportunity presents itself.

"It's all about relationships," he said. "We can't expect folks to be donors to us, to be committed to us, if we're not committed to them."

When he makes a fundraising visit, Valdez said he always tries to tell a compelling story about the college mission.

"We need to tell those stories more often," he said. "We need to be more boastful (and) willing to be intentional about saying the good things we do."

One question that was repeated for all three candidates had to do with local governance over college operations. CWC currently is governed by a locally elected Board of Trustees, but some people advocate for state-run systems for community colleges throughout the country.

Valdez said he is a proponent of local control, but he has worked under both systems and seen the benefits of a statewide network.

"I'm a strong believer that local governance is the correct path to continue down," he said. "But I do think as community college presidents and trustees, we need to communicate with other schools to have a unified voice (regarding) policy, legislation and funding. ... There needs to be statewide coordination."

All of the candidates also were asked about Complete College America, a national nonprofit organization working to increase the number of citizens with career certificates or college degrees. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead appointed a member of CWC's senior administrative staff to the Complete College Wyoming team last year as part of CCA.

Though he remains committed to the mission of access for all of students, whether or not they plan to earn a degree, Valdez said he is "totally immersed" in CCA at Edison, where he has placed "tremendous emphasis" on completion in recent years.

He explained that Ohio recently decided to fund its community college based solely on performance -- a move Wyoming legislators are considering as well.

"We're no longer funded because we get students in chairs," Valdez said. "We're funded because students pass classes, persist, are retained and graduate or transfer."

The change has been beneficial for Edison, he added. In July, when Ohio moves to the performance-based model, his school will see a 17 percent increase in state funding.

"That speaks to how well we're working on completion," he said. "Completion has really been (the) hallmark of my presidency at Edison."

He also has a "strong commitment" to working with people of color. Valdez said he coordinates with his human resources staff to actively recruit minorities and make sure students and staff of color feel welcome at the school.

"It's extremely important you have events that will espouse and pursue diversity, whether it is socioeconomic or ethnic," he said. "Diversity can never be a program. It has to be what your culture accepts, promotes and lives."

CWC English professor Ben Evans asked all three finalists about their "favorite and most-often applied definition of education." For Valdez, the word goes beyond classroom instruction to encompass extra-curricular activities and athletics.

"Students have to learn to be a full person," he said. "Obviously you need to learn a discipline or expertise, (but) there is a holistic part of education. ... We need to do that intentionally."

He supports dual enrollment, through which students are able to earn college credits in high school. Valdez pointed out that some high schoolers need the extra challenge they can get on a college campus, while others -- like his 18-year-old son with Asperger syndrome -- struggle in a traditional high school environment.

Valdez said his son has been able to excel at a two-year school.

"He now has 40 credits," Valdez said. "So I know how that personally affects families."

He became emotional and stopped speaking for a moment while discussing the issue.

"My life is about higher education in the two year sector, because it does change lives," he explained after regaining his composure. "I take that personally. If I get emotional, it's because I care. If you can't feel about something strongly, you shouldn't be doing it."

Each interview Tuesday lasted one hour and included opening remarks, a question-answer session and a concluding statement. The finalists met with board members in private sessions later in the week.

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