Neil Aspineall was named chancellor of Sowela Technical Community College in April. (Donna Price / American Press)
Last Modified: Monday, June 11, 2012 10:59 AM
Newly hired Sowela Technical and Community College Chancellor Dr. Neil Aspinwall has an extensive background in education.
He has served as a high school teacher and assistant principal, director of adult education, director of instruction and vice president of economic development at Okefenokee (Georgia) Technical College and vice president of Economic Development and vice president of Enrollment and Student Services at Waycross (Georgia) College.
Aspinwall entertained questions recently from the American Press editorial board regarding his assessment and vision for Sowela.
American Press: What prompted you to apply for the Sowela chancellor position:
Neil Aspinwall: Many people have asked me that question. I began researching the Louisiana Community and Technical College System about a year-and-a-half ago and what prompted me and got me interested is because the things that are going on in the LCTCS are the same things that went on in the Georgia system about 15 years ago.
I say that in a good way because about 10 or 15 years ago, the technical colleges in Georgia were part of the public school system and they weren’t doing too well because the funding came from the state to the public schools and then it was funneled or what I call drip-dropped out to the technical schools. So when Georgia formed its state technical college system we all went under one umbrella and we all started getting our own funding and we started getting stronger. And I see that’s what is happening with the LCTCS with Dr. (Joe) May’s leadership and the board of supervisors.
When these colleges are under one board of supervisors, the budget money is better, I see the facilities being increased and being enhanced and another offshoot of that is even the adult education system in Georgia was part of the public school system. As of last year, the adult education system has become part of the LCTCS and that is wonderful because now it is, in my opinion, where it should be in the technical college system that can devote the time and the resources .
So what I saw is what I was familiar with and I said, ‘‘Hey, I’ve been through this, I know where this system is headed and I think I can contribute and it excites me.’’
I’ve been in both systems. I’ve been in what we call the traditional technical college system and then about five years ago I left the technical college system and went into what Georgia calls the university system and I constantly fought the battle with one group saying, ‘‘Well, the regents education is better than the technical college education.’’
And I always said, no, it’s not. Both of these systems are excellent systems and we serve, in many instances, the same group of students and a lot of times we have different missions, but when you put the two together like Sowela has done in a true community college system, you have the best of both worlds. And that’s what is happening.
I love the technical college part and I love the transfer part. So you have the best of either type of student — the one that wants to come get short-term technical training or get a technical degree or that student that finishes that technical training and then wants to transfer to a four-year institution. We can do that. That’s what excites me and that’s what got me interested and then I threw my hat in the ring and came to Louisiana for the first time and they seemed to like me. So, here I am.
What are Sowela’s strengths?
I think one of the strengths — and this is actually my fourth official day on the job (Monday, June 4) — I think the faculty and staff is one of the strengths. Usually, you will find someone who will come to you and say, ‘‘Let me tell you where our challenges are, let me tell you what’s wrong.’’ I’ve yet to hear that. Now, granted it’s only my fourth day. But everyone is positive, everyone is pulling together and the strength is they know the technical college side and I’m sure you are aware we are starting our COC Accreditation process and they are excited about that.
Again, to me, that puts us on a level playing field with the majority of the universities and colleges throughout the United States and that gives us a little more strength. That excites me and I think that’s a definite strength, not to mention that the college has been here 75 years. It is well-established in this community and I’ve yet again run into anyone because my wife and I have been venturing out in the Lake Charles area, everyone knows Sowela. And everyone has positive things to say about Sowela. So, obviously, it’s making a positive influence on this community.
I come from an economic development background. I believe this college plays an important part in developing the economy in the Lake Charles and Southwest Louisiana area. And that really excites me.
My philosophy is higher education institutions are here to provide an education but they’re also business enterprises and that’s one of the areas I see. It’s an academic part, it’s a student services part but it’s a business enterprise and if you don’t run it like a business, you’re going to go out of business. And you’ve got to remember that your customers come first and make sure that you satisfy the customer. You can’t always do that, but make sure you do everything you can to satisfy the student and they will come back to you and the community will come back to you and businesses and industries will come back to you and that’s many of the strengths I see.
Any weaknesses or areas you feel like need to be shored up?
