JACKSON — After 40 years of service in Mississippi’s public education system, Dr. Olon Ray, longtime executive director for the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, is saying goodbye.
A Choctaw County native, Ray, 61, has held the top spot at SBCJC since Oct. 1, 1990, working with a 10-member board in the coordination of the state’s 15 public community and junior colleges. During his tenure, impressive growth in the number of students served was seen, as well as a budget increase from approximately $72 million to $187 million.
After graduating from Weir High School, studying at Northwest Mississippi Community College, and earning a degree from the University of Mississippi in 1962, Ray began his educational career as a history teacher at Biloxi High School. Two years later, he taught school at Jackson Central High before returning to Biloxi to begin administrative work as assistant to the superintendent. In 1970, he was named assistant superintendent of the Biloxi Public School District, and five years later, Ray became superintendent.
In 1988, Ray resigned from the post to work as Special Assistant for Education for Gov. Ray Mabus for two years before taking the SBCJC post. Ray will retire June 30.
The Mississippi Business Journal chatted with Ray about his career accomplishments and changes in the state’s educational system. He talked about the relationship between Mississippi’s community colleges and the business community, workforce training, and challenges for his successor.
Mississippi Business Journal: What has been the most exciting and rewarding special project you’ve worked on?
Olon Ray: Definitely, it was when we passed the Educational Reform Act of 1982. I’ve never witnessed a more optimistic time in education in Mississippi. At the time, I was superintendent for schools in Biloxi and president of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, and I got to work closely with Gov. Winter on that. It was a wonderful and exciting time, a great achievement to celebrate. Educators felt that something important had happened and that we were going to change a lot of things we didn’t like about education in Mississippi. I must say it did not turn out that way, but we had the potential for it.
MBJ: Tell us about the most rewarding accomplishments during your tenure at SBCJC.
OR: Creating the virtual community college. It brought together a number of factors and I’m certainly not due all the credit, but I did participate. It involved the bringing together of all the colleges and working through some of the most challenging situations, such as how to distribute money and how to award credits. It may sound mundane, but they’re very touchy and complex issues. It’s going to have a long-term impact on Mississippi. It’s another big door that’s open to people who often don’t have a chance to walk through the door in a college environment.
MBJ: What have been the most significant changes for Mississippi community colleges?
OR: One of the obvious changes has been the greater diversification of programs. We’re doing a lot more than we did 12 years ago. We’re much more adept at meeting a wide range of needs than when I first came here. Enrollment is another area with a lot of change. We’ve had an enormous growth period during this time. I’d also have to mention that the whole world has been affected by technology and its impact on community colleges has been enormous. We’ve gone into major technology commitments. We have a virtual community college, with more than 12,000 enrollments, that didn’t exist three years ago.
MBJ: As executive director of SBCJC, what has been your biggest challenge, and what is the biggest challenge our community colleges will face in the next several years?
OR: My biggest challenge has been balancing interests of 15 different colleges and balancing the local community college districts with those of a statewide nature. It’s quite a balancing act, really, and provides some very challenging situations. It definitely requires an extra effort. Another is the challenge of change and accepting new ways of doing business. We’ve attained, in my opinion, a very high level of quality and service to the state, but if we are going to be able to maintain it, we’re going to have to do things differently.
MBJ: Why is the relationship between Mississippi’s community colleges and the Mississippi business community so important?
OR: We’re inseparably linked to business. Our colleges, because of the local control, have a very flexible approach to doing business and working out programs. That means if the businesses in the community need something and go to the community colleges, that college is able to respond to them in a very timely manner. It doesn’t have to go through a lot of red tape and bureaucracy.
A growing part of our mission is connected with serving our business customers. The importance of it, in my judgment, is because the only reasonable and logical place for businesses to get training on a continuous basis is through the community colleges. We have the staff, the teaching personnel, and the facilities to do that. We’re in a unique and focal position to make the training mission successful.
MBJ: How can workforce training services grow?
OR: We can do a better job marketing, for one thing, and making businesses aware of our training services. We’re going to have to continue to carry our message to the Legislature about the critical nature of our training services. And mostly, we’re going to have to listen to our business customers about what they need and make sure we’re meeting those needs, and doing it well.
MBJ: In general, what do you see in the future for the state’s community colleges?
OR: I see a continuing growth. I think the mission of community colleges will become more important to the state than ever, in part because of our workforce training needs. I think we will see a lot of expansion through distance education. Online instruction will become a major delivery avenue for people.
MBJ: Specifically, what do the community colleges need to be doing the next few years to grow?
OR: We’re going to have to do a real good job of responding to the needs of the people we serve. That sounds so basic and simple, but for a long time, public educational institutions have had a lock on delivering those services. That is not true now. We’re in a competitive mode with other institutional delivery options, partly created by technology. If we’re going to win people and to retain them, we’re going to have to do a real good job at responding to needs. Again, we’re going to have to become a lot more flexible. We can’t assume that the world revolves around a semester or a school year. We’re going to have to offer courses when and how they’re needed to anybody who needs them. That means we have to make changes in terms of becoming much more creative and flexible.
MBJ: Over the years, has there been a particular student that has touched you deeply or made you especially proud of his accomplishments?
OR: Absolutely. Chip Auburn was one of those rare human beings who blessed many lives beyond what most people do. As a child, he developed cancer, yet his goal was to graduate from high school. I got to know Chip pretty well and we became good friends during his journey. He was one of the most courageous people I’d ever seen and one of the most calm and considerate and focused people I’ve ever known. He never complained, even though he had plenty to complain about. He outlived all the doctors’ expectations. To the great delight of me and everybody else who knew him, including the students who graduated with him, he graduated from Biloxi High School and went to college for a year before he died. I was privileged to
ith him the night he died.
MBJ: What’s next for you, and what are you looking forw