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MailTribune.com
  • A Man With a Plan

  • It took a lot of people working for years to get Rogue Community College to expand into Medford. And without one man, it may not have happened.
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  • It took a lot of people working for years to get Rogue Community College to expand into Medford. And without one man, it may not have happened.
    "Harvey Bennett had a big-picture view of the world," RCC spokeswoman Margaret Bradford says. "He could talk to the VIPs and the students. He was compassionate, he had a great sense of humor, and he was an excellent leader."
    Bennett, the president of RCC during the critical annexation era, spent years lining up support to expand the college's mission into Medford. It wasn't easy. Henry Pete, RCC's first president, noted at the time that the process was complicated by rivalry and mistrust between Jackson and Josephine counties.
    Complicating matters, leaders at Southern Oregon College, as Southern Oregon University was then known, feared another higher education entity in the county would cause erosion in its enrollment.
    But once he committed to the idea, Bennett never gave up, and the results are impossible to overlook for anybody who works, shops or does business in downtown Medford, where the main problem these days seems to be finding places for all those RCC students to park.
    "There was a lot of talk about moving into Jackson County when I started working at the college 22 years ago," says Bradford. "And I know there was talk before that. I think it was perpetual."
    Josephine County had wound up with the only community college in the Rogue Valley region of Southern Oregon after Jackson County voters in November of 1970 crushed a ballot measure that would have established a two-county district.
    Going it alone, Josephine County easily passed a $330,000 serial levy in November of that year to start the college.
    "The college was serving Jackson County students (who drove to Grants Pass), Bradford says. "But they had to pay $800 tuition."
    Bennett would later blame the Jackson County defeat on SOU for seeing a potential RCC presence as a threat.
    "But what was worse," Bennett said years later, "they didn't understand the mission of community colleges as related to higher education or the population community colleges serve. Their misunderstanding was that SOC served all needs."
    By 1971 the fledgling Josephine County college had 1,000 students, and Eric Allen, for many years the influential editor of the Mail Tribune, praised RCC for "innovative, creative, unique" programs, such as its new fire science offerings.
    The college grew steadily during the 1970s, and in 1980 established the Rogue Valley Institute to offer vocational training and personal development classes, a move many saw as a first step toward a possible future annexation.
    Bennett arrived at RCC from Eastern Oregon State College in La Grande in 1984 to serve as dean of instruction, and the next year RCC made a small move into Jackson County when it opened its Medford Center in the former KOBI-TV building in Medford. In 1986 Bennett was named the college president after a search that saw more than 80 candidates.
    When the search committee asked Bennett if he was willing to get "down in the trenches," he replied that it "depends on what's in the trenches."
    "He got the Redwood campus upgraded," Bradford says. "It was a shabby collection of old Job Corps buildings when he came."
    Bennett's timing couldn't have been better. That same year RCC and SOU signed a contract to allow SOU to bring upper division classes to Josephine County and RCC's Medford Center.
    In 1989 RCC opened its Phoenix Center at Bennett's urging. In 1991 RCC and SOU began so-sponsoring the Konaway Nica Tillicum Youth Academy to help American Indian young people prepare for college.
    Bennett did a lot of work building support among civic and political leaders. At his urging, Rep. John Watt in 1993 introduced a bill in the Oregon Legislature that would let community college boards annex adjacent areas. Clearly aimed at helping RCC expand its beachhead in Jackson County, the bill died in committee.
    In 1995 petitions were circulated to bring Jackson County into RCC's district, and public hearings were held. By this time Bennett's pitch had been perfected.
    "People were worried about what it would cost them," Bradford says. "They were eager to have the service but not have their taxes go up.
    "He (Bennett) explained it would not add to their tax burden, it would distribute the same money among more players."
    Another argument Bennett made was that Jackson County taxpayers were already paying for community colleges indirectly, but the money went to Salem and then around the state.
    "I think that helped convince people it was a good deal," Bradford says.
    In May, the long-sought annexation was finally approved by 87 percent of Jackson County voters and 83 percent in Josephine County.
    "Those were big numbers," Bradford says. "It was obvious the voters were ready."
    The State Emergency Board soon allocated $700,000 for annexation and planning, and the Legislature set a framework for annexation and bonded debt. Early the next year RCC and SOU formed a partnership and began planning courses and tuition levels.
    Working on agreements with Bennett on the project led SOU President Steve Reno to remark that Bennett was "a Jiminy Cricket," acting as a sort of group conscience. Bennett, who retired in February 1999, said the question Bennett always came back to was, "Is this right for the student?"
    One of the agreements hammered out was that RCC would offer essentially the same first two years' undergraduate curriculum as SOU, so students could take their pick.
    "In return," Bradford says, "we stepped up our articulation agreements" (which provided for more RCC students transferring to SOU for their junior and senior years).
    In 1997 annexation added $9 million to RCC's budget, and the college hired 27 instructors for its new Riverside campus in Medford, leasing three downtown buildings. The facility quickly expanded to seven buildings, and in 1998 RCC's Medford enrollment passed in Josephine County enrollment by a margin of about 4,000 to 3,000.
    That year the Oregon Community College Association name Bennett its Pacesetter of the Year. The following year, with RCC firmly established in Medford, Bennett announced his plans to retire.
    "He was very passionate all along," Bradford says. "He really believed in community colleges."
    She says the hardest part of the struggle once the tide began to swing in favor of annexation may have come not from Jackson County but from some members of RCC's own board. Some board members worried that Josephine County, which had supported RCC all along, would be lost in the shuffle in a deal with the more populous county. And indeed, the college now has more students from Jackson County.
    "There was some dissension," Bradford says. "But Dr. Bennett was able to overcome that. They trusted him.
    "He had a great outlook and got a lot of support. He never expressed those kinds of doubts. Everyone was rooting for us, and we came through. He gets the lions' share of the credit."
    Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.
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