Johnson County Community College president stepping down after seven years

After leading Johnson County Community College for more than half a decade, President Joe Sopcich on Tuesday announced he will leave at the end of the coming academic year.

People might hear “a lot of narratives out there” about why Sopcich is stepping down, said spokesman Chris Gray. Those might include a recent dip in enrollment and questions about whether faculty had lost confidence in the college’s leadership.

“But the truth is,” Gray said, “he is just ready to retire. He is ready for a break. He has dedicated much of his life to the college. He wants to direct some of his time and energy back toward his family and friends.”

Sopcich was unavailable for comment on Tuesday.

Sopcich, who joined the school in 1992 and took the reins in 2013, announced his retirement in notices to college trustees and faculty. Sopcich turns 65 in April and will officially leave his position July 1, 2020. “I believe it is good timing for the College to embark on the selection of a new president,” Sopcich wrote in his message to the college. “In today’s world of community college leadership, serving for seven years is almost double the standard length of time one serves in this position.”

Gray said that if there were any other reason for Sopcich to step down, “he would not hang around for 12 months before leaving.”

Sopcich’s announcement comes less than two weeks after the JCCC Board of Trustees had approved renewal of his contract.

Earlier this year, Sopcich was at the center of a controversy about an overheard conversation between him and college trustee Angeliina Lawson during breakfast at a Washington, D.C., hotel.

Democratic National Committee member Chris Reeves of Johnson County live-tweeted excerpts of a heated discussion about tuition, which had recently been raised $1, to $94 a credit hour.

Reeves, who was in Washington for a meeting of the National Poverty Council, tweeted that he heard Sopcich say that it was “hilarious” that anyone would oppose the tuition hike and that “there are no poor students” at JCCC. “Show me anyone who struggles at JCCC,” Sopcich reportedly said. “I walk the parking lot and I see a whole lot of very nice cars.”

Later, Sopcich issued a statement asking to be judged by his record. “I’ve spent the better part of my adult life helping those I am now seen as minimizing,” he said.

Sopcich also weathered controversy last year over the school’s decision to eliminate the track and field program to better focus on other sports. And while the college boasts that it is outperforming other area community colleges, most recent data shows enrollment dropped 3.8 percent between 2015 and 2018.

And a recent survey of staff and faculty showed that many lack trust in the college leadership.

Faculty have been frustrated for several years over the “lack of shared governance” and “the lack of a faculty voice,” said Melanie Harvey, a professor of chemistry and president of the JCCC Faculty Association. In the survey, only 47% of JCCC employees said they trust the college leadership to lead the school to future success.

“But whether the president is retiring at this time because of the survey, I can’t speak to that,” Harvey said, adding that faculty members intend to show their disappointment when they vote on trustees at the polls in November.

Sopcich joined the Overland Park college 27 years ago as executive director of the school’s foundation and led a funding campaign that raised $20.2 million for JCCC’s Healthcare Simulation Center, the Regnier Center and the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art.

In 2009, Sopcich was appointed executive vice president of administrative services and helped the college navigate finances during the recession. It was after that period in 2013 that Sopcich was named the college’s fifth president, succeeding Terry Calloway, who had been president six years.

Board of Trustees Chairman Jerry Cook said that while trustees are “disappointed with his retirement plans, we appreciate the impact he has made toward student success at JCCC.” He said Sopcich has built a strong foundation for the college’s next president.

Two years ago, under Sopcich’s direction the board approved spending $102 million on a package of projects that would physically transform college, including construction of new fine arts facilities, design studios, library and career and technical education buildings.

In his notice, Sopcich said he announced his retirement now to provide for a smooth transition. It is not unusual for a college president to announce retirement a year in advance, giving the school time to find a replacement.

It’s unclear how soon JCCC intends to begin a search for a new president. The makeup of the board could change by the time a new president is hired. Currently, 11 candidates are vying for three positions on the board in the November election.

JCCC, which opened in the late 1960s, has become one of the county’s most valuable institutions. According to a 2015 county study, JCCC had a $732.7 million economic impact, or 2% of the county’s gross regional product. Niche, an online marketing publication, ranked it the top community college in Kansas and No. 8 in the country.

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