Normandale appoints third Black woman to lead a Minnesota college

(l-r) Incoming Normandale President Dr. Joyce Ester and outgoing president Joe Opatz (Photo courtesy of Normandale Community College)

Nearly a quarter of U.S. college presidents are women, but according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) data, the number of female college leaders of color peaked at 14 percent in 2006 and is now at 12 percent.

“A new generation is coming in. Something they can do well [is] bring a different process to the table, whether it be our gender or our race,” said Joyce Ester, who since 2011 has led Kennedy-King College in Chicago. On August 2, she becomes the new president at Normandale Community College in Bloomington.

The Chicago-born Ester, who becomes only the third Black woman to lead a Minnesota college, recently talked to the MSR about her new appointment. “It is a very strong school,” said the incoming president, adding that Normandale’s liberal arts program was attractive to her. “I also like its partnership center, because it provides a real nice transition for students as they were moving from an associate degree into baccalaureate programs and additional higher education. I’m interested in helping them move further along in their goal.”

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Although the college is a two-year school, Normandale is much more than that and operates on philosophy similar to the one she preached at Kennedy-King: “I like to say that community college is not pre-college or post-high school. Whether you’re coming in for a GED or a certificate or an associate degree, you’ve chosen to come to the college to do that,” Ester pointed out.

“I think this campus is in a really good location. I think [there is] the ability for us to increase our enrollment [and] increase the diversity of our faculty, staff and students on so many different levels.”

With degrees in sociology and education, Ester originally sought social work as a career, but then she enrolled in graduate school and became a student housing graduate advisor for two years at Northern Illinois in the late 1980s. “I can remember going back to school and I was taking courses, but I was working in the residence halls, doing student affairs work. I had the wonderful opportunity to get to know students outside of the classroom and really made that personal connection with students on their journey.”

As a result, Ester’s higher education career took off, first at Whittier (Ca.) College (1990-92), and then 16 years in various student affairs roles at the University of California, Santa Barbara (1995-2007).

She was student affairs assistant vice president at California State University, Fresno (2007-2010) and chief student affairs officer at Bakersfield College before moving back to Chicago as Kennedy-King president in 2011.

“One thing I try to do is leave a legacy, no matter how small,” stated Ester. She was part of the inaugural “Faculty Masters” program at Whittier College, introduced Restorative Justice in the student judicial process at Santa Barbara, established a student affairs professional development conference at Fresno, started a new Veterans Resource Center at Bakersfield, and saw a six-percent increase in the graduation rate at Kennedy-King by focusing more on advising and monitoring student progress.

“It is my job to lead and be an administrator, but it is also my job is to get to know people as much as possible,” said the new Normandale president, who added that she hopes to get acclimated to the area as soon as possible.

“First and foremost, because I am coming into a new state and system, it is very important for me to really get out and get to know the people on our campus, to know the faculty and to know the students and staff. To really talk to folk and really figure out what they love about the school and what new opportunities they’d like to see the institution grow.”

Ester said she had many influences in her life. “Throughout my career, there were many women who I watched and were real important to me… Obviously my mother was and is an amazing mentor to me. My mother raised me as a single parent. She dropped out of high school but went back and got her GED, and went to college on weekends when I was in elementary school and high school. That was a motivator for me. My mother went to college on weekends only and graduated in five years.”

The new president also wants to seek community input. “When I do all that, [I will] find out who’s missing at the table and make sure different people have a voice and a place at the table,” said Ester.

Finally, “I am so excited about the opportunity” of becoming Normandale’s president in a few weeks, said Ester. “Being president and Dr. Ester is what I do, but Joyce is who I am. I want to make sure that the community gets to know President Ester and Joyce.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses tochallman [at] spokesman-recorder [dot] com ( challman [at] spokesman-recorder [dot] com).

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Charles Hallman's picture
Charles Hallman

Charles Hallman writes regularly for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and blogs at Another View.