Higher education

Kirkwood down to four finalists for presidency

'Now it's in the board's hands'

Kirkwood Community College logo
Kirkwood Community College logo

IOWA CITY — Seven months away from Mick Starcevich’s final day as president, Kirkwood Community College has four finalists to succeed him — including three community college presidents and one woman with a deep working history across the Cedar Rapids region, including at Kirkwood.

Kristie Fisher, Iowa assistant vice president and senior director of strategic partnerships with ACT, Inc., on Friday became the last finalist to visit Kirkwood and participate in public forums. Before joining ACT in 2014, Fisher served in various roles at Kirkwood — including vice president of student services from 2006 to 2014.

Other finalists include Steve Schulz, president of North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City — a smaller institution about 130 miles northwest of Kirkwood; Lori Sunberg, a former businesswoman-turned-academic who heads Carl Sandburg College, a two-year community college in Galesburg, Ill.; and Michael Thomson, president of Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio.

A 16-member search committee comprised of board members, administrators, faculty, and staff began accepting applications for Starcevich’s successor in August — just three months ago and eight months after its president in January announced plans to resign in June 2018.

The school tapped consultant Larry Ebbers, a professor emeritus in the Iowa State University School of Education, to help with the search, which accepted nominations and applications through Sept. 15. Ebbers’ contract with Kirkwood pays him $7,500 — not including expenses.

During the one-month submission period, more than 60 people applied, and the search committee whittled down that pool to its top prospects. Each finalist this month interviewed with Kirkwood’s nine-member board of trustees and participated in public forums during campus visits.

In addition to collecting written feedback during the forums, Kirkwood has set up an online submission form — and the public can provide thoughts on finalists through Monday. The online form offers space for overall impressions, thoughts on strengths and concerns, and then the option to rate candidates — both in general terms, like “an excellent choice” or “not acceptable,” and also numerically from 0 to 10.


Those submitting thoughts don’t have to provide their names, but they must identify whether they are faculty, staff, a student, community member, board member, or cabinet member.

The board hasn’t shared a specific timetable for making a selection, according to Kirkwood spokesman Justin Hoehn. But it could happen during an upcoming board meeting — its next is Nov. 16, when board members are scheduled to meet in closed session with Ebbers.

The board has another meeting Dec. 14.

“Now it’s in the board’s hands,” Hoehn said. “The end goal is to have a president announced and ready to step into the position when Starcevich retires.”

Kirkwood could pick someone well in advance of next summer, allowing Starcevich to “work hand-in-hand” with his successor to set him or her up to “hit the ground running.”

“They are going to make sure that they have the right person they are looking for,” Hoehn said.

Starcevich, who turned 70 this year, is leaving after 14 years on the job. During his time at Kirkwood — which opened more than 50 year ago and today serves more than 20,000 students annually — he’s overseen construction of a wind turbine, development of a 71-room teaching hotel, and establishment of four regional centers. Graduate rates and scholarship funds have improved under his watch.

His most recent success came in September, when voters in a seven-county region easily passed a third consecutive bond issue expected to generate $60 million and fulfill a master facilities plan for the 885-acre campus, which includes 27 buildings totaling 1.65 million square feet of “learning space.”

The Finalists

Michael Thomson since 2013 has served as president and executive officer for the eastern campus with Cuyahoga Community College, Ohio’s first community college. The institution as a whole offers courses in more than 190 programs and serves more than 55,000 credit and noncredit students annually.


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With the eastern campus, Thomson oversees programming for more than 5,000 students and a $23 million budget. He served as a campus vice president before taking the helm of the east campus and also was dean of academic affairs on one of the campuses.

He’s the only candidate without any academic experience in Iowa — he earned a bachelor’s degree from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s and doctorate from University of Kentucky — all in political science.

Lori Sundberg has been president of Carl Sandburg College since 2010. Before taking the helm, Sunberg served in vice president, dean, and director roles for the community college of about 2,000 students.

She earned a cosmetology certificate from the school in 1977 and then a bachelor’s degree in economics and history from Knox College in Galesburg, followed by a master in business administration in marketing from Western Illinois University, and a doctor of business administration from St. Ambrose University in Iowa.

In her resume, Sundberg refers to herself as a “dedicated, visionary higher education professional.”

Steve Schulz has been servings as North Iowa Area Community College president just up the road since 2013. Before that, he was provost of the Des Moines Area Community College’s Carroll campus from 2006 to 2013, and he coordinated DMACC’s 2+2 program with University of Northern Iowa from 2004 to 2006.

Before jumping to higher education, Schulz rose through the K-12 ranks — first working as a secondary social studies teacher and cross-country coach and then advancing to junior high and senior high principal of Plainfield Community School in Plainfield, middle school principal with the Carroll Community Schools, and then superintendent of the Carroll district.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in education and history from Wartburg; a master’s in education administration from UNI; an education specialist degree from Drake University; and a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies from Iowa State University.


Kristie Fisher has the most Kirkwood-specific experience, stretching all the way back to her own undergraduate education, when she earned a Kirkwood associate degree in liberal arts. She went on to get a bachelor’s in communication studies from University of Iowa, a Master of Business Administration from UI, and a doctorate in higher education from Iowa State, where she completed a dissertation titled, “Service on the community college campus: The millennial generation perspective.”

Her first stint working at Kirkwood started in 1995, when she was hired as annual giving director. She left to direct community relations for the College Community School District in Cedar Rapids, but returned to Kirkwood in 2004 as its director of special projects and assistant to the president.

Fisher’s last post at Kirkwood before leaving for ACT was as vice president of student services. As ACT’s assistant vice president, she leads a team of market experts who served in K-12, collegiate, and university roles, as well as workforce development, to inform and support short- and long-term strategy.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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