As long as Dr. Maria Harper-Marinick can remember, she wanted to be a teacher. “As a little girl, I used to play with my dolls, and of course I was the teacher, but I also had to be the student, because somebody had to do the homework so that I could play teacher,” she says. “One time I was thrilled because my father bought me a blackboard and eraser and chalk.”
Sitting in her office on a recent Monday morning, in between myriad meetings, Harper-Marinick, 57, can’t explain where her passion for education came from (“I have a family of businesspeople and entrepreneurs and a lot of diplomats, but no teachers” she says), but as the new chancellor of the Maricopa County Community College District, one of the oldest and largest such systems in the country, she’s impressed those around her with her passion – and her professionalism.
On her proverbial plate are problems including recent elimination of state aid and declining enrollment, but she seems ready to tackle it with confidence – her handshake is firm, her eye contact direct, and her words are clear, convincing and perfectly phrased in her Dominican accent. “I do not really care about titles,” she says. “I do care about the level of influence I have, obviously, because that allows me to do good work. But I was not one of those people with the 10-year plan [to become chancellor]. I get up every day, I do what I need to do, and life happens.”
Her office reflects this sophisticated flow – part global museum, part greenhouse. The walls and shelves display awards, small horse sculptures, bone art from New Zealand, a handmade bowl from Morocco, a bright shawl from Honduras, and art her now-adult children made when they were kids. There’s a bouquet of carnations and wildflowers. Rows of dormant orchids line a window-studded wall with a panoramic view of Central Phoenix from this fifth-floor office on the edge of Tempe. “I love my plants. They clear my air of negativity,” Harper-Marinick says with a laugh. “I have made the office comfortable for me. It doesn’t look like it did when the former chancellor was here. It was very masculine... This is the first time there’s been a woman in this office.”
The last person in this office was Dr. Rufus Glasper, who retired in February 2016 after 13 years as chancellor. Harper-Marinick is only the fourth chancellor of MCCCD, and the district’s first female chancellor. She was named to the position in May by the system’s seven-person governing board, after an exhaustive series of interviews and community forums. Competition was intense: Of 210 candidates, 29 met minimum qualifications, and of those, the search committee – co-chaired by Arizona State University president Michael Crow – chose to interview six. “This is one of the most premier positions in the country,” Crow told The Maricopan, MCCCD’s newspaper.
Harper-Marinick’s academic bona fides include a Ph.D. in educational technology and master’s degree in instructional media from ASU, and a licentiate in school administration and pedagogy from Universidad Nacional Pedro Henríquez Ureña, in her native Dominican Republic. She came to ASU in 1982 on a Fulbright scholarship. “It was like, ‘Arizona? Is there anything there?’” she says. “I used to watch movies and think of horses and cowboys and dust. So it’s very far from my family... I decided, ‘It is what it is, I’m going to come.’”
Harper-Marinick is still here more than 30 years later, and has balanced family life around her career. She took several years off when her son and daughter were born, and when they were 6 and 4, respectively, her engineer husband took time off to stay home with them while she returned to work full-time. Their son and daughter, now 22 and 19, are both studying engineering. “I have fallen in love with the desert, and with the people in Arizona, the life here,” she says. “I was born when there was a dictatorship... So one of the things that happened when I came was that I experienced freedom. Freedom of speech and freedom to be whomever you choose to be. And once you know what that is, there’s no going back.”
But there is moving forward, she hopes, for the county’s community colleges. Harper-Marinick was recruited to oversee a sizable system beset with difficulties, and the MCCCD’s seven-strong governing board seems proud of its choice. “[She’s] precisely the dynamic, intellectually exciting and visionary leader that the district needs at this very moment,” says MCCCD Board President Alfredo Gutierrez. “The colleges face multiple existential challenges: declining enrollment, the denial of state financial aid, the extraordinary speed of change in the cyber economy coupled with the cost of training the workforce for the cyber economy. Only a leader who can move at the speed of change can lead this college system. Maria Harper-Marinick is that leader.”
Her main focus fiscally, she says, is finding ways to increase revenue without going down the avenues of raising property taxes and tuition. Increasing student enrollment and building bridges with local businesses are on the to-do list. “I want the colleges to be destination colleges. I want people to say, ‘I want to go there, because that’s the best two-year degree that I can get,’” Harper-Marinick says. “I would like the business community [to keep us at] the top of mind. If there’s a new company, or there’s a company moving in, or a company needs training, [they say] ‘Let me call the colleges, because I know they can offer that.’”
“I’m using those phrases a lot – ‘destination colleges,’ ‘top of mind’ – because I believe that’s what the future is,” she continues. “People say ‘the best-kept secret’ or ‘the jewel in Phoenix,’ but we need to shine it and we need to exhibit the jewel so that people remember that we’re here to serve the community.”
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