When Dr. Jerry Sue Thornton retired last year after 21 years as president of Cuyahoga Community College, many people worried that she would leave the Cleveland area. To their relief, Thornton, president emeritus of the college, stayed.
The concern is a testament to her leadership on and off campus, says David Whitehead, a member and former chair of the Cuyahoga Community College District Board of Trustees.
Thornton stepped into a challenging situation when she accepted the presidency. Her predecessor left under “difficult circumstances,” Whitehead says.
“She had to build confidence and trust with her board, and gain the confidence and trust of the community and the business leadership,” he recalls. “She did it in a relatively short period of time and continued to build on that. … And she became one of the most influential people in Northeastern Ohio.”
As the third president—and first female leader—in the college’s 50-plus-year history, Thornton guided the school through unprecedented growth and development. She oversaw a surge in enrollment from 23,000 to 32,000 students. She campaigned to sustain the tax levy that supports the college. She grew its foundation from $1.3 million to nearly $40 million. She convinced the world-famous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum to house its archives on campus.
After a career that spans nearly 40 years, including one of the longest tenures of an urban campus president, Thornton’s legacy is firmly planted in the community college field and at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C), where a scholarship and a center bearing her name recognize her many contributions to the school.
Thornton is also the recipient of the 2014 Diverse Champions Award, in recognition of her exemplary leadership of Tri-C through an era of unprecedented change and growth while exemplifying the principles of diversity and inclusion in all facets of her tenure. The Champions Award was created by Diverse: Issues In Higher Education in 2012 upon the retirement of the inaugural Champions Award winner, Dr. John E. Roueche, who was director of the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin.
For the past year, Thornton has been working with her successor, Dr. Alex Johnson, to ensure a smooth transition at Tri-C. In July, she will move on to focus on her business, Dream Catcher Educational Consulting, which works with first-time college presidents and provides consulting in the areas of higher education leadership, coaching and mentoring, talent development, job performance and resource development.
The name refers to the Native American symbol that protects people from negative dreams and invites positive dreams. But dream catcher also resonates with the arc of Thornton’s extraordinary life—from coal miner’s daughter to community college leader.
Roueche, Thornton’s longtime friend and former professor, says he believes the best community college leaders often come from backgrounds similar to those of their students: working class and often the first in their families to attend college.
That is true of Thornton, who grew up in rural western Kentucky, the daughter of a union coal miner and a domestic worker. Her career would take her far from home, but she held on to the values of her upbringing.
“She is a person who is very much in touch with her inner core,” says Roueche, who says he views Thornton as family. “She is grateful and appreciative for opportunities she has had, coming from a small town. And whatever overcoming is, she’s overcome. Her deepest value is paying back and reinvesting in others as those who have gone before her have done for her.”
Roueche, who is president of the Roueche Graduate Center at National American University in Austin, Texas, met Thornton when she enrolled in the Community College Leadership Program (CCLP) at the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, Roueche was the director of the program, which was celebrated for educating a diverse who’s who of community college leaders.
Thornton and Roueche became close friends. He later taught and befriended Thornton’s childhood friend, Dr. Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges. After enrolling in the doctoral program, Thornton encouraged Bumphus, who was then a dean at Howard Community College in Maryland, to join the program. He came in as she was departing, assured by her enthusiasm for the program and his knowledge of Roueche.
Thornton grew up in Earlington, about a 30-minute drive from Princeton, Ky., Bumphus’ hometown.
“[They were] humble beginnings. Nobody was even middle class,” says Thornton. “We didn’t know it because nobody was rich and nobody was poor. We were all sort of the same.”
The two met in sixth grade through sports, church and community activities.
“She’s been like my big sister for a long time, and we’ve been great friends and colleagues,” says Bumphus.
They later attended Murray State University in Kentucky. Thornton was a year ahead. She had loans and a couple of jobs, she recalls, “but I piecemealed through the same way that Walter did.”
Both earned their bachelor’s and master’s degree at Murray State. Neither could have imagined at the time that they would end up in the same field. But in hindsight, Bumphus says he’s not surprised.
