Clark State president brings stability, growth in decade at college

Jo Alice Blondin talks about her years at the college, the biggest accomplishments and the future.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

In the 10-plus years Jo Alice Blondin has served as Clark State College’s president, many other schools have been through two or three leadership changes, a sign of the challenges and pressures the positions face.

Stability is one thing Blondin has brought to Clark State, which in the last year:

— landed $1 million for a new program key to defense and national security work;

— partnered with the Global Impact STEM Academy, which will build a new school on Clark State’s Leffel Lane campus; and

— worked with the city of Springfield on a first-of-its-kind fire station that will include classroom space for Clark State cadets.

Blondin oversees 225 full-time and 597 part-time employees and a $32.9 million annual budget. Clark State generates an annual economic impact of $181 million, according to a study by the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education (SOCHE).

“I think that collaborative spirit has been essential,” Blondin said. The board of trustees, students, faculty and staff “all have a lot of energy, a lot of trust and a lot of faith in the direction (we’re going), but they all work collaboratively in creating that direction.”

Horton Hobbs, vice president of Economic Development for the Greater Springfield Partnership, said Clark State has been a “tremendous partner” for workforce development and training.

“It really goes back to one person, and that’s Dr. Blondin. She has a vision for Clark State ... and has executed it,” Hobbs said, “and that’s about being the best community partner they could possibly be. They are proactive at identifying needs and addressing them, and that is what really sets them apart, their ability and willingness.”

‘Swiss Army knife of skills’

Blondin started here on July 1, 2013. Before becoming president at Clark State, she was Chancellor of Arkansas Tech University in Ozark, Ark., for seven years, as well as an English professor, head of student affairs, chief academic officer and English department chair.

As president, Blondin said, “in many ways you’re not just a problem solver, but you’re the biggest champion for students, you’re the leading learner and the advocate for your faculty and staff.”

“You really have to have kind of a Swiss Army knife of skills to be able to continue to thrive in what is becoming an increasingly challenging environment,” Blondin said. “(We) try to make student success as inescapable as possible for students.”

The average tenure for a college president is now three to five years, Blondin said, a figure that has gone down since the early 2000s, according to the Association of Governing Boards (AGB).

Blondin said the job of college presidents is becoming more complex. She said it’s a skill to have the ability to focus on many aspects such as policy, students, legislation that’s affecting public colleges, accreditation, infrastructure, facilities, community partnerships, business and industry partnerships, and developing new programs.

“I believe that the complexity of these positions is just, in some areas, a challenge, but it’s something that energizes me every day. No day is the same ever,” she said.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Blondin thinks staying in touch with the students is essential, and she teaches, goes into classes for guest lectures and attends student activities to help with that.

“That’s why we’re here, and if you forget that and move away from your core mission, then it does get more difficult to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. But certainly if you’re connected to the students, it makes sense every day,” she said.

Connected to the community

Blondin said a lifelong learning model developed at Clark State is her No. 1 accomplishment, followed by workforce responsiveness of the college’s programs.

But the partnerships have been key.

“I think that the ‘say yes’ mentality is absolutely key to being a community college. We may be called Clark State College, but I can assure you that the community is more present than it ever has been even when we were named Clark State Community College. I’m really proud of the visibility of Clark State at a national level, of course at a regional level and a state level,” Blondin said.

Hobbs said Clark State stands by the Greater Springfield Partnership’s side when helping companies.

“They’re always willing to seek a grant, develop a program that’s identified by an employer, always the first to do it. We can always count on them,” he said. “They’re also very innovative in the way they approach education in general, and that innovation extends to the classroom and to the business community.”

The Greater Springfield Partnership supports the college with grant applications to purchase equipment for specialized training. The organization will meet with a company that might identify a need from a training perspective, they then call Clark State and inform them about it, and they help make that connection to those businesses for that need.

When talking to companies about locating here, Hobbs said he “never has a doubt” that Clark State is a part of those conversations. He said he has the “confidence to promise programming and training” because he know it will be executed at the highest level.

Awards and honors

Clark State, its staff and faculty have won many awards, including Blondin being awarded a national honor, the Marie Y. Martin Executive Officer Award by the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT).

“Every award that a person receives is not really for that person, so even though I was given (the award) among 1,200 community college presidents, that really is a recognition of work at Clark State,” she said.

Clark State was also recently the only community college awarded a $1 million grant from the United States Department of Education to launch a modeling and simulation program and degree.

The college is developing the new program to be ready for students to start in the 2024 fall semester and prepare them for jobs of the future.

Clark State’s future, Blondin said, needs to include a lifelong learning model in which faculty listens to and is as flexible as possible with students, especially since about 75% are part time and have needs outside of the classroom. She said the future of higher education is a subscription model where students go in and out at various times for different reasons in their life, some staying four years, others two years, and some specifically for certificates and credentials.

“That’s the future, and that’s the future we’re building at Clark State. Those higher education institutions that are not responsive to this need will find themselves in a difficult situation because they’re relevance and the number of students will be diminishing,” she said.

She said higher education is about the ability to have an excellent quality of life.

“Nothing has changed about the fact that higher education enhances a person’s quality of life, but I think the conversation has changed around what does the result of that, what does the outcome of that look like when you go,” Blondin said.

As for her own future, Blondin said she will stay president as long as the board, students, faculty and staff “will have her,” but there are still a lot of things she wants to do with her life.

“There are going to be a lot of opportunities whether I’m president of Clark State or a resident of Springfield. I’m excited. I love this job and I give it 150%, but you never know what’s next and what’s around the corner,” she said. “I’ve cultivated a leadership culture at Clark State, so whether I’m there or not, I think that Clark State will continue to ascend ... I think that they’re going to do great no matter what.”

Help in any way

Blondin said one of the “most essential programs” implemented at Clark State — the Title III Trauma Informed grant — recognizes students come to them with a variety of experiences. The college is “leaning into being a social services agency” because it now offers many wraparound services such as a clothing, career and coat closet, food pantry, mental health services, transportation assistance and scholarships.

“We’re here to help them in any way,” she said.

Blondin also wants to make sure the college aligns its programs as closely as possible with their transfer, business and industry partners; wants thriving campus locations and a Performing Arts Center (PAC) to continue supporting the arts communities; and wants to continue to grow programs.

“I think that continuing to be visible and at the table and part of conversations around workforce and community development are absolutely key to Clark State’s success as well as the community’s success,” she said.

Despite the challenges, Blondin said she is optimistic, especially when she talks to a student group to “understand that the future will be determined by these students.”

Eighty-five percent of Clark State students stay in the region to work and live, “so knowing that we that we’re making that kind of impact through not just our graduates but our business and industry partners is pretty incredible,” Blondin said. “That definitely gets me up in the morning and going.”

About the Author