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Urban retiring as ATCC president at end of school year

Laura Urban

Laura Urban, president of Alexandria Technical and Community College, will retire at the end of the 2018-2019 school year.

Urban informed the school system chancellor's office and the college's staff members last week before announcing her decision publicly on Thursday, Aug. 24, at the Rotary Club meeting in Alexandria.

"I love being here at the school," she said. "This is a great place to work. We have a wonderful faculty and staff."

Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Tara Bitzan called Urban "a great asset" to the college and the community.

"From the start, Laura has been quick to say, 'What can ATCC do to help?', which has helped move forward new collaborations and stronger programs throughout the community," Bitzan said.

Alexandria wins out

Urban was provost and vice president for academic affairs at a Kentucky community college when headhunters approached her about taking the top spot at various colleges. She applied to three, and all three offered her the job of president, she said.

Receiving three offers was flattering, she said, but Urban knew she wanted to come to Alexandria, with a student population of nearly 4,000.

"This was a very top-ranked school in a lot of areas," she said.

Alexandria itself also attracted her. She found it welcoming, and appreciated its size as well as its proximity to much larger metropolitan areas. Originally from northern Wisconsin, she wanted to return to the upper Midwest.

When Urban arrived on campus, she didn't seek to shake things up. Instead, she said, "My job was to come in and keep it the premier institution it was."

Kevin Kopischke, who held the position of president before Urban, said that might have come in with a list of things to change, but he thought Urban's approach was wise.

"She met a lot of people and she learned a lot of things and used that information to guide the college," he said.

The changes she did make — such as building up the nursing program — were well received, he said.

Kopischke wasn't surprised by the news of Urban's retirement. He recalled that when Urban interviewed for the Alexandria job, she said she would stay five to six years.

Urban's announcement came at a time when the college has scored glowing reviews — again — nationwide. WalletHub, a financial services website, ranked it the fourth best community college nationwide in terms of cost and educational and career outcomes. It beat out three other Minnesota community colleges that also placed in WalletHub's Top Ten.

The job placement rate for ATCC's graduates is at 98.6 percent, Urban said, and most graduates tend to find jobs in the area they studied.

Faculty President Greg Latterell said Urban has done "a great job."

"What we see is a few new things at the college that we didn't have before," he said. "We have a nursing lab that we didn't have before, that she was instrumental in getting in. Another thing is we see an increase in diversity at the college."

That doesn't necessarily mean students of color, which is at 8 percent, according to the school's website. Latterell said diversity also includes first-generation college students.

A busy year

Urban's final year at the college will involve putting the final touches on the University Center, intended to make it easier for students to transfer to a university, either in person or online.

It's also a legislative budget year, which means another effort to attract enough state aid to hold down tuition. ATCC also needs money for building maintenance, including new roofs. The school has deferred maintenance on some buildings, Urban said.

"Higher ed here and elsewhere across the country has taken some declines in state aid," she said. "We're trying ... to hold down tuition."

Tuition is at $5,200-$5,600 a year, on par with other Minnesota community and technical colleges and among the lowest higher education costs in the state, according to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

Urban will also steer efforts to find funding for a $12 million transportation center on campus, recommended in the college's five-year facilities plan. The center would house the college's transportation-related programs, including diesel mechanics and truck driving.

Challenges facing the college include demographic shifts, she said, with the number of college-age Americans having dropped everywhere and it not expected to rise again until 2024. That tracks back to the late 1990s, when women began spending more time in the workforce.

A declining enrollment, she pointed out, does not mean the college's costs also decline. It still has to maintain buildings and machinery and pay staff and faculty.

After retiring, she and her husband, a pilot, will continue to spend time in Alexandria, she said. However, they will also travel quite a bit and use northern Wisconsin as home base, where she has been asked to serve as a board member for a couple of organizations.

Urban was both the first president hired at Alexandria Technical and Community College from outside its ranks and the school 's first female president. While Urban was aware of that, it wasn't something she paid much attention to.

"These things just don't cross my mind," she said. "I have a job to do. Gender doesn't make a difference."

Earlier in her career, she was often the only woman in the room while running U.S. Army education centers.

"It wasn't a big deal," she said.

Latterell said Urban's status as the first outsider was "a scary thing to faculty," which was concerned an outsider might not understand the college's culture.

"But she's turned out very good," he said. "She had a tendency to be able to talk to faculty and staff on a personal level. That's going to be something that I'm going to miss."