Executive Decisions

“Move Your Tassels”

Ronald E. Thomas and David L. Schroeder (1999)

David L. Schroeder, first DCTC president, 1970 to 1999

When David L. Schroeder took over as the first director of the Dakota County Area Vocational-Technical Institute in October of 1970, his philosophy for technical education was focused on providing incoming students with effective pathways to secure and rewarding careers.

Schroeder was taking the helm of a school whose main campus building wouldn’t be completed for three years. Classes ran all year and tuition was free. The first students attended class in rented space across an archipelago of buildings. Enrollment was three shy of 50.

“We started with nothing and created programs that changed people’s lives.”—David L. Schroeder

Working three years straight with no time off, Schroeder put in 60-hour weeks creating programs, hiring faculty and staff, buying equipment and coordinating everything on the fly. When the main building opened in Rosemount, Minn., in 1973, enrollment had reached 700 students in some 30 programs.

“By the time I finally took a vacation, I was totally wiped out. I went up north to our family cabin and sat in the woods for two weeks,” Schroeder remembered with a smile. “But it was a fun time and everyone was up to the task.”

After two name changes, the tech institute, as it was nicknamed, became Dakota County Technical College in 1989. Six years later, when DCTC merged with other higher education institutions in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, Schroeder assumed the role of president of the college.

“From the very beginning, our mission was Education for Employment,” said Schroeder, who retired in 1999. “When I look back on my career, I feel the strongest about serving students and getting them jobs. We started with nothing and created programs that changed people’s lives. It was hard to leave, but after 30 years it was time. I loved the place.”

Ronald E. Thomas, current DCTC president, 1999–present

As the next president of DCTC, Ronald E. Thomas brought plenty of chief executive experience to the position, having served as president of Coffeyville Community College in Coffeyville, Kan., since 1995. Thomas, who has a Ph.D. in Education from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, also served as acting president of Rochester Community and Technical College in Rochester, Minn.

Today, Thomas commands a college with more than 50 academic programs in seven distinct departments. DCTC serves more than 11,500 students annually. Nearly 3,000 are enrolled in credit-based programs with roughly 8,500 enrolled in Continuing Education and Customized Training noncredit courses, the latter bringing crucial, tailor-made training modules to the workforces of more than 300 businesses throughout Minnesota.

“Technical education is absolutely critical to the success of any economy,” Thomas said. “As we look to the future and realize that we face many challenges, the word ‘hope’ becomes more prominent in our conversations. For me and for anyone involved in technical education, the real hope comes from the people who do the work out in the field, people who have the hands-on experience and training to get the job done for Minnesota and the country.”

Understanding that an uncertain economy generates a shifting job market with continually changing opportunities, Thomas works with DCTC faculty, staff, students, alumni and advisory boards to make sure that every program delivers a relevant, leading-edge curriculum fine-tuned to meet the employment needs of business and industry.

“At DCTC, real technical education equals real graduates with real jobs.”—Ronald E. Thomas

Because technical education serves as a keystone to economic prosperity, Thomas views the process as inherently collaborative. “By its nature, technical education is expensive,” he said. “We need to continue building partnerships with other colleges as well as with universities, nonprofits, companies, businesses, cities and public agencies. Working together, we can educate for solutions, producing a workforce equipped to make a difference in such fundamental areas as sustainability, infrastructure, manufacturing, transportation, health care, information technology and more.”

“Our students are older, more mature and more sophisticated,” Thomas continued. “Our college is organized to adapt to their circumstances and give them the knowledge and tools they need to thrive in the job marketplace. Through education in such areas as entrepreneurship, STEM, energy and individualized studies to name a few, we are geared to deliver in any format—online, hybrid, short-term, customized training and, of course, practical classroom and lab work.”

Another defining aspect of Thomas’ administration is his unwavering commitment to fostering an all-around collegiate environment at DCTC with numerous co-curricular activities. He established a thriving athletic department that today features four strong programs: women and men’s soccer, fastpitch softball and baseball. His holistic approach to higher education encourages student participation, resulting in an active student life department with an engaged Student Senate and a Phi Theta Kappa chapter that produced a member of USA TODAY’s All-USA Community College Academic First Team. Securing a wide range of federal and state grants, industry in-kind donations, a bounty of student scholarships and a vigorous endowment are all signature priorities.

Thomas also places a keen focus on developing the soft skills that shine as an essential supplement to the core competencies accrued in a given technical field. “To build a solid, lasting career filled with options for advancement, our graduates need to know how to communicate, manage time, problem-solve, adapt to change, work in a team setting, learn from their mistakes and excel under pressure,” he said. “At DCTC, real technical education equals real graduates with real jobs.”

Both Ron Thomas and Dave Schroeder would agree that one of the proudest moments for a college president occurs at the close of the graduation ceremony when he or she gazes into the hopeful faces of students about to graduate and begin new careers. All the hard work, all the long hours and all the tough planning for the future make perfect sense when the president places both hands on the podium and speaks that single, magic sentence: “Ladies and gentlemen, the time has come for you to move your tassels.”