Norwich — Three Rivers Community College could get a new president by March to lead the 4,700-student college through a major transition that will include concentrating on certain fields of study, more online courses and more partnerships with the region's industry leaders.
Gregory Gray, the new president of the Board of Regents for Higher Education, told about 20 public and corporate supporters of Three Rivers Wednesday that the state will select a consulting firm by the end of November to lead the search for a new Three Rivers president along with presidents of two other community colleges.
Gray also addressed several major issues during the hour-long meeting with the community group during his first visit to Three Rivers. Several questions centered on the future of Three Rivers as part of the newly consolidated Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, or ConnSCU, system.
"We will grow this new system to be world class," Gray said, "including the community colleges."
Three Rivers President Grace Jones announced her retirement in spring but has remained at the helm as the interim president. The presidents of Quinebaug Valley and Asnuntuck community colleges also recently retired, and both of those schools have interim presidents.
Once the consulting firm is chosen, Gray said, search committees will be formed at each college to review applications and recommend finalist candidates to Gray and the Board of Regents.
Gray said March has become the time of year nationwide when college president applicants start receiving offers, so he hopes to follow that schedule as well.
Gray worked in the 32-school State University of New York (SUNY) system and said he would use that as a model in writing a new master plan for the Connecticut system. He hopes to complete the master plan in March.
He told the group he expects to publish an executive summary by January or February that would be circulated to college supporters for their input.
The colleges will change in the new model, he said. Each community college will be asked to identify its strongest two or three fields of study from five major topics — advanced manufacturing, financial services, hospitality services, allied health and information technology.
"I don't think any college can afford all five," he said during a press conference that followed the meeting.
Jones said Three Rivers has not yet been asked to identify its core strengths, but she acknowledged the close ties with local industries and the importance of allied health in the region.
Wednesday's meeting included representatives from some of the region's marquee industries, retail businesses, financial institutions and business consortiums, including Electric Boat, Dominion, Norwich Public Utilities, Collins & Jewell equipment fabrication company, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, Core Plus Federal Credit Union and People's United Bank.
Corporate participants described how important Three Rivers is to their operations, ranging from internships and apprenticeships to employment of students and graduates. Ken Capano, owner of ShopRite supermarkets in Norwich and New London, said he employs many students.
Electric Boat has 80 employees in the apprenticeship program with Three Rivers, said Cathy White, EB senior manager of human resources. Dominion has hired 200 employees who went through the Three Rivers scholarship and internship program, said Nancy Bulkeley, community affairs representative for Dominion, which operates the Millstone nuclear power station.
Gray said he was impressed by the close partnerships in place in eastern Connecticut. The new system would require more such relationships to ensure that employee training remains relevant.
"Everyone in this room knows preparing the workforce of 2014 is very different from preparing the workforce of 2010," Gray said.
Gray addressed the four state legislators who attended the session, promising that he will speak to them soon about what he called the "out of whack" state appropriation for community colleges. He said the legislature funds the University of Connecticut with about $10,000 per student, while community colleges receive only about $5,800 per student.
The new master plan will increase online learning opportunities both to save money at individual colleges and to offer students more flexibility, Gray said. Charter Oak Community College has been designated as the state's online institution, but it has only 1,600 enrollees. In contrast, he said Empire State College in New York, SUNY's online college, has more than 30,000 students.
He said online classes could cut costs at colleges that face the expense of offering specialty required courses with only eight students. Online courses also could help many students resolve scheduling problems to complete their required courses.
Online courses might also entice some non-students to enroll in college courses for the first time. He said if just 1 percent of the state's estimated 385,000 residents without college experience took an online class, enrollment at Charter Oak would double.
"We have a huge opportunity with Charter Oak," he said.