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Education Special Coverage

A Calling to Serve

George Timmons

George Timmons

George Timmons recalled a conversation he had a with a friend — a college president and mentor — several years back. He had a simple question for him.

“I asked him, ‘doc, how to you know when you’re ready?” he recalled, meaning, in this case, ready to become a college president himself.

The answer wasn’t quite what he expected.

“He said, ‘George, you’ll know when you know you’re ready,’” he said. “And I used to say, ‘what do you mean?’”

Timmons said he would eventually come to understand what his friend meant — that there would come a time, after years of preparation, earning needed degrees, and working in different jobs that would provide learning experiences and the ability to hone leadership skills … when he would know that he was ready.

He said he reached that time a few years ago and soon began to at least consider jobs that carried that designation. But — and this is a big but — he stressed that he wasn’t chasing a title.

“When I looked at the student profile, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my roots, my humble beginnings, and where I came from; I’m a first-generation college graduate.”

“It was really about chasing the right opportunity that allowed me to demonstrate the skills and talents that I have that aligned with the needs of the organization and where I thought I could really add value,” he said. “For me, it’s really important that I’m at an institution where I can bring value and that I connect with, and be able to take it to a new level of excellence.”

And that’s what he saw when Holyoke Community College (HCC) began its search for someone to succeed Christina Royal last fall.

Specifically, it was the presidential profile, and especially its student profile, one that showcased a diverse population featuring a large percentage of first-generation college students, that caught his attention.

“When I looked at the student profile, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my roots, my humble beginnings, and where I came from; I’m a first-generation college graduate,” he told BusinessWest. “Also, with 48% students of color … that was very attractive to me, and would allow me to add value, particularly with an emphasis on equity and student success. I saw myself in that student profile.”

Fast-forward several months — we’ll go back and fill in all the details later — and Simmons is winding down his work at provost and senior vice president of Academic and Student Affairs at Columbia-Greene Community College in Hudson, N.Y., getting ready to start at HCC the middle of next month.

Upon arriving, he intends to embark on what he called a “soft launch of a listening tour,” one that will involve several constituencies, including students, faculty, staff, area elected officials, and members of the business community.

George Timmons says it’s important to hear from all constituencies

George Timmons says it’s important to hear from all constituencies — from students, faculty, and staff to local officials and business people — early in his tenure.

“I think it’s important to hear from the stakeholders who are present, as well as getting into the community, meeting members of the business community and key stakeholders, to hear what they have to say and understand their views on the college and where they see areas of opportunity. I think it’s important that I immerse myself in the community to understand and learn where there are challenges and opportunities, get to know people, and build relationships.”

Elaborating, Simmons said that, overall, he wants to build on all that Royal has been able to accomplish at HCC — everything from bold strides on diversity, equity, and inclusion to a food pantry and a student emergency fund — while putting his own stamp on the oldest community college in the state, one that recently celebrated its 75th anniversary.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Timmons about his new assignment, what brought him to the HCC campus, and what he hopes to achieve when he gets there.


Course of Action

Timmons told BusinessWest that, during one of his visits to the HCC campus for interviews, he was given a 90-minute driving tour of the city by perhaps the best-qualified person in the region to give one.

That would be Jeff Hayden, vice president of Business & Community Services at HCC and former director of Planning & Economic Development for the city.

“He’s a great tour guide,” Timmons said. “He’s a history guy, and I love history and people who like history — and there is a lot of it in Holyoke.”

The tour of the city pretty much confirmed what Timmons said he already knew — that this was a community, and a college, that he wanted to be part of, one that would provide that opportunity that he spoke of, and not merely a title.

His journey to the Paper City has been an intriguing one, and it began not far from here.

“She made me understand that, when you want to achieve a goal, it really doesn’t matter what others say or if other people will support you. Only one person gets to decide whether you will achieve that goal — and that’s you.”

