Almost as old as Sierra Vista itself, Cochise College has long been serving the Cochise County area as an important commodity in making learning accessible to community members of all ages and backgrounds.
With a wide background in academic leadership, the president of the community college, J.D. Rottweiler, has been working to maintain its place as a center of affordable learning as well as community in Cochise County for the last ten years.
Rottweiler recently talked with the Herald/Review about the development of the college over his long tenure and some of his plans moving forward.
Herald/Review: You have a pretty extensive professional background working with many types of universities and colleges over the years, so what brought you here to Cochise College?
J.D. Rottweiler: Well, I’ve been in higher education for I guess 30 years now. I started here as a faculty member, loved being a professor and doing all those things in my chosen field and then just had opportunities to become a department chair and a dean.
HR: What did you teach?
JDR: I taught sociology and international studies. I took some opportunities to become a dean and then I went back to my hometown as the vice president, became an executive vice president, and was kind of in a succession plan. And then the opportunity appeared, and what caused the direct link I’m not sure, but I investigated a little bit into Cochise College and became very interested, so I transitioned to become the president/CEO 10 years ago.
HR: Ten years, that’s a pretty impressive amount of time here!
JDR: Yeah! It’s gone really, really fast. It seems like just yesterday, I still feel like I’m kind of new in the area, but as I look around and see my colleagues, I’m now the senior community college president. As far as public education goes, only Michael Crow at Arizona State University has a longer tenure at an institution than I do.
HR: What exactly does a college president do? What are some of your responsibilities?
JDR: I have responsibilities for the entire community college district. I answer to a five-member elected governing board; they’re elected citizens elected all across Cochise County that act as the trustees for the citizens of the county, and then they hire as their employee a president/CEO that then takes responsibilities about all the day-to-day operations of the college.
HR: In your 10 years here, what are some changes you’ve seen, either in yourself in how you run the college or in the college itself and its missions?
JDR: I think clearly the overall function of the college has always been consistent. I tell our employees all the time that “community” is in our middle name; our official name is the Cochise County Community College District, so I think that community is a key part. So, it’s really about how we can help serve the community, so it can become an economically vibrant and healthy place, and really strive to enhance the quality of life for all our students, the citizens in the communities that we serve.
I think the fundamental changes I’ve seen over my tenure, clearly when I first started it was about making Cochise College the very best it could be, and we’ve been recognized nationally over the last three to five years as being one of the top community colleges, and that we’re extremely proud of. But we’ve really tried to kind of change our focus the last couple of years in knowing maybe the college needs to be more than an exceptional college, it needs to be part of an exceptional county, an exceptional community. So we’ve kind of changed our evaluation away from comparing ourselves college-to-college, and now kind of seeing what impact the college can have in enhancing our county, whether it be in educational attainment, whether it be in college-going rates. What are the things we can do to make our citizens of our country more adaptive to the changing economy, the changing world that we live in; what are those services we can provide that can really set our citizens up for success?
HR: Are you working on any programs or initiatives that go along with that vision of being especially involved with the whole community?
JDR: Yeah, I think where we’ve seen some fairly significant changes is I work closely with all the superintendents of the county high schools, and as we did that, we’ve placed what we call navigators in each of those schools that are trying to work with high school students to make sure they’re aware of all the options that are there, help them transition not only into Cochise College but any of our educational entities. We want to make sure our citizens, regardless of where they choose to go, know all the best opportunities for them to be successful.
In an effort to try to change the college-going rate, a couple of years ago the college foundation fundamentally changed how they do their scholarship program. We moved to the high school graduating senior guaranteed scholarship, that any student who graduates from high school in Cochise County is guaranteed a scholarship at Cochise College to help them get started on their path to higher education.
I would say some other things that are kind of interesting and related to that, we have fundamentally changed a lot of our academic programs, looking more and more at certificates leading to diplomas leading to degrees, recognizing the pathway students need.
Today, the vast majority of jobs in America require more than a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree, but they must have a pathway to get that bachelor’s degree, maybe even a graduate degree, and recognize that learning today is a lifelong process. Where you are today may not be where you need to be tomorrow, so where can we best set people up for success along pathways.
HR: When you’re looking back though your 10 years here, are there any certain memories you have or events you’re especially proud of?
JDR: Well, I think one of the things we’re extremely proud of in the community college is that linkage to the communities. I would say one of those has been the Downtown Center — a close working relationship with the Legacy Foundation of Southeast Arizona, as well as the City of Sierra Vista, the county, and recognizing that collectively we can do some amazing things. Taking a facility that otherwise might have become an eyesore or a vacant building right in the heart of downtown, the collective that we could bring resources, leverage what we have with the others, and really make something the community can be extremely proud of.
I’d say that’s just an example of the ongoing partnerships. We’ve tried to do more things like, for example, I work actively with the Huachuca 50 and trying to help sustain and grow Fort Huachuca. The Cochise College Governing Board has said the college needs to take an active role in economic development and community development. So we’ve tried to become a real active player in bringing the resources we have to help ensure that our economic viability is very good going forward.
HR: That seems like a really good path and goal for the college, but it also sounds like a massive effort. What would you say are some of the challenges faced by college here in Cochise County, and by community colleges in general?
JDR: I think we’re just now starting to really come out of the Great Recession, so at the same time we’ve seen some amazing things happen at Cochise College. It’s come at a time when the state has really defunded education as a whole, and higher education in particular. So we’ve seen defunding over that, but it’s really caused us to rethink things, to look at things slightly different as we move forward. So I would say today, Cochise College is a much more efficient, much more effective organization in meeting its institutional mission.
