Politics & Government

Tony Zeiss leaves his mark on CPCC – and Charlotte

Dr. Tony Zeiss, President of Central Piedmont Community College speaks at the Siemens Charlotte Energy Hub in 2014.
Dr. Tony Zeiss, President of Central Piedmont Community College speaks at the Siemens Charlotte Energy Hub in 2014. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

His name adorns the college’s newest academic building, the neo-classical centerpiece of a campus that’s undergone a sweeping face-lift.

But Tony Zeiss has left his signature on much more than that.

Over 24 years as president of Charlotte’s Central Piedmont Community College, he saw the school grow from one to six campuses and become a national leader in workforce development.

He helped connect CPCC – and Charlotte – to the world by spearheading the Global Vision Leaders Group, a regional coalition designed to connect local communities to the international economy.

And he helped Charlotte preserve, and remember, its past. Zeiss was a prime mover behind the Trail of History, a collection of bronze historical statues along Little Sugar Creek Greenway. History is his passion. The author of two historical novels, he often speaks about his characters in period costume.

This month, Zeiss retires from the college he has led for nearly half its 53-year history. In January he turns over the reins of the state’s second-largest community college to 47-year-old Kandi Deitemeyer, president of Eastern North Carolina’s College of the Albemarle.

“As much as we’ve done, it’s really the culture of the college I’m most proud of,” Zeiss says. “We’re focused on service to our students and our community.”

Zeiss is one of the state’s highest paid public officials. He earns nearly $349,000 a year.

At 70, Zeiss isn’t about to retire completely.

Last month he lobbied in Washington to become Donald Trump’s education secretary, a post that ultimately went to someone else. But in January Zeiss starts in a new job: executive director of the new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., a short walk from the U.S. Capitol.

That he’s ready for a new challenge isn’t surprising. Zeiss has a restless energy, whether working, writing or fly fishing.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Tommy Norman, who once chaired the CPCC Foundation. “This guy’s got one gear and it’s high gear.”

A vision

During an interview in his office, Zeiss rarely sits still. At one point he goes in search of glossy booklets containing long-range plans for the college and a strategic vision for the global initiative. Always a planner, he believes in a purpose-driven life.

Zeiss outlined his philosophy in a book called “Build Your Own Ladder: Four Secrets to Making Your Career Dream Come True.” It’s one of several self-help books he’s written.

Secret number one: The power of vision.

He once wrote that he was 17 when he decided to be a teacher; 22 when he set his sights on becoming a college president. At 26, he knew he wanted to become a “a significant writer.” He even drew up a new personal vision when he turned 60 (among other things, promising more exercise and focus on faith.)

As much as we’ve done, it’s really the culture of the college I’m most proud of....We’re focused on service to our students and our community.

Tony Zeiss, who is retiring after 24 years as president of Charlotte’s Central Piedmont Community College

One goal for CPCC was not only to expand the school but change its appearance.

With more than $620 million in public bonds, he transformed the central campus from a collection of drab stucco structures to new buildings of red brick. The latest is under construction on Charlottetown Avenue.

“It looked like an institution rather than a college,” he says. “Student retention is tied to a lot of things. One is the environment. If you feel good in it, you’ll come back.”

A global reach

Zeiss has also re-imagined the school’s mission, reaching out to foreign employers.

“He is an an innovator and arguably the … expert on creating ways for job training to be integrated into our community college system,” says John Lassiter, chairman of the N.C. Economic Development Partnership.

“He’s gone beyond what you’d expect a community college president to understand and advocate.”

Tony thinks about Charlotte being on a global map, not just a state or national map.

Dawn Braswell, a manager for Siemens Energy, a German company whose Charlotte manufacturing plant partners with CPCC

The Charlotte area, Zeiss says, already is the nation’s 7th largest region for foreign investment. And he wants the ranking to go higher. He has spoken in several countries about Charlotte’s workforce development programs. At a 2013 conference in Charlotte, the German ambassador lauded CPCC as “a shining example” of global cooperation.

“Tony thinks about Charlotte being on a global map, not just a state or national map,” says Dawn Braswell, a manager for Siemens Energy, a German company whose Charlotte manufacturing plant partners with the college.

A long time ago his father got Zeiss hooked on books by Dale Carnegie and Zig Ziglar. In his own book, “Nine Essential Laws for Becoming Influential,” the upbeat Zeiss writes that the most important law is simple: having a positive attitude.

That’s why he’s excited about his new job with the Bible museum, which is scheduled to open in November.

“I’ve wanted to be a servant all my life, and then I get the opportunity to come out and put something like this together,” he says. “Can you think of a better capstone experience?”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

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