By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
When Seattle Colleges (SC) announced its three finalists for the chancellor seat, they were all persons of color — two of them Asian. The Black finalist was not considered, leaving Mark Mitsui, former president of North Seattle College, and Dr. Shouan Pan, president of Mesa Community College of Arizona, to duke it out. On April 14, SC board of trustees picked Pan in a unanimous vote.
What’s the implication for Asian Americans competing with each other? (By the way, Mitsui and Pan have known each other for a long time.) Why did the board take a chance on an outsider? Was the process fair and transparent? What really happened?
Asian Americans compete
SC has a homogeneous past. It had no Asian American courses, faculty, or administrators. In fact, Seattle Central College student Al Sugiyama had to lead a peaceful student protest in 1971, shutting down the campus before the administration agreed to hire an Asian American administrator and instructor in sociology. According to the Seattle Times, it was the first student protest led by Asian Americans in Seattle. I believe this was also the first Asian American student protest in our state.
For SC to hire the second Asian American chancellor to lead indicates SC has come a long way. SC hired Peter Ku, the first Asian American president to head North Seattle College, and later, appointed him the first Asian American chancellor. Both Ku and Pan are immigrants. Despite Ku’s outstanding qualifications, and the board knew that he had to take a pay cut, the community had to lobby on Ku’s behalf. I was one of the lobbyists in 1990. (To this day, the East Coast college system pays more than West Coast colleges).
Given SC’s history and that two remarkable Asian Americans, Mitsui and Pan, were competing for the same top job, I can only sum it up in one word — progress. It’s wonderful to see that Asian Americans have finally been recognized for their excellence and proven leadership. Our people have thrived in diverse professions, and are simply waiting to be discovered. For companies using the excuse that they are unable to locate qualified Asian Americans, my response would be, “Have you really looked?”
Dr. Pan will be an excellent role model for SC’s large Asian American student population. It also demonstrates Asian Americans can lead successfully in the mainstream. Pan’s appointment breaks another stereotype. Asian Americans are not just good in science and technology, but in diverse professions.
SC’s appointment reflects that it values diversity not only among its staff and student body, but at the top. SC’s five trustees include an Asian, a Latino, and a Black person.
The interview process
Some Asian community members were surprised that the trustees didn’t pick Mitsui, who is currently President Obama’s deputy secretary of education. Mitsui was a popular community leader during his tenure as NSC president.
Many SC staff members who worked with Mitsui personally had hoped that he would be picked. Most trustees also know him.
Frieda Takamura, who was on the initial 15-member screening committee, said she kept an open mind and remained impartial. “But I can’t deny I know Mark (Mitsui) and I was surprised (by the outcome).”
A source close to SC, said, “I heard that SC is looking for an outsider.”
SC board of trustee chair, Steve Hill, said that wasn’t true. In fact, SC had trouble in getting people to apply for the position because the perception was that, there was a qualified inside candidate. “It’s a wide open process,” Hill said. “There was no bias.”
Teresita Batayola, vice chair of SC board of trustees, said, “We [wanted] the best candidate from the beginning — there is no way we could have even discussed favoring anyone without going through a process in an open setting.”
“It’s tough for me personally (not to pick Mark),” said Carmen Gayton, an SC trustee. “We look at the strengths of all candidates and [do] what’s in the best interest for [SC].”
The Northwest Asian Weekly put in a call to Mitsui, but did not hear back as of press time.
The visit to Arizona
“The guy (Pan) is too humble,” said trustee Carmen Gayton. “He didn’t talk much about his accomplishments (during the interview). Gayton discovered those accomplishments from her colleagues’ findings at Pan’s campus.
What exactly did the trustees see?
“I was impressed with the up-to-date infrastructure and technology on campus, despite the fact that Arizona phased out state funding of community colleges many years ago,” said Batayola. “The buildings were either renovated, repurposed, or totally new.
“Dr. Pan was successful in raising funds to support the campus update and created many partnerships with the community, businesses, students, and faculty to have art installations everywhere. Mesa Community College is a large college with three campuses, close to the size of our entire district.”
The trustees met with Mesa’s leadership council and Pan’s cabinet.
“He’s (Pan) highly respected, collaborative, and decisive,” Hill said. “He engages with students and faculty. He has an open door management style. He gives access (to his people) and builds strong teams, maintains a good relationship with the district.”
“He’s a transformative leader and that’s what we are looking for,” Hill said.
Mesa and SC have similar challenges: student enrollment decline and state funding cuts. Hill said Pan would be a good fit for SC.
Pan’s fundraising skills
The trustees view Pan’s fundraising ability as a vital asset. He has partnered with many agencies, including United Way, Boeing, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to raise big bucks for Mesa. Hill was surprised that many conservative groups, including the Mormons, have a partnership with Mesa. Gayton said, “Dr. Pan knows how to work well with different groups.”
However, when the Northwest Asian Weekly interviewed Pan, he was reluctant to take credit. “One of my focuses is to hire the right people. When they succeed, I succeed. They move the needle — it’s never (just) because of me.”
Considering the millions of dollars he has raised, I was surprised to learn he has only two development staff members. Pan said his staff cultivates relationships first. Then Pan himself does the “ask.”
Who is Pan?
What SC doesn’t have, Mesa has. Mesa has a successful baseball team, Hill said. Also, a beautiful garden of 5,000 rose plants on campus. Hill found that under Pan’s leadership, the garden has increased not only in size, but the level of involvement of the community.
Hill learned from Mesa’s student body president, who is Black, that Pan is his personal mentor and a role model. On a hot day when students were lining up outdoors for applications, Pan handed out water personally.
The people told Hill that they will miss Pan, but they also understand that this is a career move for him. One even said, “We hope you will pick him.” Some said, “We love our Chinese president.”
Evelyn Yenson, former aide to the outgoing SC Chancellor Jill Wakefield, said, “I know Mark, I don’t know Dr. Pan. (But) we need to welcome Dr. Pan when he comes. If he succeeds, we all succeed.”
Assunta Ng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.