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March 23, 2009 | last updated January 24, 2012 3:00 pm

John Fitzsimmons is Mainebiz's 2009 nonprofit Business Leader of the Year | John Fitzsimmons has guided Maine's community colleges into an era of unprecedented growth

Photo/David A. Rodgers
Photo/David A. Rodgers
John Fitzsimmons in a classroom at Southern Maine Community College

VIEW: See more John Fitzsimmons and Maine Community College System

John Fitzsimmons

Age: 59
Favorite place outside of work: Coaching kids on the football field
Course he'd like to take: Culinary Arts with Will Beriau at SMCC
Leadership icon: L.L. Bean's Leon Gorman, for his skill at absorbing and synthesizing information
Maine's biggest challenge: Rebuilding the middle class with a skilled work force
Maine's biggest opportunity: Investment in green technologies
Best business advice: "Never compromise long-term goals for short-term gains."

Maine Community College System

President: John Fitzsimmons
Founded:
2003, as the Maine Community College System
Employees: 846, excluding adjunct faculty
Annual budget: $122 million
Contact: 629-4000
www.mccs.me.edu

The administrative office in Augusta that oversees the seven campuses of the Maine Community College System is easy to miss. Housed in a nondescript three-story building on a dead-end road in the shadow of the state Capitol, the office lacks even a sign out front. Barely 20 people work there, but from within the walls of the unremarkable locale, John Fitzsimmons, longtime president of the system, navigates the demands of students, employees, legislators and businesses owners who all have a stake in the community colleges' success. And succeed they have. Reborn in 2003 from the state's technical college system, the schools have grown faster than even Fitzsimmons predicted, with enrollment swelling 63% in just six years, up 6.5% this academic year over last. A major initiative launched in 2008 resulted in seven new rural healthcare programs and applications for the fall semester are up more than 25%. After 19 years at the helm, Fitzsimmons is now seeing enrollment caps in many programs. The affordability, flexibility and beeline to post-graduation employment that the system provides are more attractive than ever. "Everything we offer is exclusively tied to the Maine economy," Fitzsimmons says. If the University of Maine System is the supertanker of education in Maine, "We're the speedboat of higher ed," he says. "Our job is to match up with the economy."

Watch an audio slideshow on John Fitzsimmons

During an era of consolidation, the system has emerged as a lean educational machine tailored to serve the needs of Maine's unique economic regions. Northern Maine Community College now offers the only wind energy technology program in New England, while Washington County Community College boasts an Adventure Recreation and Tourism program. The system offers scholarships to pay for childcare, a crippling impediment in rural areas for people struggling to pay for higher education. A former Marine with a copy of "The Art of War" on his desk, Fitzsimmons prizes practicality and focus, and his impatience for distraction is evident even in conversation. He preempts his own tangents with promises to deliver interesting or surprising nuggets of information, and then proceeds to stay pretty on point anyway. Focus on the system's mission underlies its phenomenal growth in recent years, from 3,300 students in 1990 to 15,000 today. "We refuse to spin a lot of extra plates," Fitzsimmons says. During that time, he has reduced the administrative staff from 29 to 19, though Ellyn Chase, Fitzsimmons' quietly expert assistant of 19 years, remains at his side. "He's a very kind-hearted individual," she says. "He has great compassion for his employees." Fitzsimmons relies on his employees, particularly the college presidents who mold each campus to serve its distinct region. It's why he doesn't mind that his office is located 25 miles from the nearest campus, and it perhaps explains the lack of a sign out front. Fitzsimmons' focus is elsewhere.

Reaching out

Maine's community college system remains the smallest in the nation, and Fitzsimmons says his greatest fear is that the Legislature will fail to provide funding essential to its growth. "I believe so deeply in what we're doing, it's sometimes challenging when it gets overlooked," he says. "We're not even close to tapping the potential of the community colleges." The state supplies 44% of the system's funding (about $4,000 per student), while tuition accounts for 25% and grants the remainder. The state has not added any new money to handle the system's additional 4,800 students since 2003, and tuition, frozen for six of the last eight years, for now remains an affordable $2,460 a year. A private research firm has found that even nominal increases threaten to price out the system's largely poor student population, Fitzsimmons says. "If we raise our cost $5 a credit hour, or $150 a year, we lose 22% of our enrollment."

It's a loss the business community can't afford. Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, points to the fact that more than 90% of the system's graduates find jobs in Maine. "That sounds mighty good to me," he says. Connors, a former colleague in Gov. John McKernan's Cabinet, where Fitzsimmons served as labor commissioner from 1987 to 1990, is a longtime admirer of Fitzsimmons' flexible and open leadership approach, he says. "John has always been one who listens very well and makes every attempt to adapt the system to the needs that exist in the business community," Connors says. "It is stated much easier than it is accomplished."

Not all businesses in Maine would agree, however. Many in the manufacturing sector have faulted Fitzsimmons and the system for failing to respond to its efforts to offer industry training. The autonomy he encourages has, in fact, complicated their efforts and led campuses to compete with one another, they say. Fitzsimmons counters that the system's new liberal studies program draws students into the system who often proceed to occupational training. Fitzsimmons says more students are enrolled today in construction and automotive programs than were five years ago. "Anyone who has concerns today is just using dated information," he says.

Some of the system's most recent successes resulted from a $6.6 million initiative last year aimed at making college more accessible to Maine's rural populations. Fitzsimmons met with 400 business and community leaders and traveled 2,400 miles in the early stages of the program, which has since served nearly 600 individuals and resulted in seven new health care programs. The initiative "energized" him, he says, in a job he's just as excited to have today as he was 20 years ago. He turned down the position three times, reluctant to leave McKernan's Cabinet, before his wife talked some sense into him, Fitzsimmons says.

Despite his years in state government and at the helm of the Community College System, Fitzsimmons has little bureaucratic air about him. Stocky and affable, he seems more like your kid's high school football coach. And he could be. Fitzsimmons has coached youth football for 18 years, the last three as head coach at Falmouth High School. In another life, he'd coach full time, he says. Not only does he "blow a whistle and people listen," but Fitzsimmons, father of two grown boys, relishes the front-row seat to the fun and foibles of adolescence. High school students are flooding the Community College System, and many pursue four-year degrees in the University of Maine System. "I think we're beginning to understand that our future is getting people past high school," Fitzsimmons says. "I hope the community colleges have a huge role in rebuilding the middle class of our state over the next decade."

Jackie Farwell, Mainebiz staff reporter, can be reached at jfarwell@mainebiz.biz

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