Daily photo by M.J. Ellington|
Thomas Corts placed this painting above his desk in his office at the state Department of Post-Secondary Education. He sees it as a symbol for the time when he took over the system, and as a reminder for what he hopes to accomplish during his time as interim chancellor of the state two-year college system.
Painting symbolizes path for Corts
Interim chancellor hopes to guide 2-year college system to light
By M.J. Ellington
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MONTGOMERY — The painting shows a nighttime scene in Eastern Europe with one man walking down the middle of an empty, rainy city street toward a bright light in the distance.
Thomas Corts, who owns the painting, placed it above his desk in his office at the state Department of Post-Secondary Education.
He sees the painting as a symbol for the time when he took over
the system, and as a reminder for what he hopes to accomplish during his time as interim chancellor of the state two-year college system.
The system includes Calhoun Community College, the state’s largest two-year college, and Athens State University, its only two-year university. Corts has an interest in both.
Corts took the job in July after questions raised in a federal investigation of the system led to the ouster of former Chancellor Roy Johnson.
In July, the system, like the main portion of the painting, was in a dark period with new issues involving family member hiring practices and outside contracts making the news every week.
Corts said then, as now, he believes in an ultimate goal of guiding the system toward a brighter time. The job is not easy, but he believes the goals are possible.
“From the beginning it has been all-consuming. It’s not the job you’d expect for somebody just settling into retirement,” Corts said.
He retired as president of Samford University in Birmingham at the end of May and planned a time of travel, writing and leisure with his wife, Marla.
Questions about his interest in the chancellor’s job started coming in July.
“In the beginning, it was a pretty flat ‘No,’ ” Corts said. The couple was on a trip when Marla Corts gave the job her blessing.
With revelations of scandals and questions about portions of the system’s budget already obligated in special projects, Corts and the state Board of Education that hired him put a hold on several projects that Johnson had under way.
The Calhoun performing arts and classroom center in downtown Decatur was among them.
Corts said he hasn’t discussed the project with local people yet, though he finds the concept of the project appealing.
“One concern is, whose borrowing power are we using? If we use all of our borrowing power in one place, we won’t have funds for the other colleges,” Corts said.
After four months of dealing with scandals, Corts said, he has a better feel for the system that he sees more as a loose consortium of independently acting schools than as a true system like the different campuses of The University of Alabama System, for instance.
“I am still not sure how to go about dealing with that, but I believe it is how the board was surprised by some of the things that happened,” Corts said.
Some things have surprised him in a good way.
“If anything, my sense of pride in the good things is greater than my anxiety over what needs adjusting,” Corts said.
One bright light is the role he expects to play in job training for new industry employees and the new Base Realignment and Closure presence moving into North Alabama, and in the expanded state docks and airplane building industry coming to the Mobile area.
“In three months, they can take a fellow and teach him welding, but when companies hear the person is learning those skills, they hire them, even before they finish the courses,” Corts said.
With salaries in the $12-$25 per hour range, Corts said, the jobs can be a good match for people who are returning to the work force, changing careers or not interested in four-year college or university degrees.
One reality that Corts said is different in his current job is the role politics plays in public institutions.
He dealt with denominational issues as president of Samford when his role was to insulate academics from politics. The current role is different, he said.
“People say the community college system was born in politics, and it was,” Corts said. “Someone said, ‘You are crazy if you think you can take politics out of it in the time you’ve got.’ ”
Corts was hired for a two-year term as interim chancellor, but he said he will not put a specific timetable on a job that is evolving every day.
His goals include clear policies that give individual college administrations the framework to do their jobs.
There is also the scandal that came out of an investigation of the Alabama Fire College and Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa and spread to investigations at other campuses.
He predicted that the investigation will go on for a number of months longer.
At some point, however, Corts wants to resume retirement, write some historic memoirs for Samford and do a biography that is just for his children and grandchildren.
“My children have always found it interesting that we were taught to crawl under our desks as schoolchildren in the Korean War in case of an attack,” he said.
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