James Kerley's Mission for Gulf Coast Community College
He’s known around campus as a cheerleader, risk-taker and visionary. His resume boasts three decades of community college experience — including 21 years as a community college president. Since June 2007, James Kerley has served as president of Gulf Coast Community College. He says that growing up in a farming family, where he was the first to go to college, helped shape his approach to leading the college.
Mission: Make a Difference How James Kerley is making sure that Gulf Coast Community College will enhance the region’s economic future By Lee Gordon
Originally published in the Aug/Sep 2010 issue of 850 Magazine
He’s known around campus as a cheerleader, risk-taker and visionary. His resume boasts three decades of community college experience — including 21 years as a community college president.
Since June 2007, James Kerley has served as president of Gulf Coast Community College. He says that growing up in a farming family, where he was the first to go to college, helped shape his approach to leading the college.
“I cherish the mission of open access, hope and opportunity,” Kerley says of community colleges. “Everyone has the opportunity to excel; no one is excluded from a college education. Giving someone a chance to enter college whose family previously did not have the same opportunity warms my soul.”
Kerley learned about his own potential as a young man in the U.S. Navy. He entered the military as a teenager and credits his Navy years with showing him the importance of teamwork and diversity.
“Having lived in a small town, I had not seen a diverse background of people, and the Navy gave me the opportunity to work and know people from many different backgrounds,” he says. “At the community college, diversity is a key element, and we continually celebrate it.”
His first job was as an adjunct professor and graduate assistant for the student teaching office at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Then it was on to Valdosta State University in Georgia, Union College in Barbourville, Ky., and a slew of community colleges in Kentucky, where he spent most of his professional career.
Kerley met his wife, Donna, while in the Navy. She, too, is an educator, most recently as the academic dean of Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky. Together, the Kerleys have more than six decades of education experience to pull from, and Gulf Coast Community College has taken advantage of his grassroots push toward academic achievement.
“I would never want to go anywhere else other than Gulf Coast,” James Kerley says. “It is a fine institution, and our goal is to continue to push it forward with great flexibility and agility and to meet the needs of our work force, which is constantly changing.”
The college is in the second year of a five-year comprehensive strategic plan to enhance education in Gulf, Franklin and Bay counties. Part of that plan includes a $30 million advanced technology center.
“(The new center) will address work-force skills,” Kerley says, “especially in high-skill and high-paying jobs. This facility will be a national model and will make a distinct difference in our region, especially with the new airport.”
Since he came on board, Kerley has been rolling up his sleeves, not only as president, but as a salesman of Gulf Coast Community College.
“Especially if it gives more opportunity to our students and our region we serve,” he says. “We have many goals, such as greater collaboration with our partners in education, business/industry and government. The future is bright at our institution because we are dealers of hope.”
Developing new programs for the green industry, information and technology, robotics and the health professions, as well as increasing access for more people to attend universities, is key to the area’s economic development, according to Kerley.
The strategic plan will add at least two new programs per year, focusing on excellence in teaching and academics and providing more opportunities for professional development for the Gulf Coast faculty. It will also allow the school to tap into the vast resources available in Bay County.
The plan is not as easy as it would appear. Enrollment is up, while state financial support is down. But despite the bumps in the road, Gulf Coast is determined not to let the downturn impede its progress.
“We continue to stay optimistic and innovative, having received over $4.5 million in new grant dollars last year, which helped us jump-start new programs and update technology,” Kerley says. “We have also expanded our e-learning dramatically, ensuring greater access for all students. We have an excellent college foundation that gives out hundreds of scholarships every year, and that has been a lifesaver for economically strapped students.”
Kerley has also reached out to businesses in Bay County, utilizing resources that could guide the school now and into the future.
“We have a group that I chair that is addressing future work-force needs, especially attracting high-tech and high-paying jobs,” he says. “One year ago, the college, The St. Joe Company, Gulf Power and Workforce Florida signed a (memorandum of understanding) to set up a model work-force development program.”
Kerley serves on various community boards, among them the Bay County and Panama City Beach chambers of commerce; the Bay County Economic Development Alliance; the Gulf Coast Workforce Board; and the Executive Leadership team of the American Heart Association. He has also been the recipient of a slew of major awards. Some of the biggest ones include the Kentucky Humanitarian Award, the Business of the Year Award and the Leadership Kentucky Recognition Service Award.
“Awards are nice to obtain, but the greatest awards are knowing one life has breathed a little easier because of my involvement as a community college leader,” Kerley says. “Seeing someone walk across the stage and receive the diploma brings tears to my eyes.”
Larry Henderson is one of those students. Henderson received a Purple Heart for his heroics in Iraq, where he was seriously injured on the battlefield. Now, after being discharged from the U.S. Army, he is attending Gulf Coast and, according to Kerley, has purpose and hope.
Lessie Flowers, a recent graduate, took more than 20 years and overcame major obstacles, but she walked across the stage and received her diploma.
“These are examples of hundreds of students who have moved my heart and touched me, and these are my true awards,” he says. “I received a couple of major awards in Lexington pinpointing my work to help and promote diversity, and I am pleased how I focused my efforts to make a difference in lives.”
Kerley has been presented with the opportunity to leave the community college sector and run a public university, but dropped out after being in the final two for the job, mainly because he truly loves the community college mission of open access and opportunity for all.
“We are at the grassroots of the community, where we can act quickly, if needed, and not get swallowed by red tape and bureaucracy,” he says. “As President Obama has indicated, the community colleges in the country are the key to economic recovery and retooling the work force, and are the open-door entry to higher education. Many people would not attend college if not for community colleges. We truly make a difference.”
Community Colleges in the Sunshine State
1,990 Campus buildings
12,583 Acres of land
$6 billion in Capital assets
What do Florida’s college students look like?
831,165 students: Total Unduplicated Annual Headcount (2007–08)
Student Profile (Fall 2008 “award-seeking” students):
38% Full-time students
62% Part-time students
25 Average student age
41% Minority enrollment
Enrollment by Degree Program
260,141: Associate in Arts Degree
193,560: Continuing Workforce Education
128,920: College & Vocational Preparatory
80,659: Associate in Science Degree
76,742: Recreation & Leisure
61,439: Adult Secondary
29,575: Vocational Certificates
15,841: College Credit Certificates
5,333: Bachelors Degree Program
3,365: Life Long Learning
Source: Florida Department of Education