Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Can New President Darnell Cole Rescue MATC?

By - Oct 4th, 2001 09:07 pm

Not long after arriving in town, new MATC president Darnell Cole called Greater Milwaukee Committee President Bob Milbourne and asked to meet. “He was quite interested in building a good relationship with the business community,” Milbourne recounts, “and he could tell that was a weakness at MATC. I was quite impressed with him. He definitely has the ability to connect with business people and others in the community.”

Since he arrived on the job little more than a month ago, Cole has been busy meeting with a wide range of community leaders. Cole had a major operation on three vertebrae and had a plate put in his neck, but he hasn’t let that slow him down. “The doctors tell me I’m only supposed to be working five hours a day,” he told me in a recent interview, “but I haven’t been able to slow down.”

Cole will have to devote a lot of time to promoting MATC. “It’s a very important institution in the city that nobody knows about,” Milbourne says. He recalls setting up a meeting with representatives of local companies to talk about creating a relationship with the college. Milbourne found few of them knew much about MATC.

As for those who do, many have learned about MATC through Cole’s predecessors, people like Barbara Holmes, a near tyrant who was pushed out by the MATC board, or John Birkholz, the dour autocrat who ran the place for the last seven years. “Instead of building bridges with the community, he pissed everyone off,” MATC board member Paul Pedersen once complained about Birkholz.

Compared to them, Cole is a breath of fresh air, a warm, personable man with an unfailingly upbeat perspective. The board wanted someone “who had very good people skills,” says MATC board chair Lauren Baker. “He’s a very different kind of leader than Birkholz was.” And how.

Cole’s little touches have carried some symbolic value. He writes a weekly newsletter to board members and staff to keep the lines of communication open. He eliminated the reserved parking spot for the president and vice president to make more room for visitors to MATC. (“I plan on parking with the other college employees,” Cole wrote in an e-mail). And to get across the message that academics count, he moved the vice-president of academic affairs to a prominent place at board meetings. Traditionally, only the vice-presidents of finance and legal affairs enjoyed that privilege.

But Cole will need to accomplish some major things if he is really to change the institution. MATC’s enrollment, as measured in “full-time equivalent” students, has been declining for a decade. “Given the shortage of technically trained employees, it’s really a shame,” Milbourne says.

MATC’s state funding as a percentage of the budget has been declining for many years, too. And the school has tapped out its property tax funding – the legal limit it is allowed to tax under state law – and has no room to grow there, either. “There are only three technical colleges in the state that are tapped out,” board member Peter Earle laments. “We’ve been there for a long time.”

Meanwhile, the cost per student grew by 59% in the last decade, more than twice as fast as the rate of inflation. “He’s got a lot of challenges,” says Milbourne. “No doubt about it.”

Cole, moreover, has never run an institution anywhere near as big as MATC. He previously served as chancellor of Ivy Tech State College in Gary, Indiana, a community college covering seven counties. The college has an enrollment of 4,237 students and a budget of $25 million, compared to MATC’s 65,000 students and $240 million budget.

But Cole seems eager to take on the challenge. “When you have an institution this size, you really have the resources to do something outstanding,” he says.

Cole says he spent three months wooing his new vice-president of college advancement, Rob Hartung, who will work on attracting students and building enrollment. Cole notes MATC is the largest technical college in the Midwest, but he wants to make it much bigger. “We ought to be serving 100,000 students on the four campuses.”

Secondly, he wants to increase the school’s private sector funding by building partnerships with businesses and selling MATC to foundations. “There are dollars out there and we need to make a case for MATC.”

Thirdly, he wants to improve the school’s lobbying of the state legislature. “I’ve already met with legislators. Certainly, when we go to Madison asking for money it’s got to be the community asking for money. I’ve got a real advantage in Milwaukee because of all the businesses here.”

But will business leaders support more state funding for MATC? “His board is largely dominated by union leaders,” Milbourne notes. “There’s really not a single representative of the business community on the board.”

But Milbourne believes there’s an opportunity for Cole to forge partnerships with industry sectors or clusters. For example, he notes, “two years ago, we brought together 30 companies in the printing industry,” with the goal of having them advise MATC on how to design the training of students for this industry.

Cole points to a Michigan technical college that guarantees graduates of a training program can perform acceptably on the job or they take the student back for more training at no cost. “You want to hire somebody who’s ready to work,” he emphasizes.

As Cole pursues such partnerships with industry sectors, Milbourne predicts, “I think there’ll be a group of business people who will support state funding for MATC for programs that serve Milwaukee employers.”

“That’s going to be one of our strengths, building partnerships,” says Cole.

But given the troubled history of MATC, that will take some work to accomplish. “There’s still a lot of people who are not sure we’re moving in a fresh direction,” Earle says. “It’s going to take awhile.”

But as Milbourne notes, Cole has made a good start: “He’s doing all the right things now.”

Short Takes

The early talk of running for mayor may end up hurting Ald. Tom Nardelli, who has announced his bid for mayor, and Common Council President Marvin Pratt, who has reportedly been trying to put together something like a mayor’s club that solicits regular campaign donations. One local politico says well-heeled donors are beginning to balk at donating to them. “When they were writing a check to an aldermanic committee, it was easy to do that without pissing off [Mayor] John Norquist. Once it becomes for mayor, I think the donations have fallen off.”

Even if Norquist were to decide not to run for reelection, lobbyists and others will inevitably need the mayor’s support for their projects during his current term. “There’s a lot of concern about Norquist. He’s got two and a half years of incumbency left.”

Ironically, Nardelli and Pratt have talked about running early so they could gain more donations, since the legal limit for contributions to mayor is $3,000, versus $375 for alderman. It may turn out they would have raised more money by being simple aldermen, the politico suggests.

HECK NO: Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause, called to take issue with the source who told us Assembly Minority Leader Spencer Black is the one preventing a deal to eliminate the legislative caucus staff. “Nobody knows what’s in the proposed plan,” he notes. “It may be because of what’s contained in it that Black is opposed. The devil’s in the details.”

Heck notes Black supported a budget amendment to eliminate the caucus staff and has made “all the right statements” in opposition to the caucus. Heck also emphasizes that his is a non-partisan organization, just in case I might have suspected him of fronting for Black.

Jay, you won’t find that kind of cynical thinking here at Milwaukeeworld.

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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