The Westmoreland County Community College board will soon begin a nationwide search to replace its president, Daniel Obara, 70, who will step down next June.
Mr. Obara of Hempfield announced at a recent board meeting that he will retire next summer.
"We've been planning for Dr. Obara's succession; we knew it was coming," said Gene Ciafre, a 20-year veteran of the board and its former chairman.
Mr. Obara joined the college in 1996 as vice president for academic affairs and became president four years ago after Steven Ender left the position.
"We have several current administrators we will consider," said Mr. Ciafre. "Dr. Nicole Reaves (vice president for academic affairs) is very qualified, as are two or three others from within, but to do it properly, we will look nationally, too."
Mr. Obara said two major expansion projects will be completed before his retirement. Last month, the college broke ground on the $8.5 million, two-story Latrobe Education Center, and construction is set to begin on a $9.4 million Advanced Technology Center in the old Sony plant near New Stanton.
WCCC currently has 6,400 full-time and part-time students. It has 75 full-time faculty and 350 part-time instructors.
A Johnstown native, Mr. Obara taught history and world cultures in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, worked in administration at the University of Pittsburgh in the College of Adult Studies and served as a counselor and dean at the Boyce campus of Allegheny County Community College.
As WCCC president, Mr. Obara negotiated a faculty contract, oversaw a new strategic plan for the college and worked on a capital campaign to fund its current expansion projects.
"Mostly, I've been blessed with a good staff to get the work done," he said.
"The most gratifying part of the job has been seeing students progress," he said. "We see transformations here every day. Maybe students come here unemployed and don't know what they want to do, and they get the skills needed to go into the work force. They become productive and have fulfilled lives."
"Dr. Obara was the perfect individual for the job," said Mr. Ciafre. "He had academic experience, and he had administrative experience at Allegheny County Community College. ...
"He has exceeded our expectations in all areas, but especially with our foundation, the fundraising arm of the college. He was instrumental in raising a good portion of our capital investment campaign."
Mr. Ciafre said the college has already raised $25 million of its $28 million capital campaign. Mr. Ciafre, CEO of General Products & Supply in Export, is co-chairman of the campaign.
"It's always been our mission to train people for local businesses," said Mr. Ciafre. "That's what we do."
"It used to be our student population was older and came to us for technical job training. But our curriculum has evolved where many of our students for financial reasons now start with us, and then transfer to four-year colleges."
He noted the college recently added training programs to take advantage of the rise in the Marcellus Shale industry.
Students who don't want a four-year degree continue to train for two-year associate degrees or certificates for machine shop and welding jobs, and they can find good-paying jobs in those fields, he said.
"We're well positioned to do extremely well, we excel in many areas -- we have the lowest tuition in the state," said Mr. Ciafre. "So we want to stay on course, we have our major building programs at the technology center and in Latrobe, and we have a lot of work to do at the Youngwood campus in rehabbing some of our buildings."
He said the college is hoping to get about 50 percent of its funding for the technology center and Latrobe center from the state. He said the county had been generous in its funding, as well.
"Our enrollment peaked at about 7,000 students a couple years ago," said Mr. Ciafre. "When the economy is bad, people go back for re-education."
Online courses have increased dramatically, as they have at most institutions of higher learning. Mr. Ciafre said 25 percent of the college's students now take online courses.
"I was from the old school, I was skeptical of these, but I was proven wrong," he said. "We've seen that online students score just as well as those who learn in the classroom."
The college has an annual operating budget of $38 million, and about one-half of that comes from tuition, according to Mr. Obara, with another third coming from the state, about 7 percent from the county and the rest from grants.
Mr. Obara said he expects the new Advanced Technology Center to become increasingly important to the college.
"All our technology programs will move there -- for machining and welding, CNC (machine operations), robotics, electronics," he said. "It will be a multi-faceted center, and employers can come to us to train their workers, too. We'll have more space and flexibility to do that."
Mr. Obara said he and his wife will remain active in retirement. They like to golf and kayak, and he has biked the entire length of the Greater Allegheny Passage from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. They have four adult children and six grandchildren to visit, as well.
Debra Duncan, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org