I think, not only Sowela, but the system, the state and even Georgia where I come from, the budget. These are hard economic times and as we all know, when the states have to make cuts, education usually in our state was the first where they would make cuts, not only once your budget is given out, but halfway and three-quarters of the way though the year they want part of that budget back and that’s a big challenge. Recently, we learned that a portion of our budget has to be given back because the state has cut the budget. But I consider that not a negative thing, I think of that as a challenge, but that’s our responsibility to go into the community to develop programs and services on the business side that will raise money. I know we’re a non-profit organization, but we’re a business and we can raise money and we can make money to help our programs and our services. That’s a negative side.
I’m excited about the new buildings and the new construction that’s going on. I think Sowela, one of the challenges it has, is some of its physical buildings. They need some upgrades, the need some updates and I think that’s coming in time. I think this is going to be part of that state system where we may get a little more funding. I think Dr. May has been tremendous and his vision and what he sees for not only Sowela, but all of the technical colleges and community colleges in the state of Louisiana and I think we’re going to improve.
As Dr. Michael Elam and Brett (Downer) and I have been discussing, I think it’s an exciting time to be at Sowela. There’s so much going on, there’s a lot of changes coming in the future, positive changes, and I would venture to say that in five to seven years that you will not know that school. It’s still going to be true to its roots, technical education, but we’re a community college. We’re going to serve the needs of this area, but I think it’s in a transformational period and it’s going to grow.
Sowela has always been invested in the technical college side. Now with limited resources that there’s a shift toward more of a balance between the technical and community sides of the college, is that one of the bigger challenges?
I think it is going to be a challenge and one of the things, not only Sowela, but I see it in the state as a whole is that in some ways it’s an image problem we’re going to have a challenge with. We’ve kind of coined the phrase that Sowela is not your granddaddy’s old trade school anymore because it’s not. But in the minds of many, many people, that’s what it was created for and that’s what they will always see — that it’s a trade school. And in a lot of instances, it still have those characteristics.
But if you haven’t been on the campus at Sowela and you came and took a tour, you’d see the technology that’s in place at that school. Yes, we’re a technical institution and we have to remain true to that cause because we can’t get away from that. One of the major parts of our business is workforce development and you can’t do that at a community college where all you offer is transfer degrees. But, yes, back to your question, it is a challenge. We’ve go to fight that image at the same time to let parents know.
Just as an offshoot, I’ll tell you a little story. When I was at Okefenokee Technical Institute in the mid-90s, one of the battles that we fought was juniors and seniors in high school, their parents did not want them to come to a technical institute because it was not a collage. So what we did, it was simplistic in the state of Georgia and I think Sowela has already done that is that we changed the name to technical colleges and overnight, mommas and daddys said, ‘‘My child is going to college.’’ Our enrollment increased and we didn’t do anything different. We were still teaching the same programs but that’s one of the things we have to emphasize, that we are a college. We’re a technical college, we’re a community college, but we are a college, we’re not just a trade school.
It’s a challenge. In many ways we have to embrace that challenge and embrace staying true to our roots and what we were created for.
American Press: You mentioned the new buildings. What do they do for institution and particularly for the students?
Aspinwall: Well, first of all, I go back to that image. We get out of a 1950s and a 1970s building and we into a institution that looks modern and up to date. And that helps the students’ image of the school. They’re coming to a modern institution.
But as far as the physical resources, it allows us to put the students in a certain up-to-date building and allows us to open up space that we can now use and refurbish and reformulate and get more classroom space and more office space, and if we need to, when the time comes, offer new programs.
We can do needs analysis and see what the community needs and if there’s some needs that we aren’t making, then we have the extra physical space to do that.
American Press: You mentioned Georgia and it had the rapid response workforce development program that Louisiana basically went, saw and mirrored it. It was basically was reinvented here and some people believe it’s as good as Georgia’s if not better. Does that familiarity with the Georgia program help as well.
Aspinwall: Absolutely. That’s called Georgia Quick Start. I’ll tell you a little story. We were at a ground-breaking at Northrop Grumman last week and I was sitting in the audience and I looked up on the stage there and I saw an individual there and I said, ‘‘I know that man.’’
