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Community College President's Spotlight | Tony Zeiss, Ph.D. | April 2010
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A NACCE Entrepreneurial President Profile

Tony Zeiss, Ph.D., Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, NC


These are challenging times in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina's largest county and home of Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC). The county seat, Charlotte, is the nation's second largest financial center so the region's economy has been pummeled as the financial giants headquartered there shed thousands of jobs. This translates into challenging times for Tony Zeiss, who became president of CPCC in 1992. During his 18-year tenure Zeiss has overseen the growth of CPCC from one campus to six; with a student body of approximately 70,000, CPCC is now the state's largest college and enjoys a national reputation for workforce development, expertise that is surely helpful in such times.

"Our big challenge is to help put people back to work,” says Zeiss "That involves not just the supply side of that equation but the demand side, too, so we're busy trying to recruit jobs here. We worked hard to get stimulus money so we could develop fast track programs to train people in new professions where the jobs are before their unemployment runs out. With financial sector professionals, this has been more difficult because most of the stimulus money is designed to help people with entry level jobs. But we were successful in being awarded one of the Bright Futures grants from WalMart that targets people in the professional area.”

"During the recession we have increased our Institute for Entrepreneurship activities greatly,” adds Zeiss. "The Institute started as a small business development center in the 1980s when a lot of similar centers began. We have evolved the Institute into a more comprehensive center that provides more than just information on how to write a business plan. Along with numerous other courses, the Institute offers a 40-hour, in-depth noncredit certificate program using the New Ventures Entrepreneurship curriculum from the Kauffman Foundation. We help people with networking, and we provide resources from SCORE. The number of people who come for business counseling has doubled, which tells us there are a lot of people–especially professionals who have been laid off–who have decided to hang out their own shingle. We really encourage that if it makes sense for them.”

Internal Entrepreneurship

"At least 10 years ago I resolved to help the college develop a core value of entrepreneurialism because I knew that we had to help ourselves,” says Zeiss. "Enrollments continued to go up and state funding continued to go down–we're funded by both the county and the state. For the good of the college we had to become more university like in terms of funding, so I decided to make entrepreneurship a core value of the college. We wanted more people, especially faculty, to become entrepreneurial. There's no reason why community colleges can't have the same kind of endowments that universities have. Often, small rural colleges say, ‘We can't do that.' Well, yes, you can do it in proportion to the size and wealth of your community.”

To help make this shift, Zeiss used a formula he had developed regarding change. "People don't like change,” he notes. "We like things that are familiar. So here's my formula: First, you have to establish the need and create a little anxiety. The need is: how are we going to continue to operate with increased enrollment and decreased funding? Then create a vision. In our case, it was to create an educational enterprise. We're not going to sit around and wring our hands about not having enough money and turning students away. Let's get proactive and raise some money and help ourselves.”

Innovation in Action

"The third part of formula has to be tied to an existing core value; if you don't' do that, then change takes a long time,” he continues. "Probably the most prevalent core value this college has is innovation, so we decided to be the best innovators of entrepreneurialism in the country. That ties very closely into our vision, which is to be the nation's leader in workforce development. You can't become a national leader in workforce development if you don't have the money to help recruit jobs and train people for the jobs. Hence, entrepreneurialism makes sense.”

The fourth part of Zeiss's change formula is to provide incentives to encourage the change you want. "That's very important,” he says. "We started a separate nonprofit that lets us get into the fee for services business; it's called the CPCC Services Corporation. Through this organization, if a faculty or staff member has a good idea and wants to start something or write a book or do a series of DVDs, we can give them the seed money to do it. When they start making money, a percentage of it goes to them, another percentage goes to their department, and the rest goes back into the corporation to fund the college. For example, if I need some of that money to hire more part-time teachers I can do that. So we are helping to control our own destiny instead of letting circumstances control us!”

The CPCC Service Corporation's initiatives include a Center for Applied Research, the CPCC Press, a world-class conference center, and the Overcash Performing Arts Center. To keep ideas flowing into the CPCC Services Corporation, Zeiss established the President's Entrepreneurial Council. "The council has 25 of our very bright and very entrepreneurial and interested people from faculty and staff and one-third of the members rotate every year,” he says. "We meet four times a year for one reason: to centralize new entrepreneurial ideas that can generate all kinds of revenue. It has become prestigious to be part of this council.”

Advice from the Corner Office

Asked what advice he would give to other community college presidents who are trying to bring entrepreneurial thinking to their campuses, Zeiss says, "My first advice is to use that change formula because you have to have your faculty and staff with you; people have to own it and buy into it or it doesn't work.”

"You have to reward the behavior you desire,” he says. "Several years ago, we established the Entrepreneur of the Year award and other awards that are related to entrepreneurialism. These usually have money associated with them.”

"It helps to network with other people of like minds and share best practices,” Zeiss adds. "That's how NACCE has been most helpful to me. For instance, meeting with Andrew Scibelli, the former president at Springfield Community Technical College where NACCE was founded, and doing some things together and sharing ideas with each other is one example of that network–that is where the real value of NACCE has been for me.”

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