For Mt. Hood Community College President Dr. Debra Derr, MHCC has always been her home away from home. In 1987, she started at the college coordinating disability services before working up to a vice president of student development and services. After
15 years at MHCC, she moved to the Midwest to lead community colleges in Wisconsin and Iowa. But in the early 2010s, when the position of MHCC president opened, Derr decided it was time to head back to Oregon, where she had begun her academic career
“Mt. Hood Community College is a part of who I am; it’s a part of my family,” said Derr. “My kids went to preschool here, they learned to swim here…three of my children attended MHCC, my brother and daughter-in-law graduated from the college.”
In June, Derr announced her retirement from MHCC, effective June 30, 2018. In a letter addressed to MHCC’s Board of Education, she said that making the decision to retire was prompted by her desire to spend more time with family.
Throughout her 37 years of working at community colleges, Derr has never wavered on her belief in the value and quality of education available from these two-year institutions. All five of her children attended community colleges; her youngest, Brennan,
graduated from MHCC last May. Dr. Derr completed her own undergraduate education at a four-year college. However, a few years after earning her bachelor’s degree and working in business, she sought a career in education. It was at a community
college that she found a welcoming, supportive and inclusive environment.
“I wanted to teach high school, and my college adviser told me to check out my local community college,” said Derr. “At the time, I didn’t know what a community college was. I went to Clackamas Community College, and there I found small class sizes,
teachers who went the extra mile for students, and an overall willingness to meet you where you were regardless of age or background.”
That environment, said Derr, is what really attracted her to working at community colleges. And some 37 years after her first community college job, she considers seeing the pride and enthusiasm of new graduates as one of the most rewarding aspects
of her career.
“For me, the chance to go to a GED graduation or a commencement is incredible,” she said. “I have this opportunity to shake 700 or more new graduates’ hands, and when they walk across that stage and they’re overcome by emotion, or they say things
like ‘I can’t believe I did this,’ it is just an amazing feeling.”
MHCC’s 8th President
In 2013, Derr became MHCC’s 8th and first female president. Over the last four years, she’s accomplished much in moving the college forward and setting it on a successful track. And she’s proud of the college’s achievements and of the work of her
staff and faculty.
“I’m incredibly appreciative of all the people who have stepped up to make the college a better place to work and for our students,” said Derr. “I’m proud of the strong relationships we’ve built with our associations and grateful we can sit down with
our association presidents and have honest, productive conversations.”
Derr recognizes that it is MHCC’s teams that have helped transform the college over the last four years, leading to expanded relationships with the community and K-12 partners, five straight years of increased completion rates, a greater focus on
sustainability, and the college’s largest financial gift to date. And she is especially proud of the work of her staff and faculty in passing MHCC’s seven-year accreditation and in achieving several “firsts,” most notably becoming Oregon’s first
college to receive a Career Pathways grant and to launch Integrated Basic Education Skills Training (I-BEST) programming.
But Derr also firmly believes that there is work to be done at MHCC. She’s excited by the strides taken by staff and faculty in implementing continuous improvement and participatory governance initiatives, and hopeful that these efforts will continue.
She wishes the college was further along in embracing the changing demographics of its student population. And she sees successfully passing a bond as another challenge for MHCC staff, faculty and the next president.
“College presidents come and go – that’s just a reality,” said Derr. “A college’s continuity is really in its people and in having a mission that these people embrace and that brings them together.”
Selecting the Next President
On July 12, MHCC’s Board of Education approved a measure to request proposals for a consultant to help select the next president. The goal is to choose a new president by March 2018. Derr hopes to remain on until next June to help the new president
“The Board has said that selecting the new president will be a very inclusive process,” said Derr. “Community, staff, faculty and students will all be involved and help create a profile for the college’s next president.”
After retiring, Derr plans to explore New England with her husband John and see the fall colors. And she would like to remain involved in MHCC’s Foundation. However, she also recognizes that the amount of her involvement is ultimately up to her successor.
As to her advice for MHCC’s next president:
“Listen to your team here,” said Derr. “Don’t come in and try to change the culture; embrace the culture here…There’s a strong team of leaders, and for the new president to recognize the skills, abilities and talents of the people here will be really
important to the ongoing success of Mt. Hood Community College.”