Longest Serving President’s Legacy at Tri-C is Her Fundraising Ability
By Bronson Peshlakai
It was a short ride into the sunset as a retiree for Tri-C’s longest serving president.
It was 79 days after leaving her post of 21 years as Tri-C District president, the college announced President Emeritus Jerry Sue Thornton will “formally re-engage with the college” for the next year in a special advisory role that reports to the vice president of development.
“It’s an opportunity to have some continuity of her experience as president, in terms of maintaining connections in the community, as well as working to identify some additional opportunities for relationships and those who might be giving to the college as well,” said David Hoovler, chief of staff to Tri-C President Alex Johnson.
The move brings back Thornton to Tri-C as a paid administrative employee earning $150,000 for the length of about one year, Hoovler said. Thornton’s office will be based out of the Corporate College East in Highland Hills.
At an unveiling gala of renaming the college’s Institutional Advancement building to the Jerry Sue Thornton center, the former president said she intends to donate her entire salary to the Tri-C Foundation to fund scholarships for honors students.
“Over the years I have made a lot of donations to minority students, to parochial school students, students from low-income families, students from the Cleveland Municipal School District, Hispanic students who were emerging in our community, and it’s now time to recognize that we do get wonderful honors students at Tri-C,” Thornton told the audience.
One of Thornton’s legacies at Tri-C is her innate ability to schmooze with local civic and business leaders to enlist their help in garnering financial support for student scholarships.
“For this year, she will advise the college on external relationships that have been cultivated and identify potential donors that have not been approached in the past,” a release said. “In addition, she will assist in the ongoing transition of strategic college initiatives.”
Thornton’s Lasting Legacy at Tri-C is Fundraising
Thornton Talks About Her Impending Retirement in April
It’s been 21 years since President Jerry Sue Thornton first started working as the leader of Tri-C, and since then enrollment has increased dramatically, several buildings have been added, and now Thornton believes it was time to open a new chapter in her life.
On June 30, Thornton hung up the reins as president of the college.
“I just felt like 21 years was a good tenure, and to give someone else an opportunity to enjoy the leadership position that I’ve had with this institution,” Thornton said.
Describing her tenure at the college as a “24/7 job,” Thornton also said it was her “dream job.” One of the major milestones she believed she helped change, as president, was the perception of Tri-C being an extension of high school, and not that of the setting of higher education. She said the “Tri-High perception” the school garnered was unfair, and that the Bush and Obama administrations’ spotlight on the nation’s community colleges has opened a pathway for Tri-C, and other community colleges.
“We see it become more prominent of a pathway to futures for individuals locally in our community,” she said. “The acceptance of what we do is greater.”
Now, the college offers courses to students who may still be working at a high school level, college-level courses, and honors programs as well.
Thornton received two very public votes of “no confidence” by the faculty of the college. The first in 1997, after taking the advice of consultants on how Tri-C would operate its school year in quarters or semesters, Thornton went with the recommendation to switch the school year into three semesters. Faculty members voted on a resolution of “no confidence” citing her administration often ignored its recommendations, according to local reports.
“I think there was a real dilemma and misunderstanding from some of the faculty who wanted to stay with quarters,” Thornton said. “We had to prevail with making the recommendations to go with semesters which was the consultant’s report, as well as with what was happening with universities around us.”
The second vote happened in 2010 and had to do with the faculty’s union negotiations.
“It came down to an understanding that we didn’t have the dollars to meet some of the expectations,” she said.
Just after Thornton announced her retirement date in January, the union and Tri-C administration have agreed on a suitable union contract for the next three years, an event Thornton said she wanted to iron out before the next president starts.
Students in financial need with aspirations of completing a program at Tri-C have likely received help from the Tri-C Foundation in the form of scholarships. One of Thornton’s lasting legacies is the Presidential Scholarship Luncheon, which happens each year in the fall.
This year’s luncheon keynote speaker is former U.S. President Bill Clinton. The foundation is famous for attracting notable keynote speakers such as Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw, Condoleezza Rice and Tim Russert, amongst the 21 speakers since Thornton’s inauguration.
Recently, former U.S. Sec. of State Madeleine Albright and former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke at the luncheon. Thornton said while she can’t really pick a favorite speaker since 1992, but she felt NBC News Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert was her top pick.
“There was something about Tim Russert that was very touching to me,” she said. “I don’t know if it was the fact that he went to school here locally, it felt more like someone you knew and he was a neighbor.”
Russert, an alumnus of John Carroll University and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, was the 2005 luncheon speaker. Less than three years later, Russert died from a heart attack at the age of 58.
With her retirement brief, Thornton now will be back in the employ of Tri-C, and she said she looks forward to working behind the scenes to make sure that Tri-C remains strong.