RALEIGH, N.C. — The next president of North Carolina’s community college system said Thursday he will continue to focus energies on helping train the state’s work force to compete in a high-tech economy.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a more important time for the community college system than right now and in the next few years,” Dr. Scott Ralls told the State Board of Community Colleges after its members selected him unanimously as president. “I don’t like to make promises, but the one thing I will promise you is that I will give it everything I have because I love this state.”
The board chose Ralls, the president of Craven Community College for the past five years, in a vote that drew an unusual amount of attention following the system’s decision to admit undocumented immigrants at all of its campuses.
Ralls will be paid $275,000 annually and will start his new job April 1. He takes the place of Martin Lancaster, a former congressman and who announced last winter he would retire next year after taking the post in 1997.
The board met in closed session to speak individually with Ralls and two other finalists: Kennon Briggs, the system’s vice president for business and finance, and City College of San Francisco Chancellor Philip Day.
Ralls, only 43, already had worked in economic and work force development at the system office and at the Department of Commerce before going to Craven.
“In his background and our exchanges, it was just felt that his energy and his personal nature would contribute to the work” of the system, Herbert Watkins, chairman of the presidential search committee, said after the vote.
Ralls will take over the nation’s third largest community college system, with 58 campuses system serving more than 800,000 students. The system continues to face strong pressure to retrain workers laid off from traditional jobs in textiles, furniture and tobacco.
“We’re making a transition to a new economy,” Ralls told reporters. “There’s a number of different, new opportunities and we have great international challenges, but our system was created to deal with those challenges.”
The conclusion of the presidential search comes a week after a new system policy — directing all of the campuses to admit applicants even if they didn’t have proof they were in the country lawfully — became public.
Lancaster has defended the policy, saying the system has had an open-door admissions policy since the forerunner to the state’s community colleges opened its doors in 1958.
Ralls’ campus did permit undocumented immigrants to enroll but he wasn’t aware if any undocumented immigrants attend classes there. He said he wasn’t asked about the policy during the interview and spoke carefully to reporters about the topic afterward.
“As an educator my instinct is to want the benefits of education to be broad as possible,” Ralls said, adding that he understood the campus was built with generations of North Carolina taxpayer money.
Attorney General Roy Cooper is reviewing the legality of the policy approved last month. The General Assembly also could restrict enrollment if it chose.
“I understand as educators that we do not make the decisions about who will attend the community college system,” Ralls said.
The change has elicited a strong response from conservative groups and others who want strict enforcement of federal immigration laws, specifically those that bar undocumented immigrants from working in the country.
The five leading major party candidates for governor are all opposed to the policy change, although Gov. Mike Easley, who is barred from seeking a third consecutive term, supported the system’s decision.
Also Thursday, a University of North Carolina system spokeswoman said President Erskine Bowles wants UNC to examine closely the pros and cons of allowing undocumented immigrants in North Carolina to pay in-state tuition to attend system campuses.
A panel examining the system’s long-term future presented the idea at a meeting as one of several potential strategies the UNC Board of Governors may want to examine to increase enrollment among Latinos, Black males and others. The General Assembly would have to make any change.
“I have no doubt that this is something that will be studied,” said system spokeswoman Joni Worthington, adding that neither Bowles nor the panel endorsed or rejected the idea.
A 2005 bill that would have allowed the in-state tuition and backed by former Gov. Jim Hunt died without a vote after vocal opposition.
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