Gateway's new president has a tall order
FLORENCE – Fernando Figueroa has an electric blue Squier Stratocaster guitar sitting in the corner of his new office at Gateway Community and Technical College.
Her name is Marilyn and he bought her four years ago to remind himself that he’s a human being first and he works at a community college second.
“It also reminds me that creativity is more important than the challenge in front of you,” Figueroa said.
His current challenge, as of Aug. 1, is to lead Gateway as its new president.
Figueroa has served students in higher education for 23 years from classroom instruction to administration, most recently as vice chancellor for educational policy at Dallas County Community College in Texas. This will be his first time serving as president.
The challenge for Figuera will be stabilizing and strengthening Gateway's position in Greater Cincinnati.
He enters the role amid cuts in state funding by Gov. Matt Bevin, which has forced the Kentucky Community and Technical College System and college administrators to cut programs and lay off employees. The institution also faces enrollment decline, increased fixed costs and questions about its performance on workforce development.
Figueroa says he will approach the job with creativity, collaboration and the community in mind.
"What I aspire to is being a creative individual who helps others discover their talents and abilities," Figueroa said. "The presidency and working in a community college are tools to do that."
Q & A with Fernando Figueroa, president of Gateway Community and Technical College:
1. What do you see as the role of community colleges, specifically Gateway, playing in Greater Cincinnati in the realm of higher education?
"The pressure of the middle skills gap, the need for high-tech jobs and the increasing percentage of jobs that are a doorway to the middle class requiring some sort of post-secondary credential has really tightened the focus of community and technical colleges on providing those guided pathways to a living wage."
He said community college are uniquely designed to connect with every constituency, from high schools to employers to legislators.
"We are a hub for the conversations that really allow for the advancement of the community and its vision."
2. How will Gateway meet the needs of the community, from professors to students to business leaders, and what will you do to make that happen?
"I’m going to hear you and see you. And by listening to you, what I commit to is bringing the people together necessary to develop the plans and ideas to create the things that will make us happy."
He said the key areas are manufacturing, improving the nursing program and Gateway’s relationship with Allied Health and the school’s new transportation center for logistics and truck driver and diesel mechanic training.
"We are also going to do research on where the jobs are that provide living wages in this area and then align our programs so that students have a target for a living wage job that they can achieve through their time with us."
3. With the recent budget cuts and what seems to be a continued divestment in higher education, what do you think needs to be done here to take that hit and still prosper?
He said combating budget cuts involves being creative and flexible with the Gateway Foundation to come up with additional funding, pursuing grants for the county and city, and exploring private/public partnerships with business and industry leaders.
“My strategy is to have those conversations as a region instead of individual sectors… because if you look at it from individual sectors state funding creates levers that kick off problems throughout the community.”
He said if each sector focuses on its role and works together as a region, “then we have a chance of addressing all the potential resources available to us and creating a community that we want and not just in pieces and parts.”
5. Do you see that there is a distrust that exists between the community and Gateway that you are looking to mend?
"You can never underestimate the power of the new person on the block... I’m not from Kentucky, I’m not from the system or a previous employee of Gateway. What I bring is that newness and opportunity for developing a new relationship.
There are great opportunities for people to come together in common cause to say we can work this, we can build a community that we want."
GATEWAY'S NEW PRESIDENT AT A GLANCE
Name: Dr. Fernando Figueroa
Hometown: New Orleans, Louisiana
Education: Ph.D., and Master of Arts in English from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Loyola University.
Salary: $187,000 and $1,000 monthly automobile allowance
Contract: Two years
Family: His wife, Debbie, is a professional artist, and he has four children and three grandchildren.
Fun Fact: He appreciates a good cafe au lait and a great rock ‘n’ roll riff. He plays guitar and records and publishes his own music.