Scott Ralls, president of the state’s 58-campus community college system, will leave North Carolina to lead Northern Virginia Community College.
In September, Ralls will become president of NOVA, a six-campus community college with 75,000 degree-seeking students in the Washington suburbs. The appointment was announced Thursday by Virginia Community College System Chancellor Glenn DuBois.
Ralls’ departure means that North Carolina’s two public higher education systems will be looking for new leaders in the coming months. Last week, the UNC Board of Governors named a search committee to find a successor to UNC President Tom Ross, who will step down in early 2016.
Ralls has led the North Carolina community college system since 2008, just as the recession hit and the state’s unemployment began to soar. During the first three years of his presidency, displaced workers flocked to the state’s community colleges to upgrade their skills or change careers. The system had phenomenal growth – 28 percent from 2007 to 2010.
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At the same time, the system experienced a budget crunch, all while embarking on a strategy to revamp curriculum, improve completion rates and forge new transfer agreements with the state’s university system.
A former president of Craven Community College in New Bern and Havelock, Ralls, 50, said he had always intended to return to a campus setting, where he could interact with students and faculty.
“That’s who I am and where my heart is,” Ralls said Thursday. “I’ve always aspired to go back to a campus.”
In Northern Virginia, he’ll be at the helm of the second-largest community college in the United States. It awards more associate degrees than any other community college and, like the North Carolina system, has focused on not only enrolling students but also graduating them.
That makes the new job the right opportunity at the right time, Ralls said. Northern Virginia Community College has echoed Ralls’ mantra that access to higher education is not enough for students; successful completion is the key.
“NOVA has been a leader in making those statements and living those statements in what they do,” Ralls said.
DuBois said Ralls would enhance NOVA’s impact.
“I’ve known Scott Ralls for a long time,” DuBois said in a statement. “His passion, knowledge and leadership are among the reasons the North Carolina Community College System is so highly regarded.”
N.C. system’s reach
North Carolina has one of the nation’s largest community college systems, and its reach is extensive. Most state residents live within 30 miles of one of the 58 colleges. Today, 40 percent of the state’s wage earners have received education or training at a North Carolina community college in the past 10 years, Ralls said.
In recent years, community colleges put more of a focus on helping students overcome what has traditionally been a low graduation rate – 41 percent of students who entered in 2004 finished within six years.
Colleges have reduced the number of academic offerings and designed clear pathways for students so they won’t waste time on their journey to degrees or career certificates. Some campuses have also streamlined remedial education, started intensive advising programs, and required orientation and student success courses for first-year students.
Elected officials and others praised Ralls’ leadership Thursday.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory issued a statement thanking Ralls for his leadership at a time when community colleges took a central role in getting many residents back to work.
“He has been an extremely valuable partner in our efforts to prepare the next generation with the skills they will need to compete for jobs and careers,” the statement said.
U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat who represents the state’s 4th District, said Ralls had been an exemplary leader.
“He guided the system through the economic downturn and state budget cuts and oversaw a period of remarkable growth,” Price said in a statement. “Thanks to his tireless efforts, thousands of North Carolinians have had the opportunity to obtain the education and training they need to realize their full potential.”
Linwood Powell, chairman of the system board, said he would appoint a search committee on Friday. An interim president is likely, he said, because the search could take months. Ralls will be in the North Carolina job until Labor Day.
“We certainly don’t want him to leave, but at the same time we support him 100 percent,” said Powell, who was on the search committee that chose Ralls seven years ago.
He praised Ralls for being a leader who worked in the field, traveling the state. Ralls also won friends in the legislature during tough times, Powell said.
Now it’s time to find another leader for a system with 321,000 students in degree, certificate and curriculum programs and nearly 498,000 students taking continuing education classes.
“Hopefully we can find Scott’s twin out there someplace – someone who can work with the 58 community college presidents, someone who can establish good rapport or already has it with the legislature ... and who has a vision to continue to make this system even better than it is.”