Dr. Towuanna Porter Brannon was named president of Thomas Nelson Community College on Oct. 1, but that didn’t sink in for about six weeks. She vividly recalls when and where that happened.
It was a sunny, crisp mid-November morning, with temperatures in the mid-50s. She was visiting the Hampton campus for the third time since being named to the post, and the College’s police chief was escorting her to the parking spot designated for the president.
“My daughter was with me, and she took out her phone and took a picture of it and said, ‘I’m going to send this to grandma,’” Brannon said. “I think at that moment, it became very real, but it’s still sinking in.”
On Jan. 1, Brannon officially becomes the College’s ninth president, following Dr. John Dever, who announced his retirement in late 2019. Dr. Gregory DeCinque has been serving as the College’s interim president since Nov. 27, 2019.
Brannon comes to Hampton Roads from North Carolina's Mitchell Community College, which has an enrollment of about 3,500 at its campuses in Statesville and Mooresville. There she was vice president of Student Services for four years and has spent more than 20 years in higher education. She began as an assistant director and academic adviser at her alma mater, St. John’s University in New York, in 1999. This will be her first college presidency.
DeCinque, who was president of Jamestown Community College (N.Y.) for almost two decades and has served as an interim president at four colleges, including Tidewater Community College, has participated in more than a dozen presidential searches. The fact Brannon hadn’t been a president before didn’t bother him or the search committee.
“In those (candidates) who have not been a president, you look at potential,” he said. “I think Dr. Brannon just demonstrated that she had done everything to prepare herself and had that potential to be a good president.”
Dr. James T. Brewer, president of Mitchell Community College, has worked with Brannon for nearly five years. He called her an excellent choice.
“She’s fantastic, and I will tell you, you have chosen well,” he said. “And as much as I hate to have her leave, she’s ready and poised.”
The Path to Thomas Nelson
For Brannon, who is married (nearly 16 years) with a daughter in 10th grade, the route to a college presidency began when she accepted “the best 50 percent pay cut I ever took.”
Growing up in New York City, she didn’t dream of being an educator, although she saw firsthand how education led to opportunities. She earned her undergrad degree in Human Services and Special Education at St. John’s, and was working for a Fortune 500 company on Wall Street in information technology.
“They paid very well,” she said with no hint of remorse about her decision to leave the company. “I remember one day our server went down, and a supervisor came in and was screaming at us and was quantifying how much money we were costing the company for every minute the network’s server was down.
“It was so demeaning to have your existence quantified that way. I remember thinking I don’t like that feeling.”
Soon after, her alma mater reached out to see if she would be interested in teaching technology, albeit at about half of what she was making on Wall Street.
“I willingly accepted,” she said. “I just felt as if my purpose in life was not to make a Fortune 500 company richer.”
Rather, she wanted to enrich the minds and souls of others, mainly students.
“I said that’s where I wanted to be. The money was not as important,” she said, noting a lot of people thought she was crazy, but she’s never looked back.
In between that job and her position at Mitchell, she made stops at the New York Institute of Technology (Central Advising Center coordinator), the Borough of Manhattan Community College/City University of New York (coordinator for Academic Advising and Transfer), Berkeley College (dean and then assistant vice president), and LaGuardia Community College/CUNY (registrar and then assistant dean of Student Affairs). She also has a master’s degree (special education) from St. John’s, and a doctorate (Educational Leadership and Administration and Policy) from Fordham University.
Putting Students First
While at her first community college she realized how important education was to those she served, that it could help them reach beyond their socioeconomic status and advance their ability to learn.
“I think that is what lit the fire in me to pursue education (as a career),” she said. “I sort of felt a calling. If I could help, why would I not help? And that became the most important thing in my life.”
Her coworkers at Mitchell Community College said that is why she’s ready to become a college president.
“She understands that everything that needs to be done at a community college is either directly or indirectly related to students,” Brewer said. “She is a champion of the students.”
Austin Leviner, a specialist with Mitchell Community College Student Activities, has been either a student or employee there since 2013.
“To her, students always come first (and) she always does whatever she can for the betterment of the student,” he said. “She does all in her power to make sure that we’re able to help students.”
That commitment showed during her interview process at Thomas Nelson in September.
“I felt that her ability to connect with the different constituencies at the College was very impressive, especially with the students,” DeCinque said. “I know that I got feedback that she just interacted so well with the students. That’s always a good sign when you see that.”
