BY JON BELL // PHOTOS BY JUSTIN TUNIS
Take a quick glance at his early back story, and it would seem unlikely that Preston Pulliams would end up where he is today, at the helm of the largest post-secondary education institution in Oregon.
Born in Muskegon, Mich., the oldest in a family of six children, Pulliams was but an average student and a self-described ne’er-do-well in high school. He had to work to help support the family along with his father, a foundry worker who never had the opportunity for a formal education himself but who always pushed it for his children.
“My grades were not good,” says Pulliams, 64, a married father of two, “but even if I had been accepted at a college, I didn’t have the money to pay for it.”
But then something happened that shifted Pulliams’ tack: in 1966, the local Rotary Club awarded him a $600 scholarship, enough to pay for two years at Muskegon Community College.
|Portland Community College
|President: Preston Pulliams|
|Employees: 3,500 staff and faculty|
|General fund budget, 2009-11: $327.6 million
|Locations: Three campuses, five workforce centers,
200 community sites
|Number of students: 93,800 full- and part-time|
“It was really a blessing because it got me started,” he says.
Fast-forward through the next nearly 40 years — through an associate’s degree at MCC; undergraduate and graduate degrees from Michigan State University, Western Michigan University and the University of Michigan; and stints in education and community college administration in Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania — to find Pulliams bringing his first-hand passion for community colleges to Portland Community College, where he became the college’s fifth president in 2004.
“I’m in love with what I do,” he says, “because I know what it can do.”
Affable and relaxed, with the easy smile of someone who seems glad to be where he is, Pulliams has guided PCC through a lively era of double-digit growth — the poor economy has driven up enrollment by 30% over the past two years — budgetary squeezes and the passage of a $374 million bond in 2008, the largest education bond in Oregon history. He’s done it, he says, by staying out of the way of what an already-renowned organization had long been doing by the time he arrived — offering cutting-edge programs, focusing on workforce development and building strong community partnerships — and by imparting his zeal to his team.
“I believe that the most powerful instrument I have is how I go about my business,” says Pulliams, a photography buff who’s honed his skills — and his in-touch management style — by taking classes at PCC every term.
It’s also involved maintaining and strengthening ties with the business community. PCC, which serves nearly 94,000 students, works closely with companies like Intel and Vigor Industrial to train tomorrow’s workforce. Local businesses also ponied up most of the $500,000 needed for PCC’s successful bond campaign in 2008.
“They realize that we are one of the keys to a viable economic environment here,” Pulliams says.
The president counts the bond as his top achievement at PCC to date. Thanks to it, the school is expanding distance learning and workforce programs — cutting down wait lists for programs like nursing and welding — upgrading equipment, and adding new centers in Newberg, Sherwood and Beaverton. One drawback: PCC has nearly $400 million in bond money to invest strictly in infrastructure, but because of the state’s current budget crunch, funding for new staff is thin.“We have the money for facilities, but we are nervous about what’s going to be there for hiring new faculty and staff,” Pulliams says, “We just want to ride this out, but we’re going to finish on schedule in the end.”
The enrollment increases at PCC do bring in more tuition money, which has given the college a financial cushion. But it’s also put more demand on programs and financial aid resources. Pulliams says the Portland Community College Foundation gives out about 400 scholarship grants a year to students in need; 800 apply.
A huge advocate of making higher education accessible to anyone, Pulliams has made it a priority to bolster the college’s fund-raising efforts. When he arrived in 2004, PCC was raising close to $400,000 a year for financial aid through its foundation; in 2010, the total approached $3 million. He’s also readying a five-year, $25 million capital campaign to help ensure that anyone who wants to attend PCC — much the way he was able to jump-start his own future at a community college back in Michigan four decades ago — can.
“My vision is that no one is turned away from PCC due to financial reasons,” he says. “This state still has a reputation of being one of the lowest in the country in terms of the percentage of high school students who go on to college. I think that’s dismal, and I want to do everything in my power to raise that number.”