May 22, 2014
When I was asked to share my NCMPR memories as part of the organization’s 40th anniversary, I found it difficult to select a single incident, since NCMPR had a profound effect on my own 40-year career in higher education communications. I spent 34 years in the community college environment in a variety of roles, including as a director of college relations and publications, dean of institutional advancement, and executive director of alumni affairs. After retiring in late 2008, I almost immediately began the next stage of my career as the first-ever director for communications and public relations at the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, one of the nation’s seven regional accreditors. I regularly interact with leaders from our more than 530 colleges and universities and with members of the national higher education media. This was a somewhat natural transition for me, given that I was very involved in accreditation matters in my former community college role. My president felt it was important for everyone—not only academic administrators—to be involved in accreditation processes. So much of what I do now was shaped generally by my experience as a community college administrator and specifically by my deep involvement with NCMPR. My initial involvement with NCMPR was in its previous incarnation as the National Council for Community Relations. Like most of my NCMPR colleagues, that early involvement was limited to attending regional conferences and submitting materials for district awards. As time moved on, I found the people I had met through NCMPR to be helpful when a situation arose on my campus and I wanted to know about best practices. Sometimes this involved events, sometimes it involved advertising and promotional activities, and other times I was curious as to what similar institutions in other parts of the region and the country were doing with their publications. My first national conference was in St. Louis during the early 1990s. I soon began to realize that I should become more involved as NCMPR was an invaluable resource. This was especially true, given that unlike other organizations for communication professionals, NCMPR was focused on community colleges. One of those who gave me that extra push to become more involved was my friend Joe Nazarro, who was serving as a member of the NCMPR board and later became its president. Joe continually extolled the virtues of NCMPR membership and all of the benefits it brought to both the individual and the institution. In 1998, I was honored to be selected to fill an unexpired term as District 1 director and a member of the national board. Two years later I was re-elected as district director, and two years after that I became national treasurer. Becoming a national officer of NCMPR came at an extremely challenging time. I took office during the first NCMPR national conference following the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Institutions everywhere had placed new limitations on employee travel, both because of safety concerns and tightening budgets. This resulted in fewer attendees at NCMPR conferences and far less revenue. It was time for the board to begin doing things differently, and I am proud to say that our special efforts to examine every expense and every part of the revenue stream, resulted in more efficient ways of doing business and better ways of serving NCMPR’s members. For example, we stopped the practice of paying large speaker fees to nationally known speakers who often would deliver “canned” talks, and began to focus on recruiting keynote speakers from the locales where the annual conference would be held, giving the conference both a bit of local flavor but also saving on speaker fees and travel expenses. The savings were considerable and we were able to recruit some top-notch speakers. As examples, when we held the conference in Austin, Texas, we were able to bring in the top marketing executive of Dell Computer, who was based in Austin. When we met in Minneapolis, we had as a keynoter the top marketing executive from Target Stores, whose corporate headquarters were located just a few blocks from the conference hotel. In 2004 I was honored to be selected as NCMPR’s national president. During the year that I served, I had the opportunity to visit with NCMPR members at district conferences in Delaware, Northern Kentucky, Colorado, Washington State, California, Wisconsin, and Missouri. Not only did I get to speak with my colleagues about what was happening on the national level, but it turned out to be a tremendous learning experience for me as I picked up many new ideas that I could put to practical use back at my own campus. In 2007, one year before my retirement from the college, I completed my nine years on the NCMPR national board. In 2010, I was stunned to learn that I was selected to receive NCMPR’s prestigious Petrizzo Award for “Distinguished Contributions to the Two-Year College Marketing and Public Relations Profession.” Looking back on my years with NCMPR, it was a tremendous experience and I have many fond memories. On occasion, my schedule permitting, I am still able to attend some NCMPR national conferences and see old friends and meet new ones. I am especially proud that several of my colleagues who worked alongside me when I was District 1 director or national president, later became presidents themselves. Connie Herrera, Judi Sciple, Sally Cameron, and Ron Tabor, all followed me as NCMPR presidents. My good friend and colleague Kathy Corbalis, would likely have become president as well, but she retired from her position at Atlantic Cape Community College just prior to moving into an executive leadership role with NCMPR. For many colleges, travel to regional or national conferences is a luxury that is unnecessary during times of tight budgets. To some communications professionals, travel to a conference is valuable time wasted that could be better spent on campus. Conversely, I was fortunate to have a college president who was a strong believer in professional development. He wanted his key administrators to be involved in their professional organizations, statewide, regionally, and nationally. This involvement was not just in attending conferences, but in making presentations, serving in leadership roles, and bringing fresh ideas back to campus to make us a better institution. Throughout my time as an officer with NCMPR that is a lesson I tried to convey to every institutional trustee, president, vice president, director, or other staff member I met in my travels around the U.S. To my way of thinking, NCMPR was and is not a luxury, but rather a wise investment in a college’s people and in the future success of the college. To me, NCMPR was not just about earning awards or travelling to other parts of the country. It was about becoming a better professional and developing skills and ideas that would make me more valuable to my college. The organization succeeded in big ways for me and I am eternally grateful. In closing, I would be remiss if I did not mention NCMPR’s two executive directors. The organization has been blessed to have these outstanding professionals at the helm. First, there was Becky Olson, who served with distinction for many years, leading the organization in its infancy, through its growing pains, and into the powerhouse that it is today. For those of us who served over the years on the board, she was a rock we could lean on for advice and encouragement. When Becky retired not that long ago from her longtime position as executive director, she was succeeded by Debbie Halsey, another gem. I am confident that Debbie will do an outstanding job of leading NCMPR into the future. Congratulations NCMPR on 40 years of success, and best wishes for many years of continued success.
By Richard Pokrass
Director for Communications and Public Relations
Middle States Commission on Higher Education