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POWERBOOK 2012: A model of abundance

John “Ski” Sygielski sees Harrisburg Area Community College as a unifying force in a sometimes fragmented region

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Harrisburg Area Community College President John “Ski” Sygielski, in a classroom at the school's Midtown II building on North Third Street in Harrisburg, took the helm of the college system in July 2011. Born to working-class parents in Cleveland, Sygielski was the first member of his family to go to college. Photo/Amy Spangler
Harrisburg Area Community College President John “Ski” Sygielski, in a classroom at the school's Midtown II building on North Third Street in Harrisburg, took the helm of the college system in July 2011. Born to working-class parents in Cleveland, Sygielski was the first member of his family to go to college. Photo/Amy Spangler

Everyone who knows Harrisburg Area Community College President John “Ski” Sygielski speaks of his indefatigable energy.

In separate interviews, HACC board of trustees chairman Timothy Sandoe and HACC Foundation board chairman James Grandon Jr. both likened him to the Energizer bunny. Sandoe also compared him to the title character in the "Where's Waldo?" books.

"I go to as many (HACC-related) public events as I can," Sandoe said. "He's there every time."

Sandoe was on the search committee that canvassed the nation for a successor to outgoing president Edna Baehre.

"We as a college were looking for an individual who was engaged in the community, who would be a great communicator," he said.

Ski took office in July 2011. The following January, he faced a budget crisis.

Declining enrollment and state budget cuts were contributing to a potential $11 million deficit. Realizing drastic action would be needed, Ski appointed an efficiency task force to study college operations.

Based on the group's recommendations, Ski oversaw major realignments of HACC's business practices in spring and summer. The changes including streamlining the administration, cutting staff, postponing pay raises and raising tuition. The college adopted a budget of $180.2 million, $6.2 million less than the previous year.

"He played the quarterback in all of this" and did so "with class and dignity," Sandoe said.

In early October, HACC announced it would convert the C. Ted Lick Wildwood Conference Center into offices and centralize its administration there – another money-saving move.

That move "made tremendous sense," Grandon said. By targeting a building for renovation that needed it and reducing HACC's need to lease space elsewhere, the plan serves the college's needs in a smart, cost-effective manner, he said.

"I think that was genius on his part," he said of Ski.

HACC Faculty Organization President Pam Watkins, a mathematics professor, said Ski is constantly "listening, watching, learning and analyzing." He believes in shared governance and makes sure all parties affected by a decision have their voices heard, she said.

Grandon, too, emphasized Ski's emphasis on listening and his willingness to put the college's mission and students' needs first and foremost.

Ski was born to working-class parents in Cleveland. His father was a steelworker, his mother a homemaker. The first in his family to graduate from college, he quickly realized education was his ticket to a better life.

"It opened up the world," he said.

Originally, he planned to be a Catholic priest. A stint teaching elementary and high school led to work in the private sector and time as a corporate trainer. For nearly a decade, he was a teacher and administrator at the College of DuPage in Illinois. While there, he obtained his Ed.D.

He worked as vice chancellor for workforce and economic development in the Virginia Community College System, then headed that state's Lord Fairfax Community College. In 2008, he became president of Mount Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore., the position he held when HACC recruited him.

Doug Neidich's company, GreenWorks Development, has worked intensively with HACC to create the school's midtown Harrisburg campus. The school's technology and trades programs are there, serving more than 2,000 students.

HACC has been an indispensable partner in the midtown's revitalization, Neidich said. He said he talks with Ski every few days and praised his knowledge, enthusiasm and energy.

"He's taken major steps toward becoming a pillar of community," he said.

Ski likened community college to Ellis Island, the gateway to America for millions of 19th-century immigrants. Community colleges can make young people and career changers aware of opportunities in emerging industries and can remedy the "skills gap" that employers say they see, he said.

He said he enjoys the richness of Harrisburg's cultural life, the theaters, music and museums. An avid bicyclist, he circles the 20-mile Harrisburg "greenbelt" trail at least once a week, he said.

He sees HACC as a unifying force in a sometimes fragmented region. HACC serves students in 10 counties and 65 school districts,

Despite the economic challenges facing higher education, "I operate out of a model of abundance," he said.

"We have resources," he said. "We have to decide how to use them. We do that by understanding the needs of our community."

Editor's note: This story has been modified from a previous version to correct Doug Neidich's name and to correct Sygielski's education degrees.

About John “Ski” Sygielski

Age: 53

Degree: bachelor's in philosophy, St. Alphonsus College; master's of religious education with a concentration on globalization and social justice, Mt. St. Alphonsus Graduate School of Theology; master's of science in business management and MBA, Aurora University; Ed.D. in education leadership, Northern Illinois University

Family: Partner, Steve Perrault, 29 years

Hometown: Cleveland, Ohio

Current residence: Harrisburg

First job: Orderly in a nursing home

Last book read: "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by Michelle Alexander

Guiding philosophy: "If you're going to be passionate about something, be passionate about learning. If you're going to fight something, fight for those in need. If you're going to question something, question authority. If you're going to lose something, lose your inhibitions. If you're going to gain something, gain respect and confidence. And, if you're going to hate something, hate the false idea that you are not capable of your dreams." –Daniel Golston

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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