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Power to the People 

COCC president Dr. Shirley Metcalf serves as a role model for women and minorities

If Dr. Shirley Metcalf had led with her personal motto—"it's all about the people," a turn of phrase by way of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's book It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership—it might have come off as a shtick.

Instead, Dr. Metcalf, the fifth president of Central Oregon Community College and the first woman to hold the position, spends the first 10 minutes or so of an 8 am interview making small talk.

Despite the early hour, she is energized and engaged. Over the course of the conversation, Metcalf talks about her relationship with a variety of community members, from grocery clerks to Mt. Bachelor staff.

"I go to the grocery store," she says, "they call me Shirley." After the media coverage of her appointment to the presidency, staff at C.E. Lovejoy's would tell her, "Shirley, we didn't know you're a celebrity." After spending a year as the interim president for the college, Metcalf officially took the position in March.

And she knows their names and their stories. Like David, a grocery clerk and former COCC student who is finishing his degree at OSU-Cascades and was recently promoted to management. Metcalf points to him as one of the school's success stories.

Genuine and disarmingly friendly, Metcalf is the top administrator at COCC, but she is hardly a bureaucratic; her focus is on individuals, and their unique experiences and needs. She says the Hawaiian concept of "ohana"—a word that describes one's extended family and community—is her unofficial theme for the college.

"No one gets left behind or forgotten," she explains, referencing the children's movie Lilo & Stitch. "We have an open door mission."

It may be her first time serving in the role of president, but Metcalf knows a thing or two about running community colleges.

Just last year, Metcalf was honored by University of Hawaii Community Colleges (she'd previously served as chief academic officer at Hawaii Community College) for her contributions to the growth and innovation of the community colleges over the years. She also has served as executive vice president for instruction and vice president for advancement at Lake Washington Technical College, and is a member of the Affiliate Council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

And just as her focus on community colleges has been consistent and intentional, so too has her relationship with Bend. Metcalf first visited the area on her honeymoon some 30 years ago. (The "Most Improved Woman Skier" trophy she earned in a ski program at Mt. Bachelor sits on display in her office.) Over the years, she and her husband continued to visit, finally moving here in 2011 when Metcalf was hired as COCC's Dean of Extended Learning. During her time at COCC, she also did a brief stint as interim vice president for instruction and, most recently, interim president.

But Metcalf didn't apply for the job as president. In fact, the absence of any intention to vie for the presidency was a prerequisite for taking on an interim role, after the previous president departed a year ago. Then, when the first choice candidate backed out after a death in the family, the search committee made an offer to another, but that candidate was no longer interested. As they racked their brains for the next step, an obvious choice emerged: "What about Shirley?"

COCC College Relations Director Ron Paradis, who was present for board deliberations, says the vote to confirm Metcalf was "as close to unanimous as you get on a college campus."

"When they started talking to the folks on campus, that's when they realized that the right move was to just ask her to be the president," Paradis explains. "She had done such a great job as the interim and she had such great support."

When Metcalf started her career as an educator, she never dreamed she would end up in the president's office. Growing up in Hawaii in the 1950s, before Title IX, young women didn't have as many career options as they do today.

"When I was younger, there were only two options for women: teaching or nursing," she explains. Not being terribly fond of the sight of blood, she pursued an academic path.

Her first course load was a sign of the times, if not her future prospects. Metcalf started out teaching shorthand, business machines, and income taxes. She says she was lucky to have strong mentors. In 1979, she was selected to be the chancellor's administrative intern while maintaining her faculty status.

"It was a great opportunity to see what administration is like. That's when I thought, 'I can do this,'" she says, adding that she was drawn to the opportunity to play a broader, more visionary role.

Metcalf says it's not uncommon for women to stumble upon college leadership positions. In her 1990 dissertation, she studied the similarities and differences between women community college administrators and female corporate leaders.

"The women business executives knew their path, they knew they wanted to be a vice president by the time they were 40, they knew they wanted to be a president," Metcalf explains. "Community college administrators were like me."

As she advanced in her career, she found herself among the vanguard. Even today, women comprise just one third of community college presidents, and Asian Americans less than 2 percent. Metcalf says it's important for college leadership to reflect student demographics.

"When you look at the students who are in community colleges, most of them are women. A lot of them are single parents, they work part or full time, many of them are minorities," Metcalf says. "As opportunities for women increase, hopefully the percentages [in leadership] will increase."

Oregon is already ahead of the national average, with 10 of the state's 17 community colleges currently led by women. And in Central Oregon, both colleges have female presidents. But while Metcalf says she values the opportunity to serve as a role model for others, she doesn't see her accomplishments as part of a larger political cause.

"When you say 'feminist,' some people are so committed to a cause that they cannot see sometimes the other person's views or values," she explains. "I wouldn't say I'm a feminist with a capital F, but I'm very proud of women, and I would like to support women in leadership roles."

For those young women who aspired to academic leadership positions, Metcalf offers three points of advice: Get an education, have passion for the job, and find a mentor.

About The Author

Erin Rook

Erin is the Source Weekly's Associate Editor. Before moving to Bend in 2013, Erin worked as a writer and editor for publications in Portland including PQ Monthly and Just Out. He has also written for the Willamette Week, El Hispanic News, Travel Portland, OUT City, Boston magazine and the Taunton Daily Gazette...
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