DECATUR – Brent Gregory has a lot on his mind as the new president of East Central Community College. The veteran educator is succeeding Billy Stewart, who led the college for eight years before announcing his retirement earlier this year.
As he settles in as ECCC’s new president, Gregory sat down this week with The Meridian Star to offer his thoughts on the future of the school. What follows is part of that conversation, edited for clarity and space limitations.
QUESTION: You graduated from ECCC in 1996. What’s it like to return to lead the college?
ANSWER: East Central has been a part of my life now since being in a student in 1994…A lot of my life events revolve around this institution. I met my wife, we were married, we both worked here.
So being able to come back here and take the experiences I gathered working for two institutions and apply them to East Central, in working to move the college forward, it’s a dream come true.
Q: You have a variety of community college administrative experience. What do you bring to the table as president of ECCC?
A: I feel like those experiences have let me see the cohesiveness of the institution and how decisions affect the various aspects of the college.
If you work in one area of the institution, you are going to make decisions based upon that area — that is your knowledge base. I’ve worked in career technical education, the academic education side, in all aspects of student affairs, to distance learning.
So when I make a decision, I have to make the decision based on what is best for all areas of the institution as a whole. That has helped me tremendously and will help me as I go forward, because these decisions are affecting everyone.
Q: You are taking over as ECCC president during a challenging time. Describe the transition process and your immediate plans for reopening.
A: I’ve been working closely with Dr. Stewart over the past two months, and we’ve started the transition. We’ve been meeting with different individuals on campus, the administrative staff, looking at plans. We’ve created a reopening committee that Dr. Stewart formed.
We are working on three aspects as an institution: the academics, student affairs and health standards. We are working on a plan as we speak and will be releasing that information as we move forward.
It’s a very fluid situation. There are different ways to do so with hybrid classes, student affairs in how we will make sure our students have the financial aid, admissions and resources that they need.
For health standards, the college presidents are discussing this on a weekly matter, trying to make it is cohesive as possible in how we can do this. I think we have a good plan of how we are going to start school, but those items will be released as we move forward
Q: What are your short-term goals and long-term goals for ECCC?
A: In the short term, we will have an extremely busy semester coming up; not only are we combating COVID-19, as everyone else. I will be extremely busy with or reaccreditation status, we will also be moving forward with a new strategic plan that will encompass not only our faculty and staff, but our community and stakeholders.
Dr. Stewart had a vision for 2020 for the institution and did a fantastic job with that. Now we are charged with creating the next vision for this institution. So those are things were are going to be working diligently during this upcoming year.
As far as a long term goal, we will take the items we have gathered this year and apply them to our plans. We will looking at being a little more involved in our local communities from the standpoint of providing services.
We are a five-county district that is spread out, so making sure we are providing workforce services in Louisville, Winston, Neshoba, Scott, Leake and Newton counties.
Q: Community colleges focus on both academic needs and workforce development programs. Is one more important than the other? What ECCC programs would you like to expand?
A: One is no more important than the other. That goes with the cohesive nature of a community college, we work on academics, career tech and workforce options.
Academically, East Central has been the premier community college in the state of Mississippi in the terms of transfer GPA.
Workforce-wise, we have to work diligently with economic development areas within our counties. Part of the process we will be going through for the upcoming year is determining what programs we have that are viable. That comes from those conversations we’re going to be having with local industry, determining what their needs are.
Putting people to work is critical during this period. We know that with the recession that is currently going on, retraining individuals is going to be a huge part of what we do here at East Central. Meeting the workforce needs of the five counties is going to at the forefront of what we are doing.
Q: ECCC expects a reduction of about $550,000 in state appropriations this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. To offset the cuts, the school is planning on raising tuition and fees.
Are the increases expected to be a one-time thing, or do you worry the pandemic will affect the college’s long-term financial future? If so, how do you plan to address any future state cuts?
A: East Central Community College has traditionally been very financially stable and conservative in its processes. We have raised tuition for this upcoming year, which put us in line with our sister community colleges around the state.
I feel that we are financially stable at this point and will be in the future based on the information we have gathered at this time.
Our goal as we set forth these items, is to make sure that our education is affordable for our students and we still believe we are.
If you were to look at our community college tuition and fees compared to other institutions around the state, we are very affordable compared to our sisters (colleges) around the state.
Q: What is the right size for ECCC? Is it about right now or should it grow?
A: We are always looking for growth because the more students that we have means, the more students we are serving in this district. I would like to see our numbers grow on workforce training and career and technical side because there it means we are helping to create jobs and fill jobs within our district.
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Q: How will you connect and interact with students and staff?
A: Meeting our community is a big part of what I feel like is important. It is extremely important to let individuals know that were care about them...We are here as an institution to get people where they need to be. I won’t be able to do this job by sitting behind my desk and waiting for individuals to come to me, I have to go out and look for those answers.
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I have to look for the questions and then try to look to find the answers to those as well. I will be out on campus, within our community. There is a good chance you could see me at any type of activity within in this district at any time, because I feel like it is my job is to get out.
Depending upon how we can safely set things up through COVID-19, we will be having meetings with students and different student groups on campus.
I think it is important for myself to go out to our different organizations at times, to specific groups of students, to find out where they are, what their feeling are and ideas they would like to have brought forward.