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Leading Our Future: Chesapeake College President

Sep 06, 2018 12:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo

Clifford Coppersmith is a small-town sort of guy, and a community college guru. Coppersmith has spent a decade working as a community college administrator in small-town and rural settings. He also attended Jamestown Community College in New York. These are some of the reasons he considers his position as president of Chesapeake College in Wye Mills a dream job.

Coppersmith, who earned a doctorate in history and anthropology, started his new post in late May and he sees his mission as syncing the institution to the needs and demands of the region’s high school graduates, while improving their academic performance and enhancing their educational experience. 

The Chesapeake College Board of Trustees felt Coppersmith was a perfect fit given his academic credentials and his personal background. He spent 19 years as an administrator and professor at City College (Montana), Pennsylvania College of Technology, and Utah State University-Eastern.  

A fascinating aspect of his early career: Coppersmith spent three years as an analyst in the CIA in Northern Virginia and more than a decade as an officer in the Army Reserve. He sometimes worked in third-world countries with Army Special Forces getting refugees out of the way of combat.  

What’s Up? Media recently sat down to talk to Coppersmith about his time in the CIA, his love of the Eastern Shore, and his goals for Chesapeake.

Can you talk about what kind of work you did for the CIA?

I was an analyst in the Director of Intelligence Office. I was a photo interpreter, but I did Allsource military analysis. I wrote short and long papers on counter insurgency and conventional military. I served for three years (1988–1991). [I left for] family considerations. I had two young children and we are not big-town people. I had been cultivated by my faculty at Jamestown Community College to come back. That’s when I began my master’s work at Saint Bonaventure and taught part time at JCC.

What were some of the most exciting things you did in Army? 

I was a military intelligence officer, but I also worked in civil affairs. We were involved in handling refugees and getting civilians out of the way of combat. I did work in Honduras and Panama and was involved with Special Force teams that did medical work, projects for water systems, and schools. I really enjoyed what we were doing in these less-developed countries.

Was it tough balancing a career in education with the Army?

Eventually, I had to commit to one or the other. So, after 12 years of service in the National Guard and Army Reserve, I decided to resign my commission and focus on my work as an educator. Soon after that, I got into administrative work in education. 

What attracted you to Chesapeake College? 

The mission. I am a community college guy. That’s where I started as a student and where I began my career as a part-time instructor. My first permanent position was in a Utah community college. I love the community college mission. And the geography of Chesapeake is
perfect. We love the Eastern Shore.

What appeals to you so much about the Eastern Shore?

My wife and I have traveled through it since we were married. We honeymooned
on the Eastern Shore in our early 20s. We frequently vacationed on the Eastern Shore with our kids. I spend a lot of summers down on Chincoteague and Assateague Islands. It’s my second home. I am quite excited to come back.

What activities are you looking forward to the most, moving here from the Mountain West?

For me, it was either the mountains or the ocean. My brother, who is retired from the military, has a boat in dry dock. We are hoping to get it back in the water. I hope to do some sailing and water activities. I enjoy the communities here. We love to drive and travel through the country side. The rural district here is just gorgeous. It just feels like home.

You have been involved with the Boy Scouts for 45 years. Why are they so important to you?

I have had fantastic experiences as a scout myself. My father was very involved in scouting, and he set the example. Both my brother and I are Eagle Scouts. Those experiences in scouting prepared us for adulthood and what we ended up doing in the military and civilian life. 

What are your biggest goals at the college?

The early part of my administration is going to be strengthening our connection to the community. I want to develop relationships with our local public education leaders, county commissioners, and business sector leaders. In the longer term, we have to look at what we need to improve for our students. I think there is a real need for applied technology education.

How do you put your stamp on the college?

My leadership style is collaborative. I look for consensus using the governance system. That connection to the community is enormous. I have done a lot of work with public education partners in Montana, and I hope to do the same thing here.  

Enrollment has declined the past few years. How do you reverse that trend?

It’s a combination of factors. The primary thing is programs. Programs to colleges
are like real estate in terms of location, location, location. For me, it’s the program portfolio, whether it’s credit or non-credit. We have to make sure we are serving the students’ needs. Dual enrollment is a huge part of my background in terms of increasing enrollment. We have to bring
in students who may not be otherwise thinking about college or even understand the role that college can serve in their lives and be preparing them for adulthood. 

What is the most important partnership the college has?

The partnerships with the counties are enormous. I’m very impressed with Caroline County, which has a very strong presence at Chesapeake and I’m very impressed with its plans for economic development. That’s something I want to work very closely with. I also want to work very closely with our two career centers regarding expanding articulation between programs they do, which we would like to develop as far as credit programs are concerned. Defining and providing those pathways so students can figure it out. Higher education shouldn’t be that difficult to understand. Students need to have a pathway to figure out how get there and how to accomplish their goals.