James Horton has never seen Baton Rouge Community College, but he is set to take over BRCC as its interim chancellor July 5.
“I haven’t even visited the campus yet,” Horton said with a laugh, before adding that he is ready to hit the ground running.
However, Horton, 67, has worked as a community college president for nearly 30 years in Texas and Arizona, so he is not too worried.
“I’m just going to be on a real steep learning curve,” Horton said during a phone interview. “But there’s not a challenge I haven’t faced … I’ve been in the community college business for a long time and really enjoyed it.”
Horton is retiring this month as the president of Yavapai College in Arizona. The community college in Yavapai County has about 9,000 students. Similarly, BRCC enrolls nearly 8,500 students.
“They’re doing something really right,” Horton said of BRCC’s rapid growth.
Horton is replacing Myrtle Dorsey, who recently left BRCC to become the new chancellor of St. Louis Community College.
Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Joe May said he wanted an older outsider for the interim position at BRCC — someone who was not looking for a job beyond the short term.
Horton, a University of Illinois graduate, could serve in the job until the end of the calendar year or as long as through the fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2012. “It’s very open-ended,” he said.
May said he will work with the Association of Community College Trustees to start a national search as soon as July.
In the meantime, Horton said, he is not planning to make wholesale challenges, but rather to help BRCC grow and adopt more online programs and offerings.
“Shaking things up is not my approach,” he said. “I’m a very collaborative person.”
Herald Harrington, the Yavapai County Community College District board member and spokesman, said Horton is a personable, but strong leader.
“He’s very active in the community — everybody knows him,” Harrington said. “We would call Jim a ‘good ole boy.’ He’s very down to earth. He’s an educated guy, a Ph.D. guy, but he doesn’t talk like it.”
Although Horton is yet to set foot on the BRCC campus, he said he is very familiar with southern Louisiana. His previous wife, who is deceased, was a native of Algiers with most of her family in Houma. So there were frequent trips to Louisiana over the years, he said.
Prior to Yavapai, Horton worked for years in Texas heading up North Lake College near Dallas and then the San Jacinto College District outside of Houston.
After his wife died, he said he wanted a change and took a higher education job in the United Arab Emirates before returning and moving to Yavapai six years ago.
“I was really ready to do something different,” Horton said of moving to the Middle East for three years. “It was a humbling experience to be in a totally different culture like that.”
Last year, Horton thought he was all set to retire and told Yavapai College he would step down at the end of this month.
Instead, Horton decided he would take interim jobs, partly as an excuse to travel the country and continue working with community colleges.
“I’ve got a lot of energy,” he said. “I enjoy traveling, and I just decided hiking the trails and mountains wasn’t enough.”
“It was the shortest retirement in history,” Harrington joked. “I wish he was 11 years younger so he wouldn’t retire.”
At Yavapai, Harrington said, Horton really focused on improving student achievement, as well as career and technical training.
“He really gets that community college systems have to be keyed into economic development,” Harrington said. “A lot of higher education people don’t get that.”
A lot was accomplished under Horton, Harrington said, despite unprecedented higher education budget cuts in Arizona.
There were layoffs and program cuts, Harrington said, but inclusiveness and strategic planning by Horton allowed tough choices to be made without weakening the college, when Horton could have passed on the problems to his successor.
“It was a tough process, but now we feel we’re sustainable without the state funds,” Harrington said.
At BRCC, Horton will receive a prorated pay package of $206,000, which is what Dorsey made.
Horton said he looks forward to understanding how BRCC fits within the larger Baton Rouge community.
Horton said he favors more “hybrid approaches,” utilizing a mix of classroom education and more online courses to save money and also potentially increase revenues.
“The whole field of higher education is just fundamentally changing,” Horton said. “You have to more and more be really competitive.”
That means achieving multiple goals of training students for the workforce, educating adults, improving continuing education for those who want to advance their careers and also, he said, serving as a bridge for students who want to transfer to universities like LSU.
“You really do have to balance all your resources,” he said.
But the next step is getting to Louisiana. Horton will experience the Fourth of July in Baton Rouge, but the fireworks will start the next day when he takes over BRCC.