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Interview with Chancellor Lee Lambert of Pima Community College

October is off to an exciting start! This week, I had the privilege of speaking with Lee Lambert, Chancellor of Pima Community College, about the release of “SHIFT HAPPENS @ Pima Community College.” Lee and I had the opportunity to meet in March 2019 at the NAWB Forum in Washington, D.C. It was there that we formed a collaboration to produce “SHIFT HAPPENS@PIMA.” Authored by Dr. Merrilea Mayo and the Pima leadership team, SHIFT Happens@PIMA is the first paper of its kind to describe the implementation strategies a large higher education institution has taken to address the rapidly changing environment of community colleges, specifically around the future of working and learning. Lee arrived in Tucson to take on his role as Chancellor in July 2013. Pima had been placed on probation by the Higher Learning Commission for the second time when Lee took the helm. As Lee describes in the paper, Pima had run aground. This interview takes a look into Lee and his vision and leadership. Enjoy!

Jamai: Lee, I am so pleased to interview you for the CLOSE IT blog, specifically with this week’s release of SHIFT HAPPENS@PIMA. I would love to know your perspective on the “shift” and the work Pima has undertaken as outlined in the paper.

Lee: There is a story here, Jamai. When I was in Seattle at Shoreline Community College and not too long after becoming President there (2007), America’s Perfect Storm had been released from ETS. I don’t know if you remember that report, but it talked about significant shifts underway at that time, namely disparities in skill levels, sweeping demographic shifts, and large economic changes, including wage gaps. It was in that context that I was talking a lot about five educational gaps in education at that time. The five gaps included educational achievement, technology, global, sustainability, and skills. The same issues that I was seeing in Seattle were the same I then saw when I began at Pima, however, more pronounced in ways. So, I began talking about them even more.

Jamai: Did that make you feel like it was your calling, like a call to action?

Lee: When I was at Shoreline, I was first hired as a V.P., and within six months I became the Interim President and then President in 2005-06. When I took over Shoreline as President, the college was in the red. I share that to say I am no stranger having to do difficult work. When I took over at Pima in 2013, I looked at my skillsets, what I had learned, and I felt ready for the challenge.

Jamai: So, what is the first thing you did when you began at Pima?

Lee: During my interview, I asked to visit the college’s Auto program, as I knew it would tell me a lot about the college and its focus on Career and Technical Education. Remember, at Shoreline we had one of the leading Automotive Tech programs in the country. Unfortunately, after my tour, I saw that Pima’s was far from that. I didn’t get scared, but found it as a challenge to embrace.

Jamai: I think that once you deal with a crisis, you may become less afraid of a crisis. Do you ever feel that after failing at something that it made you less scared in the future?

Lee: Well, failing is probably not the right word. Learning . . . learning challenges that I have confronted and what I have learned along the way seems better wording. I have learned a lot—how to navigate politics, financial situations, and how to connect with students, faculty and the community. I always have said “I am just a ‘recovering’ lawyer,” but I’ve realized I can make a difference.

Jamai: So, you were born to make SHIFT happen.

Lee: Yes! My whole life has been a shift! I was born in Seoul. My mother is Korean. My father is from North Carolina and was in the U.S. Army. For the first 18 years, I lived on three continents, four different states, and four countries. My entire life has been about shifts, disruption and constant change.

Jamai: So, when you arrived and knew you had a lot of changes necessary, did you work with the board, the leadership or the community first to get their buy-in?

Lee: My board has had a complete turnover over the six years, but they have been, of course, critical to Pima’s success. Simultaneously, I worked with Pima’s leaders on elements of successful leadership. I focused on gathering input from stakeholders from all sectors. I had dinners and pizza nights with faculty, lunches with students, office hours at all campus locations, which I’ve continued. My “why” — my North Star — is to make a positive difference in the lives of others. I believe in doing the right thing, not just the expedient route, but the right thing.”

Jamai: Do you think in the last decade there has been a shift in the learners themselves? This paper is about the future of working and learning. Has the student shifted?

Lee: I think the student has shifted in part because access to education has shifted. The technology tools that allow for online delivery have created more access to those that didn’t have access before. And, the folks that were coming to school and working can now leverage that modality as well, so that disrupted the traditional model. The technology has allowed the acceleration of that working learner.

Jamai: So, when Pima thinks about this access leading to more learning, how do you see colleges like Pima expanding their reach beyond the market you are in, especially for “just-in-time”/noncredit? And expanded beyond your own community/reach?

Lee: Our ability to survive and thrive will depend on our ability to serve the broader range of the working learner and learning worker, our largest population. You have to reach beyond just your immediate community. One of the key ways is leveraging the online modality, and understanding if you can build centers of excellence where you are building best-in-class training opportunities in which people will travel great distances to come to your institution. I saw this in Seattle. I think we are now seeing this today. Because of our Automotive Tech program at Shoreline, people would travel hundreds of miles, bring a trailer, and live in the community to take part in the program. So, when you build best-in-class, which is what centers of excellence are about, then you can provide beyond your region. It is not just the online piece, but having the magnet programs tied to the future of work.

Jamai: So, Lee, now for my more fun questions: What was your first job?

Lee: As a kid I used to take the lawnmower out and cut peoples’ grass. Wherever we were, I would push that lawnmower around. When we moved to Washington State, I would go out and work on the local farms, picking strawberries, rhubarb, and other fruits.

Jamai: Lee, what is your hobby when you aren’t working?

Lee: I love to travel. There are 100 Greatest Wonders of the World, and my goal is to see as many of those wonders as I can.

Jamai: And, final question – Lee, if you could interview one person (alive or not), who would that be?

Lee: (laughs). Well, I think it would be Zheng He, a Chinese admiral who commanded the largest fleet long before Christopher Columbus. In Asia today, Zheng He is seen as the “modern CEO.” That is how they view him.


After the interview with Chancellor Lee, I looked into Zheng and his seven expeditions to the Western and Indian Ocean.  Zheng himself wrote of these travels in his diary:

“We have traversed more than 100,000 li of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly] as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare . . . ”

I smiled as I compared Zheng’s travels to Lee’s journey in his own life.