President Dr. Bettsey Barhorst Retires, Leaving a Legacy

The president
of my college
observed one of my
classes, later told me I
could become a president
after I got a PhD and
said that he would
help me.

Dr. Bettsey BarhorstDr. Bettsey Barhorst

We couldn’t agree on exactly where and when we first met, because I’ve attended more than 200 conferences over 21 years as editor of Women in Higher Education.

I do recall that Dr. Bettsey Barhorst spoke as an expert in IT when we met, a rare field for women in the 1990s, in a session room that was dark and small. She recalls co-presenting with Elaine Rhodes as faculty members at Illinois Central College in Peoria.

After their presentation, I asked to take her photo. She asked why, and recalls that the words rolling off my tongue were, “Because you’re going to be a president some day, and I want a photo of you.”

Afterward she became a WIHE subscriber, and continued to pass on articles and tips to colleagues and other administrators as a president in Iowa and Wisconsin.

In July, Dr. Bettsey Barhorst retired as president of Madison College in Wisconsin, a nickname she chose for Madison Area Technical College (MATC).

Last month we lunched at a small but popular restaurant across the street from her condo. “It completes the circle,” she remarked, “since you were here for me when I first came to Madison.”

In the course of editing WIHE I’ve met many remarkable women leaders, and this was a special opportunity to follow the career of one of them.

‘Think globally, act locally’

Back in fall 2004, I had read in the local newspaper that the search for a new president of MATC had narrowed down to two finalists: Bettsey Barhorst, president of Hawkeye Community College in Iowa and the male president of the University of Cincinnati.

Following the advice of “think globally, act locally,” I called her Iowa office to connect with the short but impressive woman I’d met years earlier.

She was on the road to Madison for the job interview, and would contact me. When she did, I invited her to dinner with a former neighbor, a faculty member at MATC.

Between the two of us, we gave her the lay of the land, identified land mines that could come up as well as red herrings to watch for in her next day of interviews.

After an intensive day of interviews, including a public “meet the candidate” forum that I attended, she called to tell me that she was withdrawing from the search because her vibes told her that they did not seem to want her there.

I advised her that in the name of all women candidates for all jobs anywhere, she could just not withdraw from the race at this time and under these conditions.

She got the job, starting as president on January 5, 2005.

In the following months, we met regularly for dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant. I could provide a reality check and a neutral ear, something often lacking for a new president in a new city, where conversations with faculty and administrators and taxpayers take on an entirely different meaning.

Over the years, I attended fall open houses at her lakeside condo, where community leaders chatted with faculty/ administrators/leaders and board members, fueled by delicious culinary treats created by MATC students and staff.

Watching from the stands

With pride I observed her accomplishing many wonderful things for the college in her nine years as president.

• During the recession in 2010, she succeeded in getting a referendum passed by 70% of the voters to fund a $133.7 million expansion of the college.

• With sites in 12 Wisconsin counties serving 40,000 students, the MATC college system has become less of a technical school and more of a real college. It is the primary feeder for two Madison four-year schools, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Edgewood College. She signed a transfer agreement with UW campuses at Madison and Whitewater, easing MATC students’ transfer to the four-year schools.

• In 2012 the Association of Community College Trustees honored her as the “Chief Executive of the Year” among some 1,200 presidents.

• She sold the idea that the school should be called Madison College, emphasizing its evolving identity as a college rather than a technical school, and separating it from another MATC, the Milwaukee Area Technical College.

• A new Gateway Center for students includes a booth prominently named the Bettsey L. Barhorst Welcome Center, to honor her devotion to students.

• Why did she retire? I chuckled while reading the local newspaper’s front page article, which had “buried the lede” in its final three paragraphs. Her husband Alan had retired last year, and she quipped, “It looks to me like he’s having a lot more fun” as he skis and kayaks while she works.

Remaining questions

As an observer, journalist and friend, I had some questions to ask at what would probably be my last conversation with her. Here’s the gist of it.

Q: What accomplishments are you most proud of here?

A: While most would cite passage of the $133.7 million referendum that allows for expansion of our physical campuses and programs, I’m most proud of our people.

I tried to change the culture, so that students come first. When I arrived there were embers of caring for students, which I made into flames. I did it the retail way, one by one, by having a real conversation with at least one student each day, to learn their views and insights. I also did it wholesale, through newsletters and speeches, highlighting those who did a good job in creating a student-centered climate.

Q: What are your disappointments?

A: We were unable to give our part-time faculty a raise because the union leadership refused to sign the contract. Then the governor limited unions’ bargaining over salaries. I also felt our original downtown Madison campus was ripe to become a fine arts center, moving some programs from the main campus. But the recession hit.

Q: Why did you overhaul the administrative structure?

A: I was trying to get the right people doing the right things, but I made a mistake by doing it slowly to be more participatory. “Reorganization” became a bad word. In retrospect, I should have done it all at once.

Q: What do you advise women seeking a presidency?

A: Take the jobs nobody wants. I chose to become proficient in IT. We were approaching Y2K and transitioning from mainframes to client servers, so people were very worried. I took 12 hours of IT education so I could talk to the people who worked for me.

It’s also important to listen to those whom you meet along the way. The president of my college observed one of my classes, told me I could become a president after I got a PhD, and said that he would help me. “You can do this,” he said. I studied mentoring, learning how critical it is to support women.

I pass on what I’ve learned by being a presenter at the Leaders Program for women in community colleges, whose director was the legendary Carolyn Desjardins at the former National Institute of Leadership Development. I also address a forum at Edgewood College WI for women and men who aspire to a college or university presidency.

In my presentations to women especially, I encourage them to negotiate a clause in their contract that provides for an annual physical exam at a top-notch provider. Women tend to put their hearts, bodies and souls into their work and not take care of themselves. I go to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester MN.

Q: What’s up with the flak over your being paid for six months to help with the new president’s transition?

A: When I came here, the first six months were very difficult for me. It was not a smooth transition; my predecessor had taken a job in the Middle East.

I negotiated a transition contract because I felt that there was too much going on for the new president to have a six-month learning curve. We needed stability but had no new president hired at that time, and had a weak bench because our #2 and #3 leaders had health problems.

A transition contract is a very common and smart strategy to help new presidents. It could have helped me a lot.

Q: Why leave now? What’s next?

A: I feel it’s a good time for me to leave Madison College. It’s in good shape and has recently received much good publicity and many awards, so it’s a good time for a new leader. Many CEOs stay too long.

I’m 67 and have aging parents in St. Louis, so I want to be closer to them. We’re moving back to Peoria IL where we have family, and we’re building a home there.

The future?

Knowing Dr. Bettsey Barhorst, I have no doubt that her passion and energy will lead her to more greatness. Or to more fun in retirement. I continue to count her as one of my friends formerly in high places.

Wenniger, Mary Dee. (2013, October). President Dr. Bettsey Barhorst Retires, Leaving a Legacy. Women in Higher Education, 22(10), 1-2.


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