Come to find out it was Jeff Lynn, who is with Louisiana Fast Start. He and I worked together for about 10 years in Georgia because he was in the Georgia Quick Start program.
Yes, many states came to Georgia to look at Quick Start and yes, Jeff was the best one you could have gotten to come and implement that program. That’s one of the best things because when industry starts looking at your area to locate, the first thing they do is to look is to see what kind of economic incentives you have, what does you workforce look like, what does your educational system look like and can you provide the training and can you provide the workers that they need. If you can’t, they’re not going to come because you’ve got, especially in the South and the Southeast, you’ve got five or six other states that are competing for that same industry. So you want a Fast Start or a Quick Start that’s going to attract them, hook them and bring them in because we want them there to hire employees in this area so they can be out paying taxes that can go to the state and be funneled back into the school. I think Jeff is doing a wonderful and Fast Start is going to do wonders for this state.
American Press: This area is on the cusp of an economic development boom that is unprecedented. The Sasol plant, the three refits of the LNG plants to export natural gas, other projects. But also with that there’s going to come a demand for welders, electricians, skilled labor. Is Sowela geared up to meet some of that challenge?
Aspinwall: It is and that’s one of things I wanted to cover — the vision. Since I came from the school before last from an economic development and business and industry background, I’m very aware of what you have to do to work with business and industry.
I’ll give you a prime example. About eight or nine years ago, we had a company — we always courted industry to come to southeast Georgia. We had a company that would come and go through our economic development division. They would never tell you who they were because they were so secretive. But what we did was we said, ‘‘These are the programs that we offer. Tell us what you need.’’ And most of the time they will tell you, ‘‘This is the product we’re going to develop, these are the type of skills we’re going to need.’’ And our first answer for our college was, ‘‘Absolutely. This is what we do. Tell us what you need and we will develop those programs.’’
So one of my visions here is that we have go get out into business and industry, we have to needs assessment and I want them talking to us and us talking to them and them saying, ‘‘This is what we need.’’ If we have the prospect of all these jobs, we need to gear up, we need to put training programs in place and we need to start looking for resources.
Now a lot of time those resources will come from those industries. If you can provide that training and you can develop those training programs because you have to remember, we’re not in the employment business at Sowela, we’re in the training business. So if you’ll tell us what you need and most of the time if you can prove to that industry that that is what you can do, they will put the funds out there to help you do that.
And that’s another thing that excited me, You have, unlike Georgia where I was from where the economy has not rebounded yet. It has rebounded here and I’m amazed just the sheer size of the industry and businesses and vitality and everything that is going on here. You have truly rebounded and I can see we’d better be ready because if we’re not ready whether you believe it or not, the higher education business is competitive and if we’re not able to compete, they’ll go to the University of Phoenix or another college. They’ll find someone that can provide that training. My vision is when you say workforce development, the next work that comes to your mind is Sowela, they can do it. And that’s what we want to do.
That’s our job here and that’s our commitment to this area and our commitment to the state of Louisiana. We have to provide that training. We want everyone on the work roles, not the welfare roles. We want them on the work roles where they are paying taxes and helping this economy.
American Press: I’d like to ask you about your relationship with McNeese. Elsewhere in the state of Louisiana, your two-year colleges are working with transfers to four-year schools. What is the state of that relationship here?
Aspinwall: That’s another commitment we’re going to make and that’s another thing that I’m going to do. If I can digress and go back a little bit. Remember I said I spent times in both systems — the technical college system and what we call the university or just like McNeese, the liberal arts system. I see the beauty of both systems. And you have to work together. You cannot have the attitude that the McNeese University education is superior to the Sowela Technical education because it’s not. It’s two different educations and we should be able to share students back and to and if you are aware that our Commission on Colleges Accreditation that we are seeking and we should know this month whether we are entered into candidacy, once we receive and get a committee to come back in about 18 months and we’re accredited by COC then we’re accredited by the same accrediting body that McNeese is accredited by.
That puts us on a level playing field, that allows our students to transfer between the two schools and I’m personally going to commit the president at McNeese and myself, because he has already written me and sent me a letter that he wants to work together and we’re going to work together. They are not a competitor, they are our ally and our friend. And we work in silos, the only people that are going to suffer are our students. And I say our students because they should be able to go back and to between the two organizations and I’m going to do everything I can that when you think of McNeese you think of Sowela. We’re friends and we’re working together. It should be that way because it’s best for our students and our customers.