“Jerry and I both actually kind of got our start [in the community college field] at Murray State in an Upward Bound program. She was a teacher and I was a counselor there,” he says. “We both worked with disadvantaged students, and that’s where we got [our] start working with what were typical students at a community college. We both really saw the rewards of working with students in backgrounds similar to ours.”
Thornton was teaching high school when “this new thing called community college [came] along. And I thought, ‘Boy, that sounds interesting,’” she recalls.
Tapping into her alumni network, Thornton learned more about a teaching position in the English Department at Triton College in suburban Chicago. She joined the staff in 1971, during a period of dramatic growth for community colleges. The coal miner’s daughter, true to her union background, became president of a local union of the American Federation of Teachers.
Thornton taught English for seven years before she was asked to fill in for an assistant dean in 1978. That led to a stint as associate dean and, finally, an appointment as dean of arts and sciences.
Thornton graduated with her Ph.D. from CCLP in 1983. But she says she realized that, if she wanted to become a college president, she would have to leave Illinois. “It probably wasn’t going to happen in Illinois, because there were not minority presidents of higher educational institutions,” she says.
Previously, Thornton had applied for a dean’s position at Inver Hills Community College in Minnesota. However, she wasn’t ready to leave Triton the first time and withdrew from the presidency search. She was encouraged to apply for a position at Lakewood Community College in White Bear Lake, Minn., when she was ready to relocate. So, in 1985, Thornton moved to Minnesota to advance her career.
“When I talk to young people about presidencies and leadership positions—and with minorities in particular—I tell them we have to be willing to make the transitions necessary to acquire the jobs in states that are friendly and open to the idea,” Thornton says. “You have to make those sacrifices and have a willingness to make a move.”
In 1992, Thornton became president of Cuyahoga Community College. During her tenure, educators say Thornton cultivated a diverse workforce and a student-centered learning environment.
“A big piece of changing the culture in our community colleges is helping our faculty members understand that they are not teaching subjects. They are not teaching English and chemistry and history,” explains Thornton. “They’re teaching people, and that connectivity with that person makes a difference in the retention and completion and success of an individual.”
Thornton led by example, says Roueche, who visited the campus many times during her tenure. As a leader, she made a point of knowing the names of the faculty and staff. “I have yet to be with her anywhere on any campus when she didn’t know everybody we met by name,” he says.
Dr. Gerardo E. de los Santos, president of the League for Innovation in the Community College, says Thornton values diversity and has worked to create a campus where the leadership reflects the demographics of the student body and the community. “She has always not just understood, but practiced that value,” he says.
About 53 percent of Cleveland’s population is Black and 10 percent is Latino. Cuyahoga County is 30 percent Black and 5 percent Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Johnson plans to continue Thornton’s work to promote diversity among the faculty. “If you take a look at her cabinet she left there, it’s very diverse,” he says. “Of the four presidents who have been here at Tri-C, three of them have been of African-American descent. I think there’s really a commitment to diversity, inclusion and a multicultural environment, not only from inside the college, but in the community as well. Dr. Thornton certainly had a great deal to do with that.”
In 1993, Thornton hired Johnson as president of Tri-C’s Metropolitan campus in downtown Cleveland.
Thornton is a rare leader, he says.
“People hang on to her words. They are words of wisdom. They are words of encouragement. But, more importantly, they are words that really showcase her as a premier leader,” Johnson says. “She understands what community colleges should be doing to promote and facilitate the advancement of individuals in the community. She does that very, very well.”
Thornton insisted that the Metro campus be as well equipped as the other campuses.
“Dr. Thornton also felt that, simply because we have one of our campuses situated in the heart of Cleveland, it should not be reflective of what most people consider an urban campus,” says Johnson.
During her tenure, Thornton created programs that considered students’ needs and interests, from a music studio, which tapped into the proximity of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to courses aimed at new veterans. The college aggressively reached out to returning soldiers, offering job training and education.
Thornton also focused on how to create “programs that would be of interest to minorities” and provide ladders to the middle class. With support from former U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes, D-Ohio, she created the first SEMA (science, engineering, math and aeronautics) projects in the nation. She says SEMA pre-dated the emphasis on STEM.
