With a decades-long career in education, Lincolnton resident Dr. Jim Watson is closing in on his last year serving as chair of the Gaston College Board of Trustees. The only Lincoln County resident to have served as chair, this is the 12th year Watson has served on the board. Only two Lincoln County residents serve on the 15-member board.
Watson was the superintendent of Lincoln County Schools from 2000 until his retirement in 2007 and also teaches part-time at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. He also serves as a consultant for various school systems.
“One of the things that motivated me to retire was not so much I was ready to quit working but with the way the state works, I had my 30 years in and my wife, who is an administrator at the hospital, and I adopted a little boy who was 19 months old at the time,” he said. “So I had a lot of flexibility in doing things with him. If I had been working full-time, I wouldn’t have.”
Since his retirement, Watson has stayed involved in the community.He’s on the board at Atrium Health Lincoln, is active with the board of Carolina Trust Bank, was one of the founding directors of the Lincoln County YMCA and is a member of the Kiwanis Club and many other local affiliations. In addition, Watson was elected as a member of the Lincolnton City Council in 2018.
“I’ve tried to take a role in the community and be active and involved,” Watson said. “It’s been a good experience.”
Watson realized the importance of community college early in his role as superintendent of Lincoln County Schools. In early 2000, Watson said that he had a meeting with all of the high school counselors at Lincoln County Schools to try to get them to understand that the idea of a four-year college degree, which used to be the American dream for success, was not really the 21stcentury model.
“There are some professions that will always require four-year degrees but the two-year technical degrees are what many jobs will require,” Watson said. “Gaston College is, in my opinion, an under-appreciated gem in this area. It’s sometimes perceived as a lesser education but that’s really not the case at all.”
Watson cited the incidence of high student debt incurred by students who may not be able to get jobs after they get out of school as evidence of some of the problems associated with obtaining a four-year degree, as well as the potential of younger students not really knowing what they want to do and continually changing degree programs.
“Gaston College has matriculation agreements with all the state-supported schools so you almost can get a two-year degree and be debt-free,” he said. “Hopefully those years of maturing may help the student have a more formal understanding of what they might want to pursue as a degree.”
In addition to transfer degrees, Gaston College offers many other types of technical certifications and degrees for firemen, police officers, EMTs, nurses and veterinary technicians, among others, Watson added. Local manufacturing facilities also partner with Gaston College to provide training. The apprentice program offered through Gaston College, Apprenticeship 321, is also key to the success of local manufacturing companies.
A big change that the college and board will be working through in the near future is finding a replacement the long-term president, Dr. Patricia Skinner, who will be retiring in March.
“In today’s world, it’s really unheard of to have someone in that capacity for so long,” Watson said. “One tangible thing on campus under construction is a new vet tech facility.”
The veterinary technician program at Gaston College has been successful, Watson said, but they had limited space. The new facility, which is being paid for by the last state bond, will allow the program to triple the enrollment number.
“I guess the question will become, will we continue to need to build additional brick and mortar with online learning and distance ed,” he said. “We’ll still need the buildings but will we need new buildings?”
The Board of Trustees at Gaston College is not an elected board, members are appointed by various agencies and government positions such as the Gaston County Board of Education and the Gaston County Board of Commissioners. Lincoln County Schools doesn’t have any appointments, according to Watson. The two Lincoln County appointees are made by the Lincoln County Commissioners. It’s for a four-year term with no term limitation.
Watson’s term as chairman ends in June 2020, and he believes that, while he’s eligible to continue on the board, his 12-year tenure is long enough.
“The time that I’ve spent on the board has been very rewarding,” he said. “I’m glad that I’ve served as long as I have because if your term is too short, you don’t really get to see systemic change. There’s been lots of things heard as an idea or a concept that I’ve seen come to fruition such as the Center for Advanced Manufacturing.”