From biz to bioscience: Chancellor paves the way for Arizona’s future workforce

September 29, 2005

By hammersmith

Ask Rufus Glasper about his vision for the future of Arizona’s education system, and he leans forward with an excited gleam in his eye to tell you. Someday, he says, there will be one campus where students of all ages share the same resources, have access to the same faculty, and receive the best education in the country. 

The idea of one campus for all students is a big vision, and underlying it is the strong sense of practicality and business smarts that are the hallmark of Glasper’s distinguished career.

Prior to his appointment as chancellor of Maricopa County Community Colleges in 2003, Glasper, a certified public accountant and government financial manager, served exclusively on the business side of education.

In 1986 he was hired by Maricopa County as the director of finance. Prior to that he served as a school business manager, a government finance officers’ association accounting and finance trainer, and the director for financial planning and budget for Chicago Public Schools.

Glasper holds a bachelor of arts in business administration from Luther College, a master’s in business administration from Northern Illinois University, and a doctorate in higher education finance from University of Arizona.

He says his business background impacts the way he prepares the community colleges to become a major player in Arizona’s knowledge-based economy, a crucial move for a system that serves almost 300,000 of the 500,000 students in post-secondary education in Arizona.

According to Glasper, whereas some might look at the costs of building a bioscience lab as an added burden, his business perspective helps him see the cost as an investment in his students and in the future.

Investments aside, Glasper loves to talk about his students who work at the Translational Genomics Research Institute, with which Maricopa has a partnership. And TGen partnerships are not the only way Glasper is putting Maricopa Community Colleges in the center of the bioscience action. Before bioscience became a key part of Arizona’s economic development strategy, Maricopa already had a biotechnology program with an established curriculum in Mesa. Now there are programs at Glendale, GateWay, Phoenix, and South Mountain with several other colleges active in the planning stages.

Last year Glasper unveiled plans to build a downtown campus near TGen and the future home of the UA medical school Phoenix campus. This downtown campus is a move that will symbolically put the community college’s imprint on Arizona’s bioscience landscape.

“We need to work together and collaborate because the community colleges play an important role,” he says. “Maricopa is the largest provider of workforce training in Arizona. For every research scientist that the universities produce, we will need to produce 7 to 10 technicians to support them.

Glasper, who describes collaboration as a personal philosophy, was invited earlier this year to don a new cap and serve as Gov. Janet Napolitano’s co-chair for the Governor’s P-20 Council of Arizona. The council is a group of community leaders charged with improving Arizona’s education system from pre-kindergarten through graduate school.

We sat down with Glasper at Maricopa’s district headquarters, nestled among the offices of high tech companies. As he looked out on his expansive view of the Valley, he spoke of his vision for the future of community colleges and for the education system as a whole.


How has your business background prepared you to take on the nation’s largest community college system, especially as Arizona tries to build its bioscience industry?

My background has allowed me to look at bioscience with a different framework and a different lens than if I were just an educator. We’re looking at expanding new programs, the cost of the education, the equipment, the faculty, the staff, because bioscience is in many of our healthcare programs and is more costly than the traditional English or accounting class. But I look at the cost-benefit analysis and say $3.5 million today could bring to our students and to the Valley an economic benefit that could be as much as $9 million ten years from now. That money will come because you’re putting individuals in the workplace in areas where there is demand.

Last year Maricopa County citizens approved Proposition 401, allowing the sale of $951 million in bonds. What portion of that money will go the biosciences?

Approximately $100 million were identified in Proposition 401 for Biosciences and Healthcare Related Facilities. Prop. 401 really helps us in the biosciences area because biosciences will be more capital-intensive. We’re building facilities to respond to the bioscience agenda as well. Without these resources, we don’t receive enough money from the state to make changes in a timely fashion to meet the demand. As bioscience takes off in the state of Arizona, there will be a need for us to provide a pipeline and a capacity. That will require the facilities and the equipment, which we now can fund with the occupational money that is in our bond.

The 2003 Battelle Bioscience Workforce Needs Assessment found a lack of capacity across the educational system in preparing a bioscience workforce. What do you see as your role in addressing this need?

We are focused to provide support to research scientists. Our colleges have developed programs to respond including: Clinical Research Coordinators, Medical Lab Assistants, Medical Device Manufacturing, BioInformatics, Career Pathway programs with our high schools and colleges like South Mountain and Estrella Mountain Community Colleges, pre-engineering programs articulated closely with the universities, potentially post-baccalaureate programs for those with baccalaureate degrees in Biology who lack the lab research skills and background. That’s within our mission, so we will provide the technical training, the support training. We will provide the laboratory resources so they understand what their roles are before they enter the workforce. We will provide a clinical environment and internship environment.

