SHERIDAN — Paul Young walked to an interview wearing a business casual outfit that included a blue button-down shirt and blue suit jacket. He appeared relaxed yet fatigued, a look probably common among outgoing community college leaders.
Young spent about nine years as president of the Northern Wyoming Community College District and 14-and-a-half years in Wyoming, beginning in February 2005 at Gillette College. Young’s final day on the job is July 17, after which his successor Walter Tribley will take over and lead the college district, which has campuses and facilities in Sheridan, Gillette and Buffalo.
After his last day, Young will move back to his home state of Maine, where he aims to unplug after nearly a decade overseeing growth and change at two community colleges.
With additional time on his hands, Young plans to read more books and see many live performances of William Shakespeare plays, among other things.
Last Thursday, Young spoke with The Sheridan Press about what drew him to Wyoming, the evolution of higher education and rewards and challenges during his tenure.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
The Sheridan Press: What made you want to step down at this point in your career?
Paul Young: I’ve been here a long time now … and college presidencies are demanding jobs … I want to do the things I want to do, and in this job, you’re pretty much working on a lot of interesting things for a lot of other people. And that’s great, very rewarding, but at a certain point I think everybody says, “There are things I’d like to do.”
TSP: The demands of the job, how did they compare to what you thought or expected?
PY: You want to be college president because you think you’re going to be in charge, and you’re not, really … You have legislators, you have donors, you have accreditors, you have federal legislators, and all of that is always changing … I came here in a moment when there was a lot of opportunity for the college, and that’s not typical. A lot of places don’t have any money, enrollments are dropping like a rock and their communities are dying. None of that was the case here, and so that I think made the job more demanding … I don’t want everybody reading this to say, “God, what a wimp. He’s complaining about how hard he had to work,” but it’s a hard job, and it’s just, after a while, you want to do something else.
TSP: How do you define your job?
PY: Whatever people in the community and the college wanted to do to move forward. I had a very expansive approach to my job … I think people are looking for that here. You don’t just get to come to Sheridan and just be the college president. There are so many other connections. You’re a leader with the community, with the (Wyoming) Legislature … There are only eight public college or university presidents in the state, so you’re one of the top leaders, and your voice, if you use it well, can be effective.
TSP: Did you think you’d be in Wyoming for almost 15 years?
PY: No, I didn’t think I’d be here for very long at all … I said maybe a year or two or three years and then I’ll go do something else.
TSP: So what kept you (here)?
PY: There’s momentum, and there’s just tremendous opportunity because people in Wyoming really want their communities to be strong and they recognize the value of education and the role that education plays … You could feel people saying, “What do we have to do to be at the forefront of things here? Because we have the resources, and we really want to do that,” and that got my attention and that kept me … That was always exciting, because we were making changes and we were developing new programs and students were responding. You could see the response, and so what kind of job can you get where you do something and you see the reward from that?
TSP: Is there a certain aspect that stands out as the thing you’re proudest of?
PY: The tech areas. That was something that when I started here I knew very little about, but there was incredible demand … There were always strong technical programs here, but they were just very, very small … We said, “OK, how can we grow these things? How can we scale them up so that we’re producing not just a handful of students a year but dozens of students a year in each of these different trades, and doing it in Gillette and doing it in Sheridan?” Now we’re doing that, and the employers appreciate it.
TSP: Anything that stands out as an area you wish you had done differently?
PY: We had the huge situation [in] the fall of 2017, with the Native American race hate issue, and I just had no awareness. I was too blind to that situation. I was not mindful of those students or of the sensitivities around those kinds of issues, and so I wish I had maybe smartened up about that a little bit sooner. On the other hand, I’ll say, as an organization, I think we handled that really well … We still have things to learn and we’re still trying to get better on all those kinds of fronts, but I look at how strong that Native American organization was here on campus and the things they did this past year … I was just really, really proud of that. From something that was bad and that maybe we should’ve anticipated and been more on top of, look at the tremendous strength and good things that came from that.
TSP: Was that one of the most challenging aspects of your tenure?
PY: No question about that … I got calls from every Indian tribe all over the country … I had the tribal liaisons calling me and they wanted to know what we were going to do and they wanted to know now … Public reputation of organizations is easily ruined, and so one of the big things you worry about as a leader is the reputation of the place, and you don’t want anything to hurt that, because it has so many repercussions. That sort of leads you into what creates a problem for so many people, because you want to hide … You’re like, “How do we keep this all under wraps?” Well the answer is, the more you try to do something like that, the worse it gets, and we actually got a good lesson in being forthright, having meetings and answering questions and doing things and being upfront.
TSP: What do you think is the fairest criticism of your time here?
PY: That I neglected communication, and especially internal communication … We were doing change here on steroids … It was just a problem of not being able to keep up … I think it got better over time, but … it’s not my nature to communicate speedily … Salaries remain an issue. I don’t know what the answer for that is, because I don’t know where to get more ongoing funding for operations. My hope was that if we did all these things and became so central to the success of the community (that) sustainable revenue to reward the people that work so hard here to make it happen would follow, and that unfortunately hasn’t happened to the degree I would’ve hoped.
TSP: At Sheridan College, what’s been the biggest evolution over the years?
PY: The mainstreaming of this college with national trends … from the completion agenda, inclusiveness, how you deal with race hate and now the opportunity to deliver baccalaureate education … I think there always was excellence here … What we’ve been able to do is take that and grow it into that mainstream of American higher education so that we’re participating in all the most important new innovations … If you had told me that when I started in 2005 that before 2020, these colleges would be offering applied baccalaureates on their own, I would’ve laughed you out of my office. But all of the two-year schools in Wyoming have grown in prominence, they’ve grown in the recognition that people have for what we do, and I’ve been happy to play a role in that … Before, the two-year colleges were just this question mark in between K-12 and UW, and now we’re not that.
TSP: What’s next for you?
PY: I’m going to downshift a little bit and try to relax. In this job, the phone can ring seven days a week from 7 o’clock in the morning ‘til 11 o’clock at night, or later … It’s going to take me some time to withdraw from that, but — and I know people are thinking, “Oh, you’re going to miss it. You’re going to be bored.” I think I won’t be. I’ve lived that way before without a ton of responsibility in my life, and I’m looking forward to it.