Doug Robinson: Champion of the community college

Published: Monday, Oct. 21 2013 9:47 p.m. MDT

TAYLORSVILLE — Cynthia Bioteau, who will soon leave her post as president and CEO of Salt Lake Community College, will be missed by the school, not only for what she did, but also for what she didn’t do.

For one thing, she didn’t follow the crowd by turning another community college into a university, which inevitably leads to the creation of a football team, which would have raised tuition and student fees to build practice facilities, locker rooms and a stadium, followed by a push to become Division I and bowl eligible and other things that have nothing to do with education.

Over the years, SLCC’s peers have rushed off to become universities in pursuit of ego, funding and prestige — please see the former Weber State College, Dixie College, Utah Valley Technical College, Carbon College — but SLCC has remained true to its mission, the school for Everyman.

On Bioteau’s watch, SLCC has expanded to 13 campuses around the valley — soon to be 14 — with classes from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. to accommodate the diverse needs of 60,000 students.

“Utah was losing their community colleges; everyone wanted to grow up to be a University of Utah,” says Bioteau (BEE-oh-toe). “I believe so deeply in the role of the community college.”

Name another school president who personally calls students each semester to ask why they didn’t return to school to complete their degrees: Not enough money or time? Can’t get in certain classes? How can she help?

She believes the community college’s role has never been more urgent, with a challenging job market and changing demographics. “All states are starting to feel the influx of different ethnicities,” she says. “The community college is your safety net to educate these people.”

Bioteau envisions community colleges as the grass-roots of advanced American education, no test scores or GED required. They consist of high school dropouts getting their GEDs, students filling their general ed requirements at one-third of the price before matriculating to a university, professionals and blue-collar workers returning for more training to obtain promotions or raises, middle-agers coming back simply for self-improvement, foreigners trying to learn English, college grads returning for education that is more applicable in the job market (curiously, 11 percent of SLCC’s students hold bachelor’s or master’s degrees).

“For a long time, the culture of Utah equated higher ed with a university, and that worked 20 years ago,” says Bioteau. “But the responsiveness of a skilled workforce requires constant and creative adaptations to the curriculum — how you create programs, how you respond to businesses and employers.”

SLCC offers associate degrees and industry-based certifications that are directly correlated with the needs of local businesses. Result: Employers not only are waiting with open arms for graduates, they are the ones who asked SLCC to provide a program for their employees or future employees and then helped design it.

“We will work with employers and within six weeks we can create a program of training that the company needs for their employees, either on site or at a leased site next door to their company,” says Bioteau, who notes, for instance, that SLCC has a campus at Salt Lake International Airport to offer aviation training.

SLCC has 120 programs, including criminal justice, homeland security, public safety, culinary arts, biotechnology, bio-manufacturing, automotive, nursing and a police academy complete with a dorm, plus an entire campus devoted to medical-related occupations — nursing, physicians assistants, occupational therapy, radiological tech.

“If I have a pain in my left side, I’m going to call an ambulance to transport me to the medical center,” says Bioteau, beginning a favorite narrative. “When the ambulance comes, I hope it’s been maintained by a graduate of the automotive program at SLCC. And the EMT who jumps out and stabilizes me is also educated by SLCC. And when I get to the U. of U. medical center, it’s not a doctor who meets me, it’s a triage nurse in the emergency room who is also educated at SLCC. If those pieces have not been in place, if these people are not trained at SLCC, I never would have survived to meet the doctor at the hospital. A community needs all those pieces.”

Bioteau, a pleasant and youthful 60-year-old who has worked 12 to 14 hours a day for SLCC, comes by her passion for the community college and education personally. Growing up in a small town in New Hampshire, she made the town library her connection to the outside world and education in general. She began a career in education and special ed, but took 12 years off to raise two children, along with sheep and blueberries. She and her husband, Frank, ate what they grew and hunted. When her children were grown, Bioteau returned to education and discovered community colleges.

“Suddenly, I found my place,” she says. “It was unlike any environment I had been in. The students valued their education. It was life skill and survival. I was just so humbled by the various people from so many walks of life that led students to get that education.”

She earned a doctorate and in 2005 overcame long odds to land the president’s position at SLCC. She was the only woman among the five finalists, and an outsider to boot, but she aced the interviews with her knowledge of the local culture and educational challenges.

“She has been a breath of fresh air,” says Gail Miller, who was a member of the selection committee. “She is a role model for women who aspire to be in positions of trust and responsibility, because she is good at it. You don’t have to be pompous to do a good job. Watch her methods.”’

Those who know Bioteau tend to gush like that about her. Scott Anderson, the Zions Bank executive who has served on several boards with Bioteau (his wife Jesselie is on the board of trustees), says, “She’s a remarkable person. Look at the results she has delivered at SLCC. She’s a dynamite woman who has great thought processes.”

“She’s a treasure,” says Marlin Jensen, a member of the Utah Board of Regents. “I’ve never seen anyone who has a better grasp of the issues of her realm of responsibility. We all realize we have a jewel there who could go anywhere in the country and pay her more.”

Now that is exactly what will happen. Last week Bioteau was named president of Florida State College at Jacksonville, a job she will likely begin in January. Bioteau and her husband had planned to retire in Florida someday. In the meantime, she will continue her mission of education and the value of community colleges.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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