Indeed, Timmons said he grew up in the Hartford area, and was essentially raised by his grandmother, who instilled in him a number of values, including the importance of education.
“She made me understand that, when you want to achieve a goal, it really doesn’t matter what others say or if other people will support you,” he recalled. “Only one person gets to decide whether you will achieve that goal — and that’s you.

“I made a commitment to myself at a very early age that no one was going to outwork me when it came to me achieving my goals,” he went on. “Those values shaped who I am today.”

Timmons has spent more than 25 years working in higher education in several different realms, from academic support services to online education; from working with adult learners to roles in both academic affairs and student affairs.

“I have a really broad breadth and depth in higher education that allows me to have a comprehensive view of a college,” he noted, adding that he believes his diverse résumé will serve him well as he takes the proverbial corner office at HCC, becoming just its fifth president in 75 years.

Timmons, who earned a bachelor’s degree in financial management at Norfolk State University in Virginia, a master’s degree in higher education at Old Dominion University in Virginia, and his Ph.D. in higher education administration at Bowling Green University in Ohio, started his career in academia in 1996 at Old Dominion as a site director at a satellite campus as part of a groundbreaking program called TELETECHNET. It provided the opportunity for students to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at remote locations through the use of satellites and televisions with two-way video connections, a precursor of sorts of the remote-learning programs that would dominate higher education during the pandemic.

Later, he served as assistant dean of Adult Learning at North Carolina Wesleyan College before being recruited to be the founding dean of Online Education and Learning Services at Excelsior College in New York.

He served in that role for several years before becoming provost for Online Education, Learning, and Academic Services, and also serving later as dean of the School of Liberal Arts.

During that time in his career, he was able to take part in a number of professional-development opportunities, including the Harvard MLE program, as well as the American Council of Education Fellowship Program and the Aspen Rising Presidential Fellowship, which is focused on preparing community-college presidents.

“I’ve really had the opportunity to learn and hone my skills,” he explained. “I think it’s important that you learn your craft — it’s a journey; you continue to work to get better and strive to be better. There’s always room for improvement, and so it’s really important that you stay current and abreast of the trends in higher education to be effective.”

After his lengthy tenue at Excelsior, he became vice president of Academic and Student Affairs at Columbia-Greene Community College, a role that carried many responsibilities, including student affairs, athletics, events planning, partnership development, and more.

It was at some point during his tenure at Columbia-Greene that he reached that point his friend and mentor alluded to: when he knew he was ready to become a college president. But as he mentioned earlier, it’s one thing to be ready, but finding the right opportunity is something else altogether.

“I’m very selective — I’m not chasing a title,” he told BusinessWest. “I say this humbly, but I could have been a president a few years ago if I was just chasing a title. It was really important for me to align myself with an institution that I could have longevity with, and I believe Holyoke Community College allows me the opportunity to plant roots in Western Mass. and work with the board of trustees, the faculty, students, staff, and administrators to carry out its mission.”


Grade Expectations

Which brings him back to that that profile of HCC and how it resonated with him, personally and professionally.

“I actually felt a call to serve — that’s when I knew. I felt I was ready based on what they were looking for and my background; I felt like that profile was calling me.”

And after several rounds of interviews, those conducting the search for a new president would ultimately decide to call him — literally.

And as he winds down at Columbia-Greene, he is looking ahead to July and using his time before the fall semester starts to learn more about the school, the city, the region, and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

There are plenty of both, but especially opportunities, he told BusinessWest, adding that, in this time of skyrocketing costs in higher education and ever-greater emphasis on value, community colleges are an attractive alternative — as a place to start, and often as a place to finish.

“Community colleges are, to me, a great pathway to a better life,” he said. “And when you consider that almost half of all students who are in higher education are enrolled in a community college, I don’t think that’s by accident, because there’s fair criticism about the cost of higher education and how prohibitive it is for some members of community to go to college. The community-college mission of access is one that I cannot underscore enough.

