As a 48-year educator, Rochester Community and Technical College counselor Gregg Wright has seen how one of the constants in education is change.
From the moment he accepted his first job on a pay phone in 1972, plugging nickels into the machine to keep the line open, Wright has witnessed how education has evolved to meet the needs of students and employers.
Wright spent the first eight years of his career with Mayo High School and the last 40 with RCTC, likely making him the longest-serving educator in the Minnesota State system. He retires in December. Even as he looked back on his past, he was looking to the future. More change in Rochester's higher education systems is needed to meet the area's growing need for workers. Rochester needs a four-year residential university to solve its workforce issues, he argued. And the most sensible path to a four-year school runs through RCTC.
Wright, 70, rode the wave of mergers that resulted in the creation of RCTC. After Mayo, Wright transferred to the Rochester Area Vocational Technical Institute program in the late 1970s, which was then part of the Rochester school system. After being its own independent school district for a time, vo-tech merged with the technical college system, which later merged with the community college system — thus creating RCTC.
PB: Why are you retiring?
Wright: Everybody has to come up with their own answer to that. For me, it's time. Also, I want to focus on my other job (Wright is an Olmsted County commissioner). There's so much that I can do with county commissioner work, and I would rather not short change it.
PB: Did you not consider gutting out the last two years, so you could hit the big 5-0?
Wright: I did, but I said, 'I'm not going to do that.' It's like anything. Can I run my car for two more years? 'No, it's time to buy a new one.' Can I wait and start my diet in two years? 'No, I should probably start now.' It's time.
PB: How has education changed over the last half-century?
Wright: When I was at the vo-tech, it was like a dollar a credit. The state felt an obligation to the people to say, 'we want an educated workforce. We want people working.' And then over the years, they took the higher education budget and reduced it. And they put the burden on the student. Now, it's very difficult for students. If you're poor, it's extraordinarily difficult to go to school.
PB: What does it cost to go to RCTC today?
Wright: Including fees, it's about $200 dollars per credit.
PB: How are students different from 48 years ago when you started out in education?
Wright: We had a different society back then. We had many jobs that you could graduate from high school and make a living at and be financially secure. But that has changed. So it puts more pressure on students getting some kind of education.
We also see many more students who are not as prepared as they were 20 years ago. We have students come here with huge unmet needs. And that's one of the reasons why we definitely need counselors like me, here, to help those students.
PB: You would like RCTC to become a four-year university. Why is that?
Wright: The community has always talked about the need for higher ed in Rochester. But to me, the hope for higher ed is sitting right here. RCTC is in many ways similar in size to the state universities that are already out there.
One of the difficulties that is holding Rochester back is workforce issues. We want to import students from around the area. We're not going to do that until we get dorms. And dorms come with a four-year college. If you look at the cost of trying to build downtown as compared to our 400 acres that we already have, I already have the acreage. Give me the money and I'll put in a building.
PB: OK, now for a substantive question: Why the three Gs in Gregg?
(Laughs). That was third grade. I went through this period of time of trying out different names. I would only answer to some. Finally, my mom said, 'you have a fine name. It's Gregory.' And I said, 'How about Gregg?' And that's the way it's always been spelled.