September 30, 2018

by Paul Briand

PORTSMOUTH — With his hiring as the newest president of Great Bay Community College, Dr. Pelema Morrice has come full circle.

He started his college education at a community college, and now he is president of Great Bay Community College, succeeding Wildolfo Arvelo, who left the post last year to take a job as the state’s director of economic development.

“It was a very impactful experience for me,” said Morrice, who attended Cabrillo Community College in Aptos, California, before transferring to San Jose State University where he earned both his bachelor and master’s degrees. “Many, many years ago the benefit and experience much like the one we offer here was a close-knit and familiar atmosphere where staff and faculty were really important in terms of my growth and development. I can say with full authenticity I wouldn’t be where I am today without that experience.”

Morrice has a long resume in academics as a student and an administrator.

From San Jose State he went to the University of Michigan from 2006 to 2009 for his doctorate, and he is currently seeking his executive MBA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management.

His professional posts include stints at Stanford University (2002-2005), California State University (2005-2006), University of San Diego (2009-2011), University of Nebraska/Omaha (2011-2014), Bryn Mawr College (2014-2016), and the University of Missouri (2016-2018), where he served as vice provost for enrollment management and strategic development.

Upon his departure, the University of Missouri said of Morrice he made “some distinct changes to admissions and affordability and admissibility that will have positive repercussions for our students for years to come.”

Asked about that, Morrice said, “The biggest one that got a lot of attention was our ability to really uptick our financial help that we offered low-income students. We essentially – much like you’ve done here in New Hampshire with the Granite Guarantee – moved to a place where any low-income eligible student in Missouri had their tuition and fees paid for. And what we did in Missouri that’s quite different from what’s been done here in New Hampshire is we also covered that for transfer students as well.”

A lot of his former professional work was in the areas of enrollment, financial aid and strategic development. His approach as an administrator is rooted less in tweedy philosophy and more in entrepreneurial strategic data. He describes himself as someone “grounded in brand strategy and organizational behavior as tools to advance organizations.”

His methodology to running an academic institution is in some ways similar to evaluating and operating a business, a skill set he latched upon in his studies as a research assistant as he earned his PhD from the University of Michigan. His doctorate is in higher education with a concentration in organizational behavior.

As a discipline, organization behavior is the study of the way people interact within groups, normally applied as a way for business work groups to operate more effectively and efficiently.

“To me brand strategy is really a very nice integration of strategic management and having a sense of what your core competencies are, what your core strengths are and how to navigate those as an educational institution. We are a teaching and learning institution and nonprofit and it’s important for us to make sure that we have a good sense of who we are, and that’s related to brand and brand strategy,” Morrice said.

“Organization behavior is really having a keen sense of the entire environment,” he added. “Knowing the complete ecosystem and knowing which levers to pull for us to be in a position to be successful are important. The combination of those things has helped me throughout my career.”

Growing up in Santa Cruz, California, the son of a single parent, his mother taught kindergarten. Morrice described himself as a straight-A student through ninth grade, but foundered in high school, eventually dropping out his senior year and not getting his high school diploma until age 23 through night school.

He looks back on that experience with an appreciation that traditional, structured learning modes don’t always work for everybody, and he values the role community colleges play in creating learning alternatives.

“As a high school student from a low-income, single-parent household, imagining that I’d earn a PhD and go on to guide strategic efforts at leading educational institutions would have seemed impossible,” he said. “But a community college was a true launching pad for me, as it has been for so many in our society.”

Morrice regards the community college system in California, with more than 100 schools, as an integral part of a community, a value he wants to bring to the Seacoast. A community college, he said, should serve the community to help someone get into a four-year school, it should help someone who wants to learn a trade, and it should offer itself to the community as a resource, for, say, a farmers market or to fill some other community need.

“As we think about what we look like in the future, I think it’ll be good for us to think about how we can best serve and be a part of the community,” he said.

In his early days at Great Bay, he said he’s engaged in a listening tour.

“The primary goal for right now is listening,” Morrice said. “I’m doing a listening tour and that can involve sitting in small groups with different people on campus and trying to get a sense of what’s working and what’s not working, and just getting a sense of what’s going on on the ground.

“I’m doing that also externally in the community with key individuals and learning their sense of Great Bay and getting a good sense again of what the near term challenges and opportunities are.”

Rolled into that is the preparation of a new strategic plan for the college.

“We would like to start engaging now in mapping out a process for a more inclusive and engaging strategic plan,” he said. “What I mean by that is that it’s going to be grown internally from our community as a whole and from the external community outside of campus.”

Sharon Harris of Exeter is a Community College System of New Hampshire trustee who co-chaired the search committee.

“We were pleased to recommend Pelema Morrice from a strong pool of candidates,” she said. “He brings broad experience at institutions as diverse as Stanford University, Bryn Mawr College and major public universities. His personal journey resonated with the committee as illustrative of many of the barriers individuals face and overcome in pursuing educational, economic and social mobility.”

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