“Community college is a great way to get a quality, affordable education to advance one’s social mobility, and with minimal debt,” he went on. “It gives people a great foundation that prepares them to transition to a four-year institution or to go into the workforce and earn a livable, sustainable wage. That’s why community colleges are near and dear to my heart; thay are an important pathway to the middle class.”

Getting back to that aforementioned listening tour, Timmons said listening is a huge part of what could be called his management style. Other parts include transparency, being collaborative, fostering excellence, and more.

“As a contemporary leader in higher education, you should have a broad and comprehensive leadership style grounded in transformational, collaborative, and servant leadership,” he explained. “And by that, I mean encouraging people, inspiring them, knowing how to listen, building community, leveraging mutual respect for one another … these are all vital aspects of the leadership needed to advance an institution’s success.”

Elaborating, he stressed the importance of knowing how to transform “in a way that is acceptable, but that also challenges the culture to stretch and grow.

“And to do that, you have to be able to listen, respect your colleagues, understand why things were done the way they were, and, without judgment, maybe ask the question, ‘how can we be better?’” he went on. “As people, we can always be better, and as institutions, we can always be better. So what does that look like?

“You also have to stay current with what’s happening in our space,” he continued. “You have to continually ask, ‘are we remaining competitive, and are we meeting the needs of our students and the community?’”

When asked how someone masters that art of listening, he said simply, and with a laugh, “the key is not to talk.”

Instead, “you listen by seeking input and asking questions and giving people a platform to at least share their opinions, their thoughts, and their expertise,” he went on. “One of things I want to do coming in is listen to key stakeholders and say, ‘historically, what have you liked most about the institution, where do you see areas of opportunity, and if you could make a change, what would it be?’ And then you start to look at themes, see what themes emerge, and use that to guide your next steps.”

There will be a number of next steps for Timmons, who at first didn’t really grasp that he would know when he was ready to be a college president.

Eventually he would understand what his mentor was saying, and he did know when was ready — not for a job or a title, but for a real opportunity to make a difference.

And that’s what he intends to do at HCC.

Education Special Coverage

Challenge Accepted

Linda Thompson, the 21st president of Westfield State University.

Linda Thompson had never applied for a college presidency position before a recruiter called and invited her to pursue that post at Westfield State University. She listened, and agreed it was time to take a 40-year-career in healthcare, public policy, and healthcare education to a new and much higher plane. She becomes WSU’s 21st president at a challenging time, especially as schools large and small return to something approaching normal after 16 months of life in a pandemic. But with her diverse background, she believes she’s ready for that challenge.


Linda Thompson remembers not only the call from the headhunter, made to gauge her interest in applying for the president’s position at Westfield State University, but the words of encouragement that accompanied it.

“She said, ‘Linda, I think you’re ready to think about being a president,’” said Thompson, who at the time was dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at UMass Boston and hadn’t pursued a president’s position before. “She said, ‘you’re a dean now … look at the work deans do; they raise money, they create new programs, they create partnerships, they work with the board. The things you do as a dean are the things you’ll do as a president.”

More important than the recruiter thinking she was ready for the post at WSU, Thompson knew she was ready, even if she needed a little convincing.

“I thought I had the right background at this point in time to make a difference at this specific university,” she said, adding that it’s much more than the 35 years in higher education in various positions within nursing and health-sciences programs that gave her the confidence to enter and then prevail in the nationwide search for the school’s 21st president. It was also experience in public policy, working with a host of elected leaders to address a wide range of health and public-safety issues and, essentially, problem-solve.

“Education, to me, is a ticket out of poverty; it’s a ticket for creating wonderful solutions for society and for people.”

“Most of my career, I’ve worked with children and youth, trying to develop programs and policies to promote healthy outcomes for children, youth, and families,” she explained. “I started out, like most people in nursing, in a hospital and moved to community and public-health work. I really became interested in high-risk children just based on my work in public health, seeing how children who grew up in poverty, children who grew up in less-than-fortunate environments, were impacted by those circumstances.”

