From the window of her new fourth-floor office on the Grays Harbor College campus, Carli Schiffner can watch, with a near-encompassing view, as the campus rises below her.
Inside a construction site occupying a sizeable chunk of the current campus, cranes and excavators toil around the skeleton of what will be, in less than a year’s time, a sleek, $50 million, 70,000-square-foot student services building — the new “heart of campus” in Schiffner’s words.
“It’s not so welcoming with the chain link fence and all of that, but it’s going to be,” Schiffner said.
As the campus transforms its aesthetic, it’s also in the midst of ushering in a new era of leadership, with Schiffner at the helm.
The college’s board of trustees in February chose, unanimously, Schiffner to take over as the college’s next president, bringing two decades of community college experience to GHC — including the last few years as a top administrator with oversight of the state’s entire community college system.
Her desk still mostly empty, Schiffner has made weekly trips from Olympia to her new office over the last few months, the goal to settle in and hear the excitements and challenges from the people of Grays Harbor College. She’s also learning as much as she can from her predecessor Dr. Ed Brewster, who served as GHC president from 2004 to 2016 and came out of retirement to become interim president in 2020.
It’s the experience in Olympia — and the network of connections attached to it — that could prove to be the most influential as Schiffner guides GHC.
Schiffner is, although not for much longer, the deputy executive director of education for the State Board for Community of Technical Colleges, a statewide system of 34 community colleges overseen by a nine-member governor-appointed board. Her job was to coordinate funding needs of community colleges around the state, and later advocate those needs to the state. When it comes to securing funding for community colleges, the system works more efficiently when colleges identify overlapping needs rather than asking independently, she said.
The last few years have given her hands-on experience navigating the state Legislature, supporting and changing direction of bills in the interest of the community college board. At the same time, she’s familiar with the 33 other community college administrations around the state.
Despite her status as a state leader in education, when she first started out, she never saw herself as an administrator — an “old school” job, she thought at the time.
A first generation college student from North Seattle, she graduated from Bothell High School and attended Gonzaga University — “before they had a winning basketball team” — where she received her bachelor’s degree in history in 1997. After receiving her master’s degree from a small private college in New Jersey, she returned to the Evergreen State to work on her Ph.D at Washington State University.
She was 29, doing doctoral research and teaching remotely at Lewis and Clark College, and thought she had it made. The people around her suggested she try administrative work. She did so under the assumption she would return to teaching, but instead her career took off — she went on to administrative positions in upstate New York, then at Yakima Valley and Wenatchee Valley community colleges.
“I loved being able to solve a problem, not just in my classroom and impact 30 or 35 students, but now I get to impact an entire campus, or a division or a department,” Schiffner said. “With each progressive leadership role I’ve taken on since that time, it’s because I get to see the greater impact happen.”
One common thread of those past positions: They’ve all landed her in rural areas, which she prefers. Her connection to Grays Harbor predates her new job — she and her husband bought a home in Westport three years ago and “fell in love with Grays Harbor.”
Since then, she’s split time between that home and one in Olympia.
“We have spent every waking moment we could out of Olympia and in Westport,” Schiffner said. “We just loved it. We loved the area, we loved the people, we loved the region.”
Schiffner said part of the appeal for Grays Harbor College, like many small schools in rural areas, is a more intimate integration with the surrounding community.
“We are one in the same, our community and our college,” she said. “So many of our employees are graduates of our college, and so many people that we hire and retain are people who live in our community and know our students.”
“There’s a real sense of pride here and commitment to the college that you don’t necessarily see in an urban area,” she added.
In Schiffner’s view, it’s up to community colleges to “meet people where they are,” which might involve extending reach to outlying areas. Schiffner said she wants to more fully utilize education centers in Raymond and Ilwaco, while working on expanding services to tribal communities of the Shoalwater, Chinook and Chehalis tribes, noting that the college’s programs for tribal students already have a robust foundation.
Schiffner also has experience developing the unique relationship between community colleges and prisons. According to student enrollment numbers from last year, GHC serves more than 500 people — about 20% of the school’s student body — at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, its neighbor just down State Route 105, helping inmates work toward further education and work toward employment.
GHC has one of the best reputations in the state for educating incarcerated individuals, Schiffner said, crediting the work of Jayme Peterson, dean of education for Stafford Creek.
In her position with the state board, Schiffner recently worked to reauthorize the contract between the board and the state Department of Corrections, allowing colleges to continue serving people at the prison.
Seeking students in outlying areas could also help ease the college’s overall downward trend in student enrollment, a problem facing the community college system at large. Declines in enrollment at GHC, according to Schiffner, are not as severe as the state average, and have improved since the start of the pandemic, but still are not at ideal numbers.
Schiffner said solutions entail continuing relationships with K-12 schools around Grays Harbor, ensuring current students are on track to graduate, and reengaging adults who have partial college credit but no degree — of whom there are over one million in Washington state, according to Schiffner. She said a big part of her past work involved creating policy to remove barriers for students in admissions and graduation requirements.
For recruitment, come winter 2024, she’ll have the help of the flashy new Student Services and Instructional Building, a three-story center capped with a commercial kitchen for the culinary arts program. Supporting students from intake to graduation is the priority of the building, but it will also act as a bridge between the college and the community.
“We have to make sure we are inviting people to the campus, making sure people have reasons to be up here, whether they are registered students or not,” Schiffner said.
Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or firstname.lastname@example.org.