Pierce will see presidential changes

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Pierce will see presidential changes

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A national search is already underway for Fort Steilacoom’s new president

Denise Yochum, Pierce College Fort Steilacoom’s now-former president, medically retired on Jan. 2 due to her ongoing battle with metastatic breast cancer. After multiple surgeries and a month-long hospitalization, she realized she could not get healthy and give the college her best work.

“I needed to make a choice,” Yochum said. “I chose to work to get healthy and to let the college move forward.”

While Chancellor Michele Johnson conducts a nationwide search for new candidates, Deidre Soileau is serving as the interim, or temporary, president. Soileau will be playing the role of president until June 30, and a new president is expected by July 1. “In most colleges, July 1 is the first day of the fiscal or academic year, so that’s pretty commonly a time to start,” she said.

Matt Wuscher / Courtesy Photo
Deidre Soileau worked as a consultant for 15 years. Her role at Pierce is the only job she’s had in Washington.

As the “stand-in president,” Soileau is expected to fulfill the same duties. “However, you act differently as an interim because you know that you are the interim; you are not making long-term changes,” she said.

Prior to the interim president position, Soileau served as the Vice President of Strategic Advancement. The person in this role works closely with Marketing and Communications (MarCom), Institutional Research and Effectiveness and the Foundation, which raises money for students.

“Those are the three primary departments,” Soileau said. “But the nature of strategic advancement is that your job is to pay attention to where things need to be pushed a little, or encouraged to look a little more closely, and to find the synergies between marketing research and development.”

Soileau was planning to retire from her position at the school, until the offer for interim president arose. Her interest shifted back to her 15 years of consultant work. She had started “winding down” her schedule at Pierce when Johnson presented the position. “How did I prepare (for the position)? I didn’t,” said Soileau.

She had to think about the offer, she said. She compared it to being “halfway in my camper, traveling down the road.” However, she loves the people she works with and decided continuity, if only temporary, was best for the college. 

“I love this college, I love the people I work with, I really enjoy the executive team, which I was on and will still be on,” Soileau said. “Even now, thinking about leaving, even though I know I need to do that, and I want to do that… I tear up when I think about leaving the people.”

“Often, the president is the person who meets with students. … They’re out on the forefront, so they’re who students will see. They’re often the face of the institution.””

— Debra Gilchrist

When it comes to picking the new president, there are a lot of people involved. Administration does not handle the hiring on their own. A search committee is formed that contains “some people from outside, some people from inside,” Soileau said. It also includes two students.

The chancellor is responsible for determining a job description, and she has the final say. However, Soileau assured that it is a very collaborative process.

Debra Gilchrist, the vice president for Learning and Student Success, said that students play a part in hiring a new president. “There will be … open forums that everyone in the college – students included – will be invited to,” Gilchrist said. Anyone can submit comments about candidates and the screening committee will consider them before making a final recommendation.

Candidates will be given a topic to make a presentation. The day of the interview, anyone who attends will be able to ask questions. There will be an email sent out to the college as an invitation to the candidates’ presentations.

There are core values that the college looks for when searching for a new hire, Deidre said. The values include integrity; a commitment to equity and inclusion; a commitment to student success; and the ability to collaborate. “(They need to) be able to function in a way that they’re not the (only) person who gets to make the decision and then go do it,” Soileau said. “All of us is smarter than one of us.”

Commitment to student success is an important value at Pierce. Gilchrist said, “If we don’t hear our candidates in their application materials talk about students, then this isn’t the place for them. That’s why we’re here.”

Soileau said that one of their frequently asked questions is, “How would you see your role contributing to student success?” If the candidate answers “in a very narrow point of view,” then it is likely that they don’t fit the role.

Pierce College Archives / Courtesy Photo
Denise Yochum had a lot of support from her team members, from gifts and cards to rides to chemotherapy.

“Often, the president is the person who meets with students,” Gilchrist said. “They meet student leaders. They’re out on the forefront, so they’re who students will see. They’re often the face of the institution.”

Before Yochum left Pierce, her proudest accomplishment was Pierce landing on the Aspen Top 10 list. Gilchrist said, “All of the criteria that we had on that award, every one of those factors, we worked really diligently to further. Her (Denise’s) leadership and moving us on every one of them (helped).”

Gilchrist and Soileau listed Yochum’s leadership, advocacy, cheerleading, creativity and brainstorming as reasons for the college’s Aspen success. However, Soileau said, “You’re not going to find one person who says, ‘I did that.’”

Soileau added, “Denise is highly respected and much loved. It’s a blow to the institution to have her retire, but I think everyone understands.”

On Yochum’s personal influence, Gilchrist said, “She’s been a good role model for me. I learned how to be a good vice president through her eyes and through her actions and the way that she thought about things. I’ve been very appreciative of what she’s taught me and what she’s mentored me through.”

Soileau said what she would like students to know is where Yochum began. “Where she came from, where she started, to then becoming president of a college, very closely mirrors many of our students who are first-generation, who come from rough places, who have to scrabble together the money to do anything.”

She said, “It’s not up to me to tell her story, but I can say that it was not easy.”

Soileau said that Yochum’s story closely resembles Pierce students’ and that she is a great example for them.