Dempsey Celebrates 20 Years at SCC Helm
John Dempsey didn't even know there was a college in Moore County.
He and a group of buddies from the College of Charleston made an annual golfing trip to The Pine Crest Inn every year -- a tradition that still carries on to this day.
He always told owner Bob Barrett half-jokingly that he wanted to move here one day. At that time, Pinehurst was still a sleepy little resort town, especially during Dempsey's summer sojourn.
But one Christmas, Demp-sey's phone rang. Barrett was on the other end.
"You're always talking about living here, and now you've got the chance," he said. "The president of the college [Raymond Stone] just retired. You ought to come down here and take that job."
Dempsey, then the president of Belmont-Abbey College outside Charlotte, was surprised.
"How could there be a college when nobody lives there?" he thought.
Barrett informed him it was a community college. Dempsey admitted that he "knew nothing" about community colleges and wasn't sure he was interested. But Barrett convinced him to come on over to meet Stone and Trustees Board Chairman George Little.
Upon first setting foot on the college's campus, Dempsey was impressed.
"I thought, 'holy moly,' this doesn't look like any community college I've ever been around," he says.
He took the job. On Saturday, the affable Dempsey celebrated his 20th anniversary as president of Sandhills Community College. During his tenure, SCC has experienced unprecedented growth that has made it one of the most respected community colleges in the country.
Dempsey says he and his wife, Evelyn, have loved their time in the Sandhills and the area still "excites our souls."
He reflects on the past 20 years fondly and also looks forward to the future.
Dempsey expected the transition from running a conventional four-year institution to a community college would be difficult, but quickly found out they have much in common.
Dempsey says the major difference between the two is that at a community college, there are no entry standards, but because of the "exacting" programs the school has, there are stringent exit standards. The opposite is the case at a four-year college or university.
"At Belmont-Abbey, we worried a lot about the entry standards (SATs)," he says. "But we were training philo-sophers, history teachers and political scientists. And if they didn't know the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066, well, it's not a good thing, but they'd survive.
"But (at SCC) we're training nurses and X-ray technicians. And if these people don't know what they're doing, you've got real problems."
He says that pressure offers a real challenge to educators, which he likes, because if they fail, their students don't make it.
Dempsey says he has seen a lot over his two decades on the job, and he is quick to credit his staff and faculty for the college's success.
"To be honest, I'm most proud of the people we've been able to hire here," he says, "and what I would call the good sense that I've shown in letting them run the college. The truth is, it's easy to assume you know best in every area and you run every aspect, and I haven't done that."
Dempsey is also proud of how highly esteemed the college is in the community. He says he sometimes scratches his head and wonders what they do to garner such support, but figures they must be doing something right.
"You go to the Harris Teeter or the Dairy Queen, and people tell you about what a great job the college did for their nephew. That feels good," he says. "That's a good feeling."
The community's standards of excellence have been a major reason the college has been so successful, he believes. It's a community that demands a lot, and the college tries to respond.
The college's stability of leadership is another reason for its success, he says. Since the college was founded, it has had only two presidents and three board chairmen. His close working relationship with Little and the board has proven to be a major asset to the school.
"That kind of stability enables you to look at things from the long view," he says. "Generally speaking, decisions made in haste sometimes are ill-conceived. We're able to take a little bit longer view and make decisions that are in the long-term best interest of the institution."
SCC continues to grow at a fast clip. Demspey says the school targets 3 percent growth every year, but recently it has been much greater.
The bad economy has led more and more residents to seek higher education or additional training for a new job.
Last year, enrollment was up 8 percent. This summer, it's up 15 percent. And this fall, it is predicted to be up 17 percent.
Dempsey hopes that as SCC grows, it maintains the personal touch and continues to respond to the demands of the community.
His biggest concern is the trend in higher education that shifts focus away from the classroom.
"The truly important work on this campus takes place inside those classrooms," he says. "It doesn't take place [in my office]. It doesn't take place down the hall. It doesn't take place up in the IT department. As we go forward, we run the risk of losing our emphasis on teaching. That troubles me. I really want to hold the line on that."
SCC's fundraising capability puts it in a better position than most, and Dempsey says that gives it a little more "wiggle room" than other institutions. He thinks the key is still hiring the right people, and he says that will remain the college's most important challenge.
Dempsey says he is having fun and hopes to keep having fun for at least another five years -- and really as long as the school will have him and as long as he enjoys coming to work every day. He jokes that he wants to break Stone's record of 25 years to become the school's longest-serving president.
"I've told George that when the drool on my tie is such that it begins to look like a map of the state of Florida," he says with a trademark laugh, "then he can pull the plug."
Contact John Krahnert III at 693-2473 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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