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Oregon's largest community college system welcomes a new president with national ties and 'amiable' style.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon Promise is a program passed by the 2015 legistlature to offer community college for just $50 per term. The program is having an impact on Portland Community Colleges culture even though just 1,650 of its nearly 80,000 students are participating. The countdown to the end of the Obama Administration had begun and Mark Mitsui — a political appointee — knew it was time to move on.

“I came with an expiration date, and it was approaching,” says Mitsui, then a deputy assistant secretary for community colleges at the U.S. Department of Education.

Mitsui started Aug. 29 as Portland Community College’s new president.

As the former head of community colleges in Seattle, Mitsui says coming back to the Pacific Northwest feels like coming home.

“I think the smiles linger longer here,” he says.

Since signing on, Mitsui has been on a whirlwind tour of PCC’s seven college campuses, the state Capitol and meet-and-greets with scores of public and private partners, as he begins to take on the challenge of leading more than 3,234 employees serving almost 80,000 students annually.

“It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” he says, “but the water’s good.”

Mitsui’s new staff had plenty of time to prepare this sort of tour. The previous president, Jeremy Brown, split with the board more than a year ago. Vice President Sylvia Kelley had been interim president since then.

Mitsui says that by and large he’s been impressed with PCC, its strategic plan and particularly its progress with students of color. He cites a Metro research studyMetro research study on the percentage increase of each demographic group in the region. From 2000 to 2010 the Latino population grew by 97 percent, the Asian population by 50 percent and the African-American population by 34 percent, but there were only 12 percent more white people. Mitsui uses this to bolster his argument that community colleges need to support students of color in particular toward pathways of success in order to grow the regional economy.

Mitsui cites data and research a lot. He says that’s because there are a lot more academic studies about community colleges today, through institutions like Columbia University’s Community College Research Center and the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness. But it also seems to be part of his frame of mind.

“I do believe in starting with evidence, and tempering it with the hard-earned wisdom of the people who do this every day,” Mitsui says.

Honeymoon going well

Controversy will undoubtedly rear its head at some point, but for now Mitsui has made a good first impression.

“I see him a lot, walking around, interacting with students. He shows up to our events pretty often,” says Gabrielle Kornahrens, president of the Sylvania campus Associated Students of Portland Community College. (Kornahrens is on the same campus as the president’s office, so she sees him more than people at other campuses.)

Kornahrens says she was impressed that Mitsui drove down to a student leadership event in Silverton for his first official duty, on Sept. 1.

Her priorities for Mitsui’s term would be to improve college affordability and access.

“Are we reaching as many people as we can in Portland, of all socioeconomic backgrounds?” Kornahrens says. “Having that inclusion lens is really important.”

Frank Goulard, president of the PCC Federation of Faculty and Academic Professionals union, largely agrees with Kornahrens’ assessment.

“We like Mark Mitsui’s personable and amiable style,” Goulard says. “At this point, no complaints, no problems.”

He adds that PCC still has its challenges; topping that list, in his view, is continuing its mission of inclusion.

“One of the biggest ones is just to continue to foster the culture we’re trying to have or keep at PCC — one of inclusiveness, so that we can all meet the needs of the students better, but also each other’s needs as faculty, so that we can better serve the students,” Goulard says.

National connections help

Mitsui says the college needs to keep pushing. Two-thirds of jobs by the year 2020 are going to require post-secondary education, he says, citing a research paper from Georgetown Public Policy Institute. And many college systems haven’t recovered to their pre-recession inflation-adjusted funding levels from their states, including PCC.

Mitsui is cautious about laying out a strong vision for the community college, deferring to the strategic plan approved in 2014 for the way forward.

But his connection to the national scene is likely to bear fruit for the area. Mitsui headed back to the nation’s capital Wednesday for the Obama Administration’s final community college convening, which is headed by Dr. Jill Biden. The convened administrators will then end the discussion on college best practices with a reception at Joe and Jill Biden’s vice presidential residence, Number One Observatory Circle.

Federal connections like this mean Mitsui is aware of federal programs like Ability-to-Benefit. This legislation allows people without high school degrees to qualify in other ways for Pell grants to attend college.

That will be important in Oregon, a state with the third-worst on-time graduation rate in the country and a high school equivalency (GED) test that recently became much more difficult, expensive and time-consuming to pass.

Mitsui says he’s here for the long haul. He’s already done the national scene in Washington, D.C., and he’s over it.

“I don’t feel the need to do that kind of policy work again,” Mitsui says. “This is where I would like to be, and this is where I would plan to be.”

He’s even putting his money where his mouth is.

His youngest of two adult children is a new student at the college this year.

PCC carrying out Oregon promise

New PCC President Mark Mitsui arrives during an emerging national conversation on universal — free — community college.

President Barack Obama pushed for this concept during his 2015 State of the Union address.

“This administration has been very supportive of community colleges,” says Mitsui, who worked with White House staff to develop some of the proposals.

That same year, Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, rallied the state legislature to follow Tennessee’s lead and adopt a free college program here.

The Oregon Promise program started this fall, giving recent high school graduates a chance to attend community college for just $50 per term. Billed as “free” community college, it has had the desired effect of getting more students interested in higher education — but perhaps not at the numbers one would expect.

“It tends to open the eyes of students who may not have been thinking of going to college at all,” Mitsui says.

Though overall enrollment at PCC — closely tied to the state of the economy — is down, the pie slice of recent high school graduates going to PCC is up about 20 percent over last year.

In all, about 1,650 students have taken part in the Oregon Promise program at PCC, about 500 more 18-to-19-year-olds than in previous years, says Tammy Billick, PCC’s dean of student affairs.

Billick says even though the relative increase from Oregon Promise has been small, the overall trend of more younger students has already had an effect on campuses.

“That age group really had been rising already,” says Billick, who suspects affordability concerns are at the root of the shift. “It’s a little bit of a trend that’s already been started.”

Sylvania campus student body President Gabrielle Kornahrens says she is seeing more involvement in campus life ­— like clubs and activities ­— that is shifting the largely commuter culture on campus.

PCC spokeswoman Kate Chester says the faculty are also seeing an impact.

“Because we’re seeing a larger population of younger students on campus, staff is finding themselves talking with parents more than they normally have in the past,” Chester says.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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EDIT: This story has a major correction to the number of employees at Portland Community College. The number of staff and faculty is 3,234 in the 2016-17 school year.

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