What is most exciting to you about the opportunities that you are providing to your students?

It just amazes me when I visit TGen and see the bioscientists, with our students and our faculty standing next to them, side by side. They aren’t doing grunt work. Also, it blows my mind to see these young people excited about what they’re doing, working many long hours, feeling that they’re making a difference. And then to listen to them talk about what they learned in our community colleges, how their teachers exposed them to this, and how they feel that they’re making a difference during their internship and once employed can provide financial support for their families–you know, the average salary for a bioscience worker is higher than for workers in some industries.

The Battelle Workforce study also cited Arizona residents’ lack of awareness of bioscience job opportunities. What is one thing people don’t know about community colleges that they should know?

Maricopa community colleges are the largest provider of workforce training in Arizona. We’re the economic driver. Also, the one thing that I want to reinforce is that community colleges are all about opportunity for everyone: for recent high school graduates, displaced workers, and people who have bachelor’s and master’s degrees who just want to come in and get an upgraded skill set. Community colleges are not what historically might have been perceived as junior colleges. There’s a high level of skill within our walls. Over 25 percent of faculty members have doctoral degrees. That says a lot. Nationally that number is below 20 percent. We’re doing well.

What is on the horizon for Maricopa community colleges?

The next generation of community college systems. We have this perception right now that community colleges are getting lost—that they don’t know what they are, who they are. Do they want to be four-year institutions or not? Why do they want baccalaureate? Is it really needed? So part of what I want to focus on is these four points: 1. reclaim our central mission of teaching, assessment, and learning 2. reaffirm our role as the “economic driver” in the state of Arizona 3. reframe the social contract to our Maricopa County stakeholders, and 4. redefine a new view for community and civil leadership in high education.

We need to be out in our community 24/7. We need to be out in the community listening to what the needs are because we are community colleges, and they need to know that we’re there to support our older communities, our younger communities, bringing communities and students on to our campuses for performing arts centers, athletic events, and classes.

You have made it a point to get involved in the community as a member of the Greater Phoenix Leadership, Greater Phoenix Economic Council, the United Way board of directors, and the Phoenix Art Museum board of trustees. And recently you were appointed by Gov. Janet Napolitano to serve as co-chair for the P-20 Council. What is your vision for P-20?

When you talk about bioscience and when you talk about the interests of students in education, this is connected to this whole notion of P-20. You need to get students involved and aware of the biosciences and science requirements needed to be in the workforce of the 21st century. To do that you build the capacity starting at pre-kindergarten, with reading, writing, science, and math–the core curriculum–so that by the time they finish high school they have an interest in the biosciences. For instance, right now at South Mountain Community College we have a bioscience charter school on our campus. Those high school students who go to the charter school are sitting in the same classes as college students, receiving the same credit.

Why have divisions between high school and community college if students are going to sit in the same classes?

It’s tradition. Part of what I have been sharing the last couple of years is that in order for us to be more successful, in order for us to utilize our resources better, we need to break down these silos. P-20 is about breaking down those divisions–about having a potential campus, and I’ll use an example: A concept discussion we’re having right now is a bioscience campus in downtown Phoenix that has Phoenix Elementary, Phoenix Union High School, Maricopa Community Colleges, and the universities all within a campus concept, centered on bioscience. The idea is that you break down the silos, you share resources, you share faculty, you share facilities, and you begin to build that student and that capacity from day one. We consider that a petri dish, a testing model to see if it works. And if it works in the biosciences, then you can begin to take it out into the world and ask, “Why do we have these silos? Why do we have these different funding structures? And different faculty?” We should be breaking down the silos.

What now is the driving force behind your vision of unified campuses, beginning with the biosciences?

It’s the timing. It’s the confluence of TGen and the excitement in Arizona about a new industry, new jobs, being the epicenter of bioscience. We want people when they look at Arizona to say, “I have an opportunity to go to Arizona. How is the school system?”

This is an opportunity for us–meaning Arizona–to be a beacon in an area that has a probability of being successful. I’m not just talking Maricopa. Maricopa will not make it successful by itself. It has to be the business community, our town, the community colleges, the universities, and the elementary school, middle schools, and high schools. Every part has to be working together.