She points to her own family as an example, and noted that her two older sisters both died young, one from a gunshot wound at age 21 and the other from complications from diabetes during her second pregnancy as a teen.

“I always thought that the reason I thrived was education,” she told BusinessWest. “Education, to me, is a ticket out of poverty; it’s a ticket for creating wonderful solutions for society and for people. I’ve been blessed; I’ve not only had the opportunity to work as a nurse, I’ve also had the opportunity to work to develop programs for children who were in the justice system, people who were in state custody. I did work all over the country looking at ways we can promote good outcomes for people who had the misfortune to be engaged in the criminal-justice system.

Linda Thompson says Westfield State University learned a number of lessons during the pandemic

Linda Thompson says Westfield State University learned a number of lessons during the pandemic, and it will apply them as the school, its students, faculty, and staff return to something approaching normal this fall.

“I worked for the governor of Maryland for five years and developed programs and policies for children and youth statewide,” she went on. “We looked at how we could develop inter-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary programs, starting with education, all the way to how we need to work with housing and economic development to create good outcomes for families and for children.”

Thompson arrives at the rural WSU campus at an intriguing time for all those in higher education. Smaller high-school graduating classes have contributed to enrollment challenges at many institutions, and even some closures of smaller schools, and the soaring cost of a college education has brought ever-more attention to the value of such an education and how schools provide it.

Meanwhile, institutions will be returning to something approaching normal this fall after enduring two and a half semesters of life in a global pandemic, an experience that tested all schools in every way imaginable and also provided learning experiences and opportunities to do things in a different, and sometimes better, way.

Thompson acknowledged these developments and said they will be among the challenges and opportunities awaiting her as she takes the helm at the 182-year-old institution, founded by Horace Mann, whose pioneering efforts in education — and inclusion — are certainly a source of inspiration for her.

“He wanted to look at how education is important to a new society — a society that was going to be self-governed and where people needed to understand how to engage in civil society. I was very intrigued with this history, the inclusive nature of his approach to higher education, and how he looked back at some of the historical development of what I will call democracies in ancient Greece and the importance of an educated community to support democracies and health societies.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Thompson about Horace Mann, the challenges facing those in higher education, and why she believes WSU is well-positioned to meet them head-on.


Grade Expectations

As noted earlier, Thompson brings a diverse portfolio of experience to her latest challenge.

Our story begins in 1979, when she began her career as a clinical nurse specialist in the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Soon thereafter, she would begin interspersing jobs in education with those in the public sector.

Linda Thompson says the timing was right for her to pursue a college presidency, and Westfield State University was the ideal fit.

Linda Thompson says the timing was right for her to pursue a college presidency, and Westfield State University was the ideal fit.

In 1987, she became assistant dean at the School of Nursing at Coppin State College in Baltimore, and two years later took a job as director of the Office of Occupational Medicine and Safety in Baltimore. In 1993, she joined the school of Nursing at the University of Maryland, where she would hold a variety of positions between 1993 and 2003, with a four-year diversion in the middle to serve as special secretary for Children, Youth & Families in the Maryland Governor’s Office.

In 2003, she became dean of Nursing at Oakland University in Troy, Mich., and later returned to the East Coast, where she would join the staff at North Carolina A&T State University, first as provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, then as associate vice chancellor for Outreach, Professional Development & Distance Education.

“I see myself as a servant leader, a person who tries to see how I can help another person maximize their opportunity to dig deep inside themselves, and identify their strengths and bring those strengths out.”

In 2013, she became dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences and a professor of Nursing at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, and in 2017, she came to UMass Boston, serving as dean of the College of Nursing and Health Services.

Slicing through all that, she said she’s had decades of experience working collaboratively with others to achieve progress in areas ranging from student success to diversity with staff and faculty; from forging partnerships with private-sector institutions to creating strategic plans; from creating new academic programs to securing new philanthropic revenue streams for faculty research.

