Charles Lepper started this week as the 11th president of Grand Rapids Community College, succeeding Bill Pink, who took a job in July 2022 as the president of Ferris State University. Lepper brings a long resume of leadership roles in higher education, most recently overseeing student affairs and enrollment at 10 Salt Lake Community College campuses in Utah that serve more than 60,000 students annually. Prior to that, Lepper served as vice president for student affairs at Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Va. Relocating to Grand Rapids is somewhat of a homecoming for Lepper, who received his master’s degree from Grand Valley State University in 1998. He comes to Grand Rapids as several area colleges and universities bring in new leadership, and as the state prioritizes higher education through programs like Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners. In a recent interview with MiBiz, Lepper discussed his early priorities to connect with the community and West Michigan business leaders and strengthen partnerships with area employers to help boost enrollment.
What made you want to come to GRCC?
I pursued this position specifically because of the national reputation of GRCC being a leader in innovation. I also am excited by the things that Michigan and Grand Rapids are doing to support community college education, like the Grand Rapids Promise Scholarship and also the Michigan Reconnect program.
One of the biggest challenges for companies right now is attracting and retaining skilled talent. How can GRCC help to fill those gaps for employers?
There is a place for community colleges at the table in helping business and industry meet their employment needs. I know that because of my experiences in Indiana and working with the auto industry there prior to my time at Salt Lake Community College. We are vital to the success of those ventures and want to be connected with employers. I’m in the process of reaching out to partners — GRCC has partnerships with over 400 employers in West Michigan.
What are some of your goals or areas you hope to focus on in your first year as president?
I lived here 25 years ago as a graduate student attending Grand Valley State University, but one of my first goals is to get to know the community better. I also hope to connect with business leaders across West Michigan and look at new, innovative ways to build our enrollment. Enrollment is a challenge for colleges nationwide right now, so that’s a focus for me and our faculty and staff, and that is a conversation we have already had and will continue to have on my first day. One of the ways to do that is trying to identify opportunities in the community that will allow us to build partnerships with K-12 students to get them on the path to higher education.
What are things you wish you had as a college student that you hope to reinforce for GRCC students?
I am a first generation college graduate myself. I was told by my assistant high school principal that I would never go to college and he discouraged me from attending. I attended a university where I was one of many in a large lecture hall, and one of the benefits of GRCC is that we have small classes. Even though for me the classes were quite large, I still benefited from people caring and recognizing that I needed additional guidance and support as a first generation student. They helped me and let me know that I belonged there.
Many of us who are first generation question if college or higher education is a place for us, and the answer is absolutely yes. We say that to our students: You belong here, we’re here to support you, we care, you matter. The thing we have to focus on that really may seem very basic is we have to build community. And that’s in classrooms, on campus and in the larger community. That’s something we all have to re-establish.