Thornton developed other initiatives, some in conjunction with the Cleveland Municipal School District, to bring kids from city neighborhoods on campus so they would feel a sense of ownership of the college.
Her student-centered approach to education partly stems from her experience in segregated schools in Kentucky. Thornton attended segregated schools until her senior year in high school. Her teachers were her mentors and coaches who encouraged her to graduate and attend college.
She still visits her fourth-grade teacher when she goes home.
“There was pride from our teachers in the segregated school. There was this sense of direction … so I think we were driven,” Thornton says.
Though segregated schools perpetuated inequality, they instilled pride, says Thornton. It is this pride that she sought to impart in Tri-C’s students, especially on its urban campus in Cleveland, which has a large minority population.
Hired to serve
Thornton hired Johnson to be president of the Metro campus, in part because of his professional experience at a historically Black college in North Carolina, Winston-Salem State University.
“I need[ed] an African-American who ha[d] been at a historically Black university who [was] going to bring with him or her the pride that th[e] campus needs,” she says, recalling her decision-making process. “He turned that campus into the kind of school that I went to in high school.”
But changing the environment at the campus and throughout the college meant little if prospective students couldn’t afford to attend college. So Thornton also made sure that worthy students could have access to higher education through bolstering the college’s foundation.
“When I arrived, our foundation, if I’m remembering right, had about $1.5 million in our coffers,” she says. “Today, we’re close to $40 million as I walk away from this presidency.”
Thornton turned the annual president’s luncheon into a highly successful fundraiser that drew famous speakers like former President Bill Clinton, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and media mogul Oprah Winfrey. The appearance of these luminaries boosted the proceeds from the annual luncheon, which supports student scholarships.
“They are coming to us to help inner-city young people be able to go to school,” she says. “That’s a pitch, a strong pitch. Clinton felt it. You can see the people who have come.”
Because of her accomplishments, Thornton is in demand, nationally and internationally. In 2011, she was appointed co-chair of the 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, a national task force convened by the American Association of Community Colleges. The commission closely examines barriers to retention and completion at community colleges and recommends actions to address the issues.
“[Thornton] was an easy choice,” says Bumphus, who appointed the commission. “I was looking for thought leaders and leaders who had had outstanding experience, folks who really had helped to transform their institutions.
“People speak about her tremendous charisma, which she has, and her great leadership, which she has,” continues Bumphus. “But what also needs to be said is she is one of the smartest people I know, and nobody works harder. There’s no surprise in my mind that she was an outstanding president.”
Thornton shouldn’t be viewed from only a national lens, says Dr. Christine McPhail, a former president of Cypress College in California and managing principal of McPhail Group LLC.
“I don’t think that the U.S. can define her. She is that global,” says McPhail, referring to Thornton’s work in promoting the concept of a community college in Qatar and the Netherlands, among other nations.
McPhail worked with Thornton as a coach and advisor for the Achieving the Dream National Reform Network, an initiative that includes more than 200 community colleges, including Tri-C. The network works with students to help them succeed in college.
Thornton mentored McPhail before she became president of Cypress College. McPhail remembers an exchange prompted by her question about challenges faced by African-American women in higher education leadership. Thornton reminded her that the most important thing was to acquire the skills to lead, she says.
“There are people who have to force themselves upon you to convince them that they are a leader,” says McPhail. “She lives it and models it in everything that she does. There’s no separation from Jerry Sue Thornton on the job and when she meets you off the job. There’s consistency in how she presents herself as a person.”
De los Santos echoes McPhail’s sentiment. He first met Thornton when she was a guest lecturer in his class at the CCLP. She inspired the future generation of higher education leaders in his class—and set a high bar.
“She is so well respected that her practice and her model really serve as a beacon to those who are coming and standing on her shoulders,” he says.
Roueche says his longtime friend has simply followed her passion over the years.
“I think she would say that she’s always felt that her work was a calling and an opportunity to do for others what folks before her have done for her.”