And she intends to tap into all that experience as she leads WSU out of the pandemic and into the next chapter in its history.

As she does so, she intends to lean heavily on Horace Mann, considered by many to be the father of public education, for both inspiration and direction. In many respects, they share common viewpoints about the importance of education and inclusion.

“This whole idea of looking at healthy communities and using education to strengthen communities resonated with me,” Thompson explained. “And it resonated with me given some of the things we’re starting to see with our divided country; how do we get people educated so that they’re able to know how to be critical thinkers, how to separate fact from fiction, and how to begin looking at the importance of creating communities where everyone is healthy? To me, healthy is more than physical health — it’s emotional and social and environmental, this whole way that we look at values that really enable people to thrive and survive in society.”

Looking forward, she said she has many goals and ambitions for the school, with greater diversity and inclusion at the top of the list. She pointed to UMass Boston, which she described as one of the most diverse schools in the country, as both a model and a true reflection of the demographic changes that have taken place in the U.S.

“Those diverse populations are the future of higher education in this country,” she told BusinessWest. “We are becoming a majority minority population, and there are opportunities to reach out to communities of color and stress the importance of education to be part of a lifestyle where we’re constantly looking at ways to engage with people and give them tools to thrive.”


Course of Action

Thompson arrived at the WSU campus at the start of this month. She will use the two months before the fall semester begins to make connections — both on campus and within the community.

She said the calendar was quickly filling up with appointments with area civic, business, and education leaders, at which she will gauge needs, come to fully understand how the university partners with others to meet those needs, and discuss ways to broaden WSU’s impact and become even more of a difference maker in the community.
The discussions with business leaders will focus on the needs of the workforce and how to make graduates more workforce-ready, she said, adding that the school has been a reliable supplier of qualified workers to sectors ranging from education to healthcare to criminal justice.

Meanwhile, the meetings with those in education focus on widening and strengthening a pipeline of students through K-12 and into higher education, and also on finding paths for those who can’t, for various reasons, take such a direct path.

“For those who are not able to go to college right after high school, how do make it easy for these adults to come back to school?” she asked, adding that she will work with others to answer that question.

And some of the answers may have been found during the pandemic, she went on, noting that, out of necessity, educators used technology to find new and different ways to teach and engage students. And this imagination and persistence — not to mention the direct lessons learned about how to do things, especially with regard to remote learning — will carry on into this fall, when the campus returns to ‘normal’ and well beyond.

“For us, moving forward, I’ll think we’ll never go back to the way we educated people before,” she told BusinessWest, “because people have learned to do this work in a different kind of way, and the public has learned that this is an option moving forward to give people an opportunity to return to college.”

When asked about what she brings to her latest challenge, Thompson reiterated that it’s more than her work in higher education, as significant as that is. It’s also her work in public policy, and, more specifically, working in partnership with others to address global issues.

She counts among her mentors David Mathews, former president of the University of Alabama and secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Ford. She worked with him when he was leading the Kettering Foundation.

“I spent time with him learning about the way he approached leadership and the way he approached democracy,” she noted. “I’ve been a dean, and I’ve had experience as a provost; overall, I believe I have the right set of skills to use the lessons I’ve learned to help develop the next set of community leaders in all fields.

“We need to look at a way that we can create curriculum and graduate people who are innovative, who are critical thinkers, who know how to research on their own, who know to look at problems and how to work in teams with other people in order to create solutions,” she went on. “These are things I’ve learned in my life, and those are things I want to impart to the students who come to this campus.”

As for her leadership style, Thompson described it this way: “I look at creating a vision and an idea and working with and through people — people who are above me, people who work alongside me, people who are younger — and learning from people at all levels and ages and stages of their development.

“I tend to see myself as someone who is transformational,” she went on. “I see myself as a servant leader, a person who tries to see how I can help another person maximize their opportunity to dig deep inside themselves, and identify their strengths and bring those strengths out.”


George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]