The other part related to the county and some of those challenges there, we’re starting to now see the impact of the declining population. As a county, we can’t decline for very long. We’ve got to find ways to bring business and industry in, the college has to be prepared to train workers and the future workforce, and really lifelong learners so they can really adjust and work in this ever-changing economy.
HR: Talking about the population, one of the things I’ve noticed growing up here is how Cochise College serves everyone from kids in summer camps, to high school students, to retired people who just want to learn a new skill, so you’re really getting a wide range of people involved with the college.
JDR: Yeah, that’s really the whole mission of community college. The average age of a community college credit student is 28 to 29. There’s not a lot of 28- or 29-year-old students at Cochise College; there’s a large number of traditional-age students, 18-23, then there’s this large group of individuals in their late 30s to early 50s who are returning for a second career, coming back to be revamped, to learn new skills, to prepare for a new job. So that’s always been an important part of a community college.
But as you mentioned, related to retirees, we also run a very significant non-credit program through the Center for Lifelong Learning, so from cake decorating, to birdwatching, to tours of museums, to basic CPR classes, to computer classes. We try to provide a wide range of educational opportunities that lead to realistically three things, and they’re stated in our mission statement: those educational opportunities that lead to constructive citizenship, meaningful careers, and lifelong learning.
HR: Based on that, what would you say the overall demographic of Cochise College is — is it mostly people from around here, or is there a draw from other areas?
JDR: The vast majority of our students in Cochise College is unique because of Fort Huachuca. If we take our soldiers out of the picture, the vast majority of our students are Cochise County residents, and if they’re not Cochise County residents, they’re from one of our neighboring counties. We do have some out-of-state students and some international students who will come for specific programs, but by and large, our students are Cochise County residents.
Now, when we bring in Fort Huachuca, that really provides us opportunities to recognize we’re training students from all around the country, and frankly all around the world. Last year, we graduated a student, because of our partnership with Fort Huachuca, from 49 of the 50 states, and I think 12 or 13 foreign countries.
HR: What about looking into the future, do you have a certain demographic the college is targeting focus on?
JDR: I think right now one of our largest concerns is high school graduates. Right now, in Cochise County, only 49 percent of high school graduates will matriculate to something postsecondary the semester after high school. That’s an alarming number when less than half of our high school graduates are doing something. I’m not talking just at Cochise College, I’m talking anywhere. Well, in order for our county to be successful, our state, our country to be successful, we need to have a highly trained, educated workforce.
And we know that some of those students are going to lay out a year and then may come, but all the research shows that if you lay out, the likelihood of coming back becomes much more difficult. So our navigators in each of the high schools, our guaranteed student scholarship, and really our availability all across the county have been set up to encourage those students to matriculate in whatever it may be —whether it be a one-semester certificate that leads directly into the workplace, a traditional two-year liberal arts education that prepares them for transfer to one of the universities— whatever those educational opportunities are, we just want to make sure we position the college to provide assistance to our citizens.
HR: I really like how you’ve been talking about all the different paths, as the whole attitude in our culture about college has shifted from thinking one has to go to a four-year university to acknowledging there’s all these different paths to a career.
JDR: Yeah, I think that’s really what we’ve seen, and I think in some ways we’ve done an injustice to our citizens when we believe that a four-year degree is where they have to be. And for some, that’s exactly what needs to occur, but we just graduated students from our residential construction trade program; they just build a project house, they’re employable. We have students who will leave after taking a one-semester certified nursing assistant class, and they’re now certified by the state as a licensed CNA; there’s hiring bonuses, they’re making a very livable wage. In healthcare, around 80 to 90 percent of all practicing nurses in Cochise County have their training at Cochise College. So we’re seeing really the impact of the college in helping people achieve whatever their goal may be, whether it be a one-semester certificate or all the way to a two-year degree that is preparing them for transfer to U of A, ASU, or any of our other partners.
HR: Are there any current or upcoming programs or initiatives planned for the college you’re excited about?
JDR: I think probably the biggest initiative that we’re working on right now has been the phenomenal growth in our automotive technology program. Because of an amazing partnership we’ve had with Lawley Motors, we’ve been out on Highway 92 and have had an amazing opportunity to grow the program. But, we’ve frankly outgrown that space. The board has made a decision for us to potentially build a new automotive technology building here on campus, and so some feasibility studies are being done, some early schematics are being drawn, so we’re looking to see how we can continue to grow that program.
We’re seeing lots of things between the Police Academy and partnership with the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office and the Sierra Vista Police Department; we’re doing some new things in heating and air conditioning; really all the things that can keep our community vibrant and healthy, the college is trying to play a role in.
HR: On a larger scale for the college in general, what path do you see it taking in upcoming years?
JDR: I think we want to be as responsive to our community as we can be, so I’ll turn that question around a little bit to all the community leaders: Where do we want our communities to be? Because the college wants to be right there, elbow-to-elbow, shoulder-to-shoulder in helping meeting those needs, filling those gaps where there may be need for someone to step in and train and do those kinds of things. So we work closely with city councils and with the Board of Supervisors, and other businesses and industries, just trying to find those areas where we can help them be successful.
HR: What about you? Ten years — looking for another 10, or to do something different?
JDR: My wife and I have found Sierra Vista and Cochise County to be home.
We love it here. We continue to be challenged with new opportunities; I’m blessed to have an amazing Board of Trustees who provide great direction and oversight of the college, but also provide us to take risks that have really proven to be successful over the last 10 years. So, very happy, very content here. As long as the Board and the citizens of Cochise County will have me, we’ll continue to try to move the college forward.