Legacy of Leadership: Dr. Allen Edwards looks back on growth, importance of community colleges

Dr. Allen Edwards will welcome the Blount County community at a retirement reception in his honor on Tuesday, June 21, at the Blount County campus.

Dr. Allen Edwards will welcome the Blount County community at a retirement reception in his honor on Tuesday, June 21, at the Blount County campus.

If you are of the opinion community colleges are second-fiddle to universities, spend a few minutes with the retiring president of Pellissippi State Community College, Dr. Allen Edwards.

He will tell you that community colleges don’t take a back seat to any university, and that are so vital that if they didn’t exist, they would have to be invented.

Edwards, 66, is retiring June 30 after 18 years as president of the college, which was preceded by time as president of two-year colleges in Kentucky and Texas.

“Going to a university in my opinion would not have been a step up for me, because we do things extremely well at the community college level and are a very important part of the community structure. At this point, if we didn’t exist, you would have to invent us,” he said. “We play a huge role. We’re involved in workforce development and preparing students for university work. We are so engaged in so many aspects of education. That is why I love community colleges. This is the field I wanted to be a part of.”

Blount County friends and supporters will have the opportunity to wish Dr. Edwards well from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 21, at a reception in his honor at the Pellissippi State Blount County campus, 2731 W. Lamar Alexander Parkway. The public is invited.

Edwards has seen great changes in the community college landscape since he came to Pellissippi in 1993.

“Community college has been the exciting part of higher education in America for the last 35 to 40 years. You’ve seen tremendous growth,” he said. “Back when I started, they were opening one community college a week across the country.”

Edwards said that in the 1970s, people needed access to higher education and wanted the opportunity to go to college. The community colleges were the institutions responding. “It was just an incredible movement of a democratic society that said to the people, ‘We are going to give you the opportunity to become the best you can be, and that includes going to college.’ Not a lot of countries in the world provide that opportunity for its citizens, but the U.S. does, and the community colleges have been those democratic institutions that have allow people to have that access,” he said.

Edwards said he was impressed with Pellissippi before he ever stepped on campus.

“I knew Pellissippi State was a great college to begin with. I had been in Lexington, Ky., and had worked around the country and knew Pellissippi State was an up-and-coming college. It had good leadership in J.L. Goins,” he said. “I thought it was a college that had an opportunity to go places, so I was very excited to be a part of that. It had a wonderful new facility on the main campus. The other facilities were not so great, but the main campus was beautiful.”

Edwards career as a community college president took him to Austin, Texas, and Lexington, Ky., before he landed in Knoxville.

“I’ve always been a community college president in a university town. My job basically throughout my career has been to establish a place for a community college,” he said.

Edwards said one of his first tasks was transitioning Pellissippi from a technical school to a full-fledged community college. “That was my goal and that has been my job coming in the door,” he said.

Edwards said there have been some distinct challenges serving a community college in a university town. “One is getting people’s attention and telling people who we are and what we do. When you live in Knoxville and don’t have an SEC football team, it is all about getting our message out about what we do and how well we do it,” he said. “We have an excellent faculty and staff, and we don’t take a back seat to anyone when it comes to classroom teaching. Getting that message out has been a big part of what I’ve tried to do.”

Edwards said the first large scale capital campaign under his watch at Pellissippi was when the college purchased the former Knoxville Catholic High School campus on Magnolia Avenue in about 1998. “I always thought this was right in the heart of midtown - the east side of midtown - with a population that was underserved. What a great place for Pellissippi State to be,” he said.

Edwards said when the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Knoxville called and said they were interested in selling the property, Pellissippi didn’t have the money, so he went to the community. “The community responded in a big way. We had a capital campaign, and people who silently backed us said, ‘We’ll make this happen, just do your best to raise the money.’ We finished that campaign six months early, and we raised $1.2 million,” he said. “We started class a semester early because of the success of the campaign. It was the right place to be.”

The Blount County campus for Pellissippi State Community College opened in August of 2010 and was a long time in coming, Edwards said.

“That was something that was on the back burner for a long time. We’ve had a long presence in Blount County from the Union School days to Bungalow days to now. When I got here, the idea was already planted that we needed a new facility in Blount County. My job was to get it on books with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. After that, it was just keeping it on the burner, and keeping it moving forward year after year after year,” he said.

Edwards said that several times he thought there would be funding, and the college would identify potential land and each time something would come up, and the state funding would disappear, or there would be a freeze on capital building for higher education. “Finally, by just keeping it there, it came together, and when it did, we went to community and said, ‘The state will give us the money to build it, but if we want it to be a first-class operation, we need your help,’” he said. “We had tremendous support in doing that, and a lot of good people helped.”

Edwards praised District 4-C County Commissioner Jerome Moon and Peggy and Keith McCord who Edwards said stepped forward and helped lead the campaign to raise the money in the community. “Those guys and the community really stepped forward, and we raised a couple million dollars more and turned the Blount Campus into an amazing facility,” he said. “Also, the Blount County Commission let us sell the old campus and put that money into the new campus. That all helped us get off to an incredible start with the fine, new facility in Blount County. It has been a wonderful story.”

Edwards said he never forgets the impact Pellissippi State has on its graduates. He recalled a barbecue held one evening recently with some of the graduates of the Industrial Maintenance Program. “One guy said, ‘I can’t believe I’m graduating. I came by just to find out about the program, the instructor asked me some questions. Then he said, ‘Let’s sign up.’ They did away with all the obstacles and made anything possible.’ Those stories are incredible to hear, and they happen year after year after year.”

Edwards said he will miss Pellissippi, but after 25 years in education, he is ready for a new challenge. Retirement was a choice that took a while for Edwards to make.

“I think you first start off thinking about retirement when some of your colleagues and close friends start taking the jump. At first you say, ‘I can’t believe they retired, and they’re only two years older than I am.’ That starts the process,” he said. “Then you turn 62, and you start thinking about it seriously.”

Edwards said that he just decided to pick a date and do it. “I needed to just pick a point and move on,” he said. “It is a wonderful, wonderful job to have, but there are a lot of stresses and strains involved, and, on some levels, you are eager to be finished with those.”

Edwards said he has no definite plans right now. “I’ve worked since I was 12. I’ll step back and disappear for a while, and if I can help with the college, I will be glad to do so,” he said.

The new president of Pellissippi is Anthony Wise, 43, who was vice president of learning at Pellissippi. Pellissippi State is Tennessee’s second largest community college.

Edwards said his wife, Sue, isn’t retiring. “She’s a special education teacher in Knox County and will continue to work for a couple of years,” he said.

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