McDowell Tech at 50: Looking Backwards and Forwards


In the history of higher education in America, the North Carolina Community College system is but an infant in comparison to institutions like Harvard University, which will celebrate its 300th anniversary in less than two decades. Harvard is purportedly the oldest college or university in the United States.

By contrast, the N.C. General Assembly first appropriated funding for community colleges and industrial education centers a mere 60 years ago. Four years later, in 1961, there were only five public junior colleges and seven industrial education centers. At that time, industrial education centers offered vocational and technical training, while community colleges emphasized arts and sciences.

In 1961, Gov. Terry Sanford appointed a commission to study public higher education in North Carolina and appointed Irving Carlyle, a Winston-Salem attorney and former long-term member of the N.C. House and Senate, to chair the commission. The commission made its report the following year, proposing an integrated community college system that encompassed both community colleges and industrial education centers.

Prior to that time, community colleges and industrial education centers were under the purview of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Under the new plan, which was adopted by the General Assembly in 1963, a new Department of Community Colleges was established under the authority of the State Board of Education.

It was this era of change that gave birth to what would later become McDowell Technical Community College. The Marion- McDowell Industrial Education Center became a satellite of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Institute (now AB Tech) in 1964 and became an independent institution with local autonomy—having a local board of trustees—in 1967.

This academic year marks the 50th anniversary of McDowell Tech’s birth as an independent institution, and the college is celebrating this milestone throughout the year.

A Period of Rapid Change: The first 20 years.

The newly formed Department of Community Colleges grew rapidly, with 54 colleges by 1969. By 1974, 58 community colleges had been established, the same number that we have today. During that time, the N.C. General Assembly officially changed the name of Marion-McDowell Industrial Education Center to McDowell Technical Institute and provided an official charter to the college.

Locally, McDowell Technical Institute outgrew its humble beginnings in a storefront on State Street in Marion and moved to its current campus at the intersection of US-226 South and I-40 in 1970. In just 5 years, the college would grow and add almost 40,000 square feet of space with the addition of the current administration building, an Auto Mechanics building and an amphitheater.

In 1979, the NC General Assembly changed McDowell Technical Institute’s name to McDowell Technical Community College and provided for the move of the Department of Community Colleges from under the control of the State Board of Education. By 1981, the move was complete and the NC Community College System was established.

In 1987, the college added an Industrial Skills Center (then Building 14) and a major addition to Building 4, providing a small auditorium and a day care center for students and the community. The following year, the college began offering Continuing Education classes at the site of the first Marion-McDowell Industrial Education Center on State Street in Marion. To reflect the college’s vital role in the community, the college requested a name change to McDowell Technical Community College and that request was granted.

At the Helm

John Price had served as the college’s first president and was succeeded upon his retirement in 1984 by Dr. Robert Boggs. Boggs remained president until 1999, when he, too, retired. Boggs oversaw the additions in 1987, the name change in 1988 and the opening of the Continuing Education site on State Street the same year.

In 1997, the Downtown Center on State Street moved to co-locate with the public school system and N.C. JobLink Career Center on Main Street in Marion at the site of the former Moore’s Department Store. That same year, renovations were made to the library, an addition was completed on the college bookstore, and another building was added to the main campus. Today, that building houses the Health Sciences Department.

Upon his retirement, Boggs was succeeded by Dr. Bryan W. Wilson, who had been a vice president at McDowell Tech.

Wilson oversaw two major expansions at the college, both utilizing existing building space, and both focusing on workforce development, job training and advanced manufacturing. The Ford Miller Employment and Training Center opened in 2008 in space formerly occupied by Marion Manufacturing Company on Baldwin Avenue in Marion. The Universal Advanced Manufacturing Center opened in 2014 in the former Universal Furniture Factory. It houses new and enlarged classrooms and shop areas for Machining, Electrical/Electronics, Heating and Air Conditioning, Industrial Training and related programs.

Under Wilson’s leadership, the college also began a Workforce Pipeline Committee, working with local manufacturers to strengthen educational opportunities at the college and employment opportunities in local industries. He also spearheaded a project with Jerry Broome and Mary Ledbetter to begin offering students a chance to earn Career Readiness Certification, enhancing their chances of employment with companies looking for their particular skill and educational level.

With grant funds from the Kate B. Reynolds Foundation, land from the City of Marion and agreement with McDowell County government, the college also opened a walking trail in 2015, connecting the Universal Advanced Manufacturing Center with the main campus.

The Current Lay of the Land

Upon his retirement, Wilson was succeeded as president by Dr. John Gossett. Gossett has worked with McDowell County Public Schools to begin an expansion of McDowell Early College, with plans to open the Foothills Academy for Innovation within the next year. The Foothills Academy for Innovation will be a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Early College.

Gossett is also working with trustees on a plan to open a barbering school on the main campus, the first of its kind in western North Carolina. In addition, the college is continuing to work with architects and the state on plans to build a new Cosmetology building on campus.

Later this fall, the college will hold an open house for the Vickie Hogan Medical Simulation Lab, housing high-tech training for nursing, EMS and related programs.

It’s All About Place

During the formative years of the community college system, the state provided separate sites for industrial education centers, whose focus was on vocational and technical training, and community colleges, whose focus was on arts and sciences. Those institutions were separate, and probably unequal in the eyes of many.

Today, however, McDowell Technical Community College, now in its 50th year as an independent institution, is more focused than ever on serving both types of students—simultaneously—vocational and technical students, and college transfer students. To Gossett and others at the college, there is no need to distinguish between the two types.

“Our faculty and staff can juggle more than one ball in the air at a time,” said Gossett. “We have come full circle in realizing the need for public, two-year education in both the arts and sciences, workforce preparedness through technical and vocational training, as well as other areas of study. But unlike the early community college system in North Carolina, we do it all under one umbrella.”

“More importantly, we treat all of our students and programs equally. We treat our Early College students in the ninth grade with the same respect as our older adult students and hold them to the same high standards. We teach and mentor our basic literacy and GED students with the same fervor as our students who go on to four-year colleges and beyond.

“There is no difference. It is about place and community. We are a comprehensive community college charged with serving the needs of the students in this area, wherever they find themselves and wherever they want to go in life. This is our place, our territory, and our mission field, if you will.

“We will be here, working that mission and changing lives every day for the next 50 years, just as we’ve been doing for the last 50 years. It is our labor of love for this place and for our people.”

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