Former University Chief Explains What Drew Him to Lead a 2-Year College

Eric Pence

Mark H. Erickson
November 26, 2012

Mark H. Erickson
Age: 57
New job: President of Northampton Community College, in Pennsylvania
Previous position: President of Wittenberg U., in Ohio
Highest degree: Doctorate in educational leadership from Lehigh U.

A couple of areas of higher education are of particular interest to me: economic development—how colleges can help propel our communities forward—and access—how we can provide opportunities for people who, without higher education, would not move ahead.

At Lehigh University, where I was the president's right-hand man until 2005, I also had responsibility for government and community affairs. And some of the most important work I did in my seven years as president of Wittenberg had to do both with connecting the university to the community and increasing the diversity of our student population. The students that got me the most jazzed about what we were doing were many of our first-generation students.

So leading Northampton Community College seemed in many ways a logical next step for me to really focus on the things I care about, and to do so in a setting where I have lots of connections. I know the mayor and many of the business leaders here in Bethlehem, Pa., well, so coming back was unusually easy in terms of credibility.

I don't think there's any place that does economic development and access better than community colleges. The most innovative, important, and interesting work in the next decade in higher education will be occurring in this sector.

I say that because community colleges are more agile, and because their governance structures are better able to respond to the communities that they're part of. When we have conversations about work-force-development needs or community needs, we can turn around and create a new program that can respond to that in a matter of months, in a way that a four-year college can't.

The mission was great at every college where I've been, but I don't think I've ever felt as satisfied with the impact component. Some weeks ago, I received a handwritten letter from a 77-year-old student who went back to school here at the age of 75. He told me what a positive effect Northampton has had on his sense of self-worth and motivation. Earlier, I sat in on a meeting with some students from the least-advantaged backgrounds possible, whom we brought in for a summer program to prepare them for college, and listened to them talk about their aspirations and describe how, in only a week, they'd already developed an incredible bond with Northampton and our faculty.

It is inspiring to see individuals who, but for this college, probably don't have an opportunity to climb the educational ladder, who because of us are going out and doing great things.

I'm 57, so I'm not at a point in my career where I'm résumé building. It's all about being where I can make the biggest difference.

So while some people who look at my career track may say, "Gosh, does this make sense?," from the seat that I sit in, it makes enormous sense.  —As told to Alina Mogilyanskaya