It was nearly standing-room-only for Southeast Arkansas College’s first of four open forums for presidential hopefuls. Faculty, staff and community members converged into the Welcome Center to meet Marlon Mitchell — one of the candidates vying for the position of SEARK president — Monday.

“I really have a yearning for seeing people grow and develop, and I think this is where you see that growth happen,” said Mitchell, who added that community colleges are his sweet spot.

“You can see someone come from off the street who never really even thought about going to college and shake their hand going across the stage and know they are going to be okay.”

The nationwide search for a new President came after current SEARK president Stephen Hilterbran announced his plan to retire on Dec. 31, 2017. During the summer, SEARK contracted the Association of Community College Trustees to assist them in building a profile to lure potential candidates.

And what started out as 58 applicants has now dwindled down to four finalists in the search for SEARK’s next president. Mitchell started off the forum with an introduction, allowing attendees to get a better idea of not only his past experiences in secondary education but also a glimpse into him as a person.

“I like to tell people that I’m a guy that’s fair and just in all my dealings,” he said. “What you see is what you get. I try to put my best foot forward every time and if I’m going to do something I’m going to give it 150 percent.”

Mitchell is currently the president of Ivy Tech Community College-Gary Campus in Indiana. His past experience includes regional dean of Indiana Wesleyan University. He received his bachelor of science in computer information systems, a master of science in instructional systems technology and a doctor of philosophy, all from Indiana University.

Drawing back on his experience in Gary, Indiana, Mitchell compared the city to Pine Bluff as it relates to crime, poverty and blight and how he wanted to be instrumental in impacting change within the community.

“When I look at Pine Bluff, I don’t see all of the ills, I see the opportunity,” he said. “I think that there is a great opportunity here at Pine Bluff and I would like to be a part of that. I would like to be a part of that story — the story of a community that was the pride of the south and to see it return to that.”

The open forum offered attendees the opportunity to ask Mitchell questions regarding enrollment, fiscal management, shared governance and student engagement, among others, anonymously.

“In terms of student enrollment, I think engagement is the same if you are truly interested in the community,” he said. “First, I would start off right here at home and engage this community — faculty and staff and students here. And then I would begin to make my inroads out into the community engaging the faith-based community, non-profits, government officials and engaging people on the streets because if they know that you are out there then they know that you exist.”

He discussed that training and teaching needs to reflect current industry trends, so students can be prepared when they graduate and go into the work force.

“We have to prepare for the growth of tomorrow while still serving the needs of today,” Mitchell said.

The forum also gave him a chance to talk about his plans for SEARK’s future if selected president.

“I’m that one that will hopefully be able to get people together wrapped around a common goal and common vision that will move SEARK to wherever we want to go as an institution,” he said.

“And I say ‘we’ because it has to be a ‘we,’ because it’s not where I want, it’s not where you want SEARK to go, it’s where we want it to go, and that becomes a collective vision that everyone can see themselves in.”

Feedback forms were provided to those in attendance, which will be given to the Board of Trustees for further review as a part of the presidential search process.

“I’m interested in the leadership of the institution and how that institution compliments our overall educational system here in Pine Bluff and southeast Arkansas,” said resident Hazell Reed, who provided a feedback form.

“I thought he was very impressive. He has a very good knowledge of the community college system and how it operates and how it compliments the four-year system.”

Reed, who stayed throughout the entire forum, said he was pleased with the event as well as with what Mitchell had to say in regards to his plans for SEARK.

“He’s also very much interested in people and populations who traditionally do not attend a four-year-college, and I think that is extremely important,” he said. “I think he set the bar pretty high.”

Glen Brown Sr., a former Pine Bluff city councilman, was one of several community members in attendance. Brown was also delighted with Mitchell and said he felt he was a good choice for the college to select as president.

“He appeared to have done Pine Bluff homework,” Brown said of Mitchell’s knowledge of SEARK and the city. “He appears to know what we need and sees us going in the direction to making SEARK a better and productive place.”

The remaining presidential finalists will participate in an open forum over the next few days.

The schedule is as follows: From 3-4 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 7, Kaleybra Moorehead at the Welcome Center Training Room; from 3:30-4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8, Steven Bloomberg at the Welcome Center Training Room; and from 8:30-9:30 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 9, Paul Hutchins at the Welcome Center Training Room.

Citizens are encouraged to attend the forum or contact the ACCT if they have any questions and suggestions. For more information contact:

• Narcisa Polonio, Executive Vice President for Education, Research and Board Leadership Services, narcisa_ polonio@acct.org, 202-276-1983 (mobile)

• Julie Golder, Board Services Coordinator, jgolder@acct.org, 202-384-5816 (mobile)