Michael Kuhns, chair of the Thomas Nelson College Board, heard similar feedback.
“I met with the leadership of the Student Government Association (in early November),” he said. “I think approachability has really been key. The students like the fact they could just talk to her straight on.”
Sam Bevins, the vice president of Thomas Nelson's SGA, was involved behind the scenes with the Zoom meetings and interviews for each of the four presidential finalists. He said the way Brannon interacted with students, faculty and staff impressed him.
“She treated every one of us the exact same way she treated the people who were actually deciding whether or not she was going to get the job,” he said. “That’s what really stood out to me, the fact that she greeted me and spoke to me the exact same way she spoke to the chairman.”
Iyanna Tucker, the incoming Phi Theta Kappa president, said, “There was something about her that felt like we were already connected.”
Staff, Faculty also Important
While she knows students are the main focus, Brannon isn't overlooking the faculty and staff. The College’s dedication to faculty was one of the things that attracted her to Thomas Nelson.
“I thought it was very interesting that the (Educational) Foundation annually gave so that faculty could do research and pursue professional development,” she said.
She mentioned that in tough economic times such as today, colleges often cut funding to areas they deem fringe or non-essential. But the College still being committed to professional development, as well as academic excellence, was welcomed news.
“That was very attractive,” she said. “It helped me understand where the priorities of the institution were. That’s not something that’s common at many community colleges.”
Kuhns said the faculty response to Brannon has been great.
“The faculty feedback I got is she’s extremely approachable and very easy to deal with,” he said. “I think that’s a big key because that was going to be a focal point. You start building with that, then comes trust and all the positives.”
While Brannon’s official start date isn't until next year, she has made numerous virtual and in-person appearances. She attended Zoom meetings that encouraged people to get out and vote, and was on campus for the Drive-Thru Holiday Jamboree in November. Those were not coincidences.
“It’s definitely intentional,” she admitted.
She said being a leader is about building relationships, and those events gave her a chance to start that process, as well as become more familiar with the community.
“Being present at some of these events, even prior to Jan. 1, is really because the institution’s important to me and I really care about the institution,” she said. “And I show up for the things that I care about.”
That hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Kuhns was pleasantly surprised by the early engagement.
“I think she’s very engaged, but also what I find impressive is she is also focused on projects with her current employer that need to be completed before her departure,” he said. “And she’s got a family to handle, too. If that’s a portrait of things to come, she will be very engaged and will be able to handle a lot of tasks.”
The head start will likely help Brannon hit the ground running when she officially begins at Thomas Nelson. However, she doesn’t have any specific items on her to-do list, and probably won’t for another three months. But she will be working, learning and listening a lot.
“I don’t know if I could listen enough,” she said.
Thanks to the College’s presidential transition team, her first 90 days will be spent meeting with many constituency groups including representatives from local government, school systems, businesses and various organizations on campus.
“It really is important for me to meet with the people who have a vested interest in this institution and in this community,” she said, “and really hear what’s on their minds, what’s in their hearts.”
Making those connections will enable her to come up with specific tasks to tackle.
“That’s really going to be driven by what I’m hearing from our constituents on campus, from students and from the community,” she said.
On visits to the Hampton campus, Brannon has walked through Moore Hall and seen the portraits of previous Thomas Nelson presidents. She’s aware her portrait will be added to the collection one day.
“This College has a history of extraordinary leaders,” she said. “It definitely is humbling.”
She doesn’t see it as intimidating. It’s more of a challenge.
“I never think about my portrait being next,” she said. “It feels as if that’s something I have to earn. I look forward to earning that privilege of having a portrait. I hope that when my tenure’s over, people want to erect a portrait for me. It gives me something to work toward.”
Becoming a college president was never one of her goals, interestingly enough.
“It’s the work that was something I always wanted to do,” she said. “The work that a president gets to do is something I’ve always wants to do.”
As an academic adviser, she enjoyed working with her students one on one, but as her roles and responsibilities grew, she realized she was able to help more and more people.
“In the world of vice president, I moved from helping 300 students to 3,000 students,” she said.
As the president at Thomas Nelson, that number is closer to 12,000, and it’s why she’s taking on the challenge.
“The position was never what I pursued,” she said. “It was really the ability to have a greater impact in a community.”
To learn more about Dr. Brannon and listen to her interview with Thomas Nelson Communications and Marketing, go to tncc.edu/virtual-studio/podcasts.