Richard Collings suffered a stroke the night he arrived in Western North Carolina to take over as president of Southwestern Community College.
What followed, as Collings described it, was “kind of a weird interlude” into his new job.
There had been no indication of potential health problems. Collings, a tall, lanky, fit-looking man, walks and bikes regularly for exercise. A doctor who checked him out a short time before the incident assured him he was in good overall health.
That first night back in WNC, however, he began feeling disoriented. His wife, Marilyn, suggested the possibility of a stroke. Collings was taken to a hospital for treatment.
He lived. He suffered minimal damage. He clearly believes himself fortunate. But one senses about him a lingering bemusement that he, Collings — a man who’d just been informed his blood-pressure reading was that of a teenager — could, without warning, be felled.
As it happened, the stroke wasn’t connected to blood pressure. A blood clot was to blame.
Getting on with things
Collings, 63, was cleared to start his new position Aug. 23. This followed two months or so in occupational and physical therapy. His right leg still feels a little weak. One hand is a bit numb. That describes the situation. Collings said he’s eager to get on with the job.
The task he faces is somewhat delicate: don’t be the man who messes things up.
SCC achieved national recognition, twice, under the leadership of the previous president, Dr. Cecil Groves. The college hasn’t been shy about trumpeting its Top 10 rankings by Washington Monthly, a monthly nonprofit magazine. On highway billboards, media releases, wherever and whenever potential students, faculty and staff — the simple passerby — can be reminded of SCC’s stellar rankings, they are reminded.
There’s little question that SCC, led by Groves and his predecessor, Barry Russell, emerged during the past two decades or so as one of the most important institutions in the far-western end of the state.
This, in part, is because unlike most of North Carolina’s community colleges, SCC serves more than one county. The two-year college’s service area is made up of Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, plus the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Michell Hicks, the tribe’s principal chief, is among the school’s most notable graduates.
This year, SCC has 2,650 curriculum students. There are 202 full-time employees and 477 part-time ones. Students can choose from 74 programs; 19 of those are available online.
SCC plays a critical role in training people to work in the service industry, and as medical experts, law-enforcement officers, outdoor guides, even hairdressers. Name anything connected with earning a livelihood here in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains, and former SCC students are probably involved.
New president styled “open minded”
Collings previously served as vice chancellor for academic affairs at Western Carolina University. Between then and taking the SCC job, he was president for six years at Wayne State College in Nebraska.
Bill Path, president of Northeast Community College in nearby Norfolk, Neb., said he wasn’t surprised when he learned Collings wanted to give up his post at the head of a four-year school to lead a community college. Path knew Collings’ children and grandchildren were still in this area, “and he was open-minded.”
“A lot of times, four-year colleges look down on two-year colleges. I never saw any hint of that, or hesitation on his part,” Path said.
During Collings’ stint at Wayne State College, the two men did something unusual. The Nebraska State College System would later use accolades such as “history making” and “unique.”
Collings and Path collaborated on a joint campus, an unusual partnership between a two-year and four-year school.
There was political opposition to begin with, Collings said. Some university leaders opposed the project, afraid perhaps of the competition, or being forced to undertake similar tasks themselves. The men also had to find more than $14 million, done largely through grants and private fundraising.
Construction is almost finished on a new joint campus in South Sioux City, Neb. Students will be able to take freshman and sophomore courses from Northeast, and junior and senior or graduate courses from Wayne State College — all in the same place, in their town, close to their own homes. The two men invented, at least for Nebraska, the educational equivalent of one-stop shopping.
A man with a mission
Collings might have embraced innovation in Nebraska. But don’t expect huge changes at SCC. This is an individual who strongly believes in defining, and adhering, to a mission.
He speaks of “tweaking” things at the community college. Of getting involved in the multiple communities the college serves, and finding out what else residents need and want. But Collings also talks of the philosophy of continuous improvement.
“You either move forward or you fall back,” he said.
The former university administrator is not a fan of community colleges that emulate their bigger brothers and offer bachelor’s degrees, an education concept particularly embraced of late in the state of Florida. Collings doesn’t covet university sports teams. He doesn’t wish he could offer students dorm space on campus. Don’t, in other words, expect “mission creep” under Collings’ watch at SCC.
“Community colleges fill an important niche. There are things we can’t do,” he said. “We are not trying to be a university, or a four-year school. We have a different mission.”
Collings said he’s not made wholesale changes to the staff and faculty. Because, he said, this isn’t a rescue operation.
Kate Welch, a former Swain County teacher and 13-year member of SCC’s Board of Trustees, said Collings seemed a square peg for a square hole.
“I didn’t hear before, or since, any negative things about him. Everything that was said was very, very positive,” Welch said, adding that, during the interview process, Collings impressed her with his sincerity.
The similarities of his educational path and those of students who attend SCC also struck her favorably. The Louisville, Ky., native worked his way through school, usually doing some form of manual labor to pay his tuition.
“It made me think he could relate to our students,” she said. “Some work two, three jobs, and have childcare issues. And that he would be part of our community, and fit right in.”
Collings has a one-year contract. The trustees can choose to renew that contract, or not. He will be paid $140,000.
Meet SCC’s new president
WHAT: Welcome reception for Richard Collings
WHERE: Balsam Center Lobby of the Jackson Campus.
WHEN: Thursday, Sept. 30.
TIME: 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.