Orange Coast College president counts down to retirement after 9 years at ‘home’

Orange Coast College President Dennis Harkins, left, celebrates with other local officials during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the OCC Recycling Center in September 2017.
(File Photo)

Orange Coast College President Dennis Harkins, who helped turn around a community college facing financial hardship and an accreditation warning, is preparing to retire at the end of the fall semester in December.

After leading the Costa Mesa college for nine years — making him the third-longest-serving president in OCC’s 70-year history — Harkins has made the “bittersweet decision” to end his tenure and retire in Florida with his wife, Kim.

“What I’ll miss is the constant clamor of activity and really the sense of so many self-motivated, positive people working together,” Harkins said. “There’s a home here that I think I will miss the most.”

What Harkins, 68, won’t miss is the 24/7 schedule.

“As college president, you’re always that ‘designated driver,’ if you will — you’re responsible for anything that goes on on the campus,” Harkins said.

The same was true even when Harkins arrived in 2009, when OCC was recovering from both the recession and a warning from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, which called for the college to improve its planning and budgeting processes.

“Those things together really brought out the best in all the people here,” Harkins said. “They buckled down and made some very difficult changes in the way we do governance. … If I were to give advice for a president, I’d say to look for this kind of opportunity to go into.”

Doug Bennett, OCC’s executive director of college advancement, said Harkins brought a greater sense of optimism to the college through a “consultative leadership style” that has improved collaboration among staff members.

Similarly, Coast Community College District Chancellor John Weispfenning described Harkins’ leadership as “highly collaborative.”

“Dr. Harkins prioritized the shared governance process and the need to gather input from faculty, staff and students when major decisions were considered for the college,” Weispfenning said.

Harkins entered academia in 1974, teaching photography at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and later was an administrator for the Art Institute of Atlanta and Georgia Perimeter College.

He described his path to becoming OCC’s president as “serendipitous,” noting that when a search consultant claimed to have found the perfect college for him, his response at first was, “I don’t think so.”

“But when I came out here, I realized I couldn’t have picked a college that would’ve been more my college,” Harkins said. “It’s very embedded in the community, has strong academic programs … a great focus on culture education and a very diverse community, as I’d been in in Atlanta.”

Madjid Niroumand, OCC’s vice president of student services, said Harkins’ leadership has helped grow not only the college but the entire community.

“Dennis is one of the most ethical individuals I know,” Niroumand said. “His vision is centered around doing the right thing in a very structured manner to best help the community and all students.”

One of the most notable developments in Harkins’ tenure was passage in 2012 of Measure M, a Coast Community College District bond initiative that led to several construction projects, including OCC’s Math, Business and Computing Center, the Recycling Center and the planetarium that is scheduled to open early next year. He also has overseen planning of student housing on campus, as well as a new student center and aquatic center.

“In a few years, the college will be really set for the next 50 or 100 years,” Harkins said. “The campus has a great feel — it feels like a destination.”

It has been for more than 1.5 million students and counting, casting OCC’s net of influence far and wide.

“Whenever I go out — I don’t care whether I’m in Costa Mesa, Calif., or I’m traveling throughout the U.S. — I end up meeting someone that has a direct connection to OCC,” Harkins said. “I’ve been proud to be a part of it. I inherited that, and I hope it’s there to pass on to other people in the future.”

The Coast Community College District has begun an internal search for an interim president, with a nationwide search for a permanent president beginning in October, according to a college statement. The permanent president is expected to begin in July.

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