Moving from a college of fewer than 5,000 students to one with some 35,000 full-time-equivalent students is a quantum leap for Jeremy D. Brown, who will take over as president of Portland Community College on July 1.
But the nuclear-physicist-turned-college-administrator has never shied away from challenges.
Mr. Brown, who is 55, has climbed quickly through the academic ranks since his days teaching physics at Princeton University. He has already presided over two colleges: Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and Dowling College, on Long Island. As rector, or top academic official, on Florida State University's campus in the Republic of Panama from 2000 to 2003, he learned to speak Spanish fluently.
Portland is the first community-college assignment for the native of Manchester, England, and Mr. Brown arrives in Oregon at a time when enrollment is booming, the budget is squeezed, and the state is engaged in a higher-education overhaul that will require close cooperation among all college sectors.
"Community colleges are under the microscope these days, with important questions being raised about how we define success in a sector that offers so many different kinds of opportunities," he said.
Mr. Brown will replace Preston Pulliams, a charismatic and popular president who is retiring, leaving behind a college of full- and part-time students that is widely viewed as a regional economic powerhouse.
It's a far cry from Mr. Brown's previous job at Dowling, which ended abruptly last September after he had spent a little more than a year there. The small college had cycled through several presidents in close succession as it struggled with budget deficits and declining enrollment.
"It was a challenge, and I like challenges, but it wasn't the perfect match," Mr. Brown said. "The board and I had a different philosophy on how to move forward, and at the end of the day, we decided to agree to disagree."
Asked what those differences were, he answered, "To me, that's history, and I'm looking forward."
Just two weeks before his departure from Dowling, Nathalia Rogers, chair of the faculty, wrote a letter to trustees saying that many faculty members "have serious concerns about the ability of the college to survive," reported Newsday.
Mr. Brown's supporters pointed out that the problems that plagued that campus started long before he arrived. Among his biggest supporters is Denise Frisbee, chair of Portland Community College's Board of Directors. She called him a "collaborative leader," "great communicator," and "innovator."
Ms. Frisbee said the board wasn't troubled by his abrupt departure from Dowling but "doubled our references" to be sure the search team had the right candidate.
"With four presidents in six years, it was clear that they were going through a period of turmoil," she said of the Long Island college, which recently named Norman R. Smith to lead it. "We were told it was a mutually-agreed-upon decision to part company, and given everything we'd heard about Dr. Brown, that didn't present a barrier to us."
The Portland board was impressed by Mr. Brown's earlier experience, including his four-year stint at Edinboro, where he was credited with helping make significant increases in applications, retention, and annual giving. That experience helped him land on his feet after Dowling. In June he was slated to become acting president of the State University of New York at Canton, where he had served as provost from 2003 to 2007.
SUNY officials knew that he was being seriously courted by Portland, as well as by Lake Region State College, in North Dakota, so no one was shocked when he pulled out.
Even though this will be his first stint at a community college, his experience at Canton, which offers two-year as well as four-year degrees in technical fields like dental hygiene, early-childhood education, and criminal justice, familiarized him with the importance of work-force training, he said.
He has a more personal reason for valuing education. His father, at age 13, dropped out of school to support the family, and his mother returned to college as an adult to become a special-education teacher.
Mr. Brown said he was eager to lead a college that plays such a crucial role in helping people like his parents succeed.