A Farewell from COP’s Executive Director

Pictured from left to right: WA State Representative Noel Frame, UW President Ana Mari Cauce, Former WA State Senator Barbara Bailey, COP Executive Director Paul Francis and WA State Representative Gerry Pollet.

There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over–and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.

—Ellen Goodman
Paul Francis, Executive Director

I grew up in Tucson, Arizona. We survived on food stamps. My mother was schizophrenic and a manic depressive who refused to accept medication or treatment; this meant regular interactions with law enforcement and social service agencies. My father capriciously left our family when I was 12 and my sister dropped out of school in the ninth grade. I didn’t think I qualified for financial aid to attend college because I was an immigrant. I never stepped foot on a college campus until I began attending one and didn’t have time to join a fraternity or pursue study abroad or internship opportunities because I worked 30 hours a week at a call center.

I share those personal details because it is this lived experience that I brought with me to the Council of Presidents. Education changed the trajectory of my life and that of my family; I wake up daily with a passion to ensure that every single person has the same opportunity I did to ameliorate their lives, lift up their communities, and pursue the American Dream.

My American Dream will continue on August 1 when I become executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. I cannot meaningfully articulate what it means to lead the best community and technical college system in the nation given the essential role that community and technical colleges play in the fabric of communities across our state.

In the meantime, I look back on ten transformative and eventful years with the Council of Presidents. I joined the COP team in late 2011. Much as now, it was a chaotic time with concurrent crises. State funding for the public four-year sector had declined by more than 40% during the Great Recession. Resident undergraduate students had just experienced four years of double digit tuition increases due to state funding declines. Earlier that year, legislation had been proposed to eliminate COP, even though it does not exist in state statute. The Higher Education Coordinating Board had just been eliminated, soon to be replaced by the Student Achievement Council. The public four-year sector and broader higher ed and workforce community was divided, disorganized, and territorial.

Nonetheless, I was up for a challenge, having spent the prior five years as legislative staff. My first assignments included working with the Education Research and Data Center to implement new legislation that created the Statewide Public Four-Year Dashboard, which would soon receive national recognition. I worked with the COP member campuses to improve institutional efficiency and provide regulatory relief; this resulted in the development and near unanimous passage of four pieces of state legislation over a three-year period. And I quickly learned how to successfully convene and facilitate agreement among COP’s committees, including presidents, provosts, admissions and financial aid directors, chief information officers, and legislative directors. The work was challenging, multifaceted, and important.

In May 2013 I was selected as executive director after serving as interim executive director for four months. I am proud of many things that occurred during my tenure, some of which I played a bigger role in than others – but all of which involved many outstanding public servants and advocates united in the cause to expand educational opportunities in our state:

Perhaps the accomplishment for which I am most proud is speed and precision with which COP worked with our member campuses and broader higher ed community and state government to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. This issue presented an adaptive challenge unlike anything anyone had experienced in their lifetimes. Higher education is sometimes rightly criticized for the glacial pace at which change occurs. COVID-19 illustrated that colleges and universities – and the faculty, staff, and students who comprise them – can mobilize when confronted with an emergency. At COP, I recognized the severity of this crisis and immediately worked to create a space for our campus leaders to collaborate and share information with the state and each other to drive decisions. I led in producing 15 written joint higher ed COVID-19 updates to policymakers and their staff. I joined my fellow executive directors from the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges and Independent Colleges of Washington to produce a Campus Reopening Guide to illustrate to state policymakers that campus leaders were thoughtfully incorporating federal and state directives and guidance into their operational plans. I served as the COVID-19 lead for our campuses in meetings with the Governor’s office, Department of Health, Department of Labor and Industries, and higher ed partners and worked to consistently and broadly share countless campus updates.

My team and I created and disseminated a myriad of documents for prospective students and their families and policymakers, provided updates on federal CARES Act expenditures, campus implementation of our state’s “Shot of a Lifetime” Vaccine Lottery, and developed shared principles from the broader higher ed community. We addressed COVID-19 related issues related to high school graduation requirements, student financial aid, grading policies, congregate housing, accreditation, licensure, professional and college entrance exams, and so much more. We didn’t always make the right decisions but charted a path forward together with the best information we had at that time. Inaction was never an option. I hope that future higher ed leaders will look back at our response efforts as a template for how best to respond to future emergencies.

From left to right: WSAC Executive Director Michael Meotti, SBCTC Executive Director Jan Yoshiwara, ICW President and CEO Terri Standish-Kuon, and COP Executive Director Paul Francis.

I am proud that COP is known for the high quality of its communications and work products. I have overseen the launch of the organization’s social medial presence onto LinkedIn and Twitter (it has been yours truly behind that Twitter handle all these years). Our reports, presentations, fact sheets, and policy briefs maintain a reputation in public policy circles for carrying a professional appearance while also being accurate, informative, and exceptionally well written. We also built a comprehensive new website and organized and improved the physical space in our Olympia office so that it is a more welcoming place for staff and guests.  

The truth, of course, is that no one achieves success and creates change alone; I am fortunate to have worked with many outstanding people during my time here – including a truly remarkable team at COP who pushed me to think creatively and inspired me daily. They are some of the people I will miss the most. I especially thank the 16 college and university presidents for whom I’ve worked; while they each had different personalities and leadership styles, every single one supported me and this organization and gave me the time and space to succeed as a leader and manager.

At the same time, I have also experienced many failures over the past decade. I was sometimes overly tolerant of unprofessional and belligerent behavior from others. There were times when I could have exhibited greater leadership even though I didn’t possess formal authority. The legislative session doesn’t always produce optimal budget or policy solutions. At times I focused too much on how decisions would impact college or university operations and not enough on how they impacted students. And as a young, new leader of color, I should have worked to find mentors from whom I could learn and receive advice and feedback rather than suffer alone. But I’ve always endeavored to reflect, learn something from each failure, and use it as a learning experience to do and be better.

Washington’s high tech economy and the rapidly changing nature of work means that postsecondary education is more vital to career success and economic prosperity than ever. As I once wrote in the intent section of a bill, “In the knowledge-based, globally interdependent economy of the 21st Century, postsecondary education is the most indispensable form of currency.” Indeed, according to a 2022 Washington Roundtable report, employers will add 373,000 net new jobs in Washington state over the next five years. Yet we pursue a flawed strategy of over relying on importing educated individuals – like me – to fill these good jobs, leaving Washingtonians untrained for the jobs of tomorrow. The gap between demand for talent and postsecondary supply is widening due to declining college enrollment; it’s going to take all of us working together to change that trajectory. We must remember that higher education provides a multitude of both public and private benefits and work harder to convince a skeptical public that it is worth their time and investment.

So the work that the Council of Presidents does matters. How could I not be honored and proud to have led an organization on the ascendancy? This is the greatest job I have ever had; one that I could never have imagined holding during those challenging first 18 years of my life. Thank you to all those with whom I’ve had the privilege to meet and work with and debate the nuances of public policy and share moments of levity. You’ve personally and professionally enriched my life. Please continue to support the work of COP and advance the cause of public baccalaureate education.

With appreciation,