Now you can’t do that overnight. Those relationships are going to have to be formed. But we’re going to start today.
American Press: The location of the college, I don’t know if that’s a problem, but obviously from a technical side, being out there is nice, but you have to want to get out there to go there. There’s not a lot of drive-by traffic. How do you overcome that?
Aspinwall: Another one of those things we keep getting back to image. You know where we’re located. We’re right next to (I)-210. But you’re right. I had a friend of mine that was on the accrediting team that came to Sowela about two months ago and when it was over I called him. I said, ‘‘Barry, what do you think?’’ This was before I was coming.
He said, ‘‘I think it’s a wonderful school with a lot of opportunity.’’ But he said, ‘‘You know I’ve never been to a college where I didn’t know where it started and where it ended.’’
I said, ‘‘You’re right. I made one visit there. But you know with our master facility plan and our new landscape plan, we’re going to try to do something about that.’ We have our new buildings. It’s going to take a few years to do that. What I envision is when you turn off 210 and you go toward Chennault, you’re going to see a big sign and you’re going to see an entrance to Sowela and you are going to know who we are.
That’s going to improve our image because, yes, if I was a recent high school graduate driving in there now, it may not be very appealing to them. That this is not a true college. But it is. So we’re going to try to make plans to change that image.
I keep saying the image. The technical expertise and faculty staff, we’re already a college. There’s already experts in what they do. So we just have to change the image and make it more appealing. And that, we’re already working with some professionals to try to help us do that.
... We’re here to put people to work. I believe in education in general. Since I was a little boy, I was raised in southeast, rural Georgia. I can remember as a young boy, I was not raised on a farm, but a lot of my family were farmers. I can remember days like today being in a tobacco patch, picking tobacco. Hot and humid and my momma would tell me, ‘‘Neil, if you don’t want to work this hard the rest of your life, you better get a good education.’’ I can remember that. I said, ‘‘There’s nothing wrong with working hard or a hard day’s work, but I want to work a little smarter. I like to be where it’s a little cooler, not out in the heat.’’
Education changes people’s lives. And it doesn’t have to be a degree. It can be non-credit, it can be a short-term course. But whatever you can do to improve your educational training, you can improve your life. I’ve always believed that and I would not be where I am today if I didn’t believe that.
American Press: Do you find in your experience in Georgia that society has changed and you don’t have as many kids coming out of high school that either want to or are geared toward skilled labor, being a plumber, being an electrician, being a welder — those jobs that many of our parents had whether they physically worked with their hands? And how much of that is education and how much of that is computers where kids aren’t used to working with their hands?
Aspinwall: A lot of the last 10 to 12 years with the No Child Left Behind Act, a lot of the public schools, and I speak for Georgia, moved away from the old traditional vocational education because they were having to do more with the academic skills and teaching that test to make sure they met those academic benchmarks. And in a lot of ways we moved away from that skilled labor. Who is going to be plumbers? Who is going to be the electricians? Who is going to be the person who works on your car?
Call an air conditioning man to your house and see how much he charges you when he comes to fix your air-conditioner. Someone has to do those jobs. We can’t farm them out to India or Africa. Someone has to be trained to do those jobs and really and truly in the last four or five years in Georgia, I would say they reimplemented or reinvented what they call career paths. And I said what you are doing is implementing the old vocational schools is what you are doing in the high school entry and you are beginning to teach those trades again because we need them. Everyone can’t be a computer programmer. Someone has got to know how to build a house and install the plumbing. I think we are getting back to those. We got away from it for a while.
... I want to make sure that we form a strong partnership with McNeese because that’s an important school. But I think both of us working together we can make it an even stronger community, we can make it a stronger skill set for the students to transfer back and to between our programs.
I have some visions about new programs and changes I want to make but kind of what holds Sowela back now is since we’re in the process of COC, for the next 18 months or two years, we can’t make any substantive changes, it has to stay the way it is until the accreditation is over. And once we move beyond that point, then we’re free to starting adding programs and changing things because there’s a lot of things we can do.