The new president of the International College of the Cayman Islands says he wants to make campus offerings more accessible and, in doing so, make an impact on the number of Caymanians with degrees in higher education.
Byron “Pete” Coon, 67, whose appointment was announced last week, said he is disturbed by the fact that only 30 percent of Caymanians have college degrees.
“Why are we still having this statistic?” Mr. Coon asked. “We have to change that. If we don’t, the entire workforce at the upper levels will be expatriates.”
Part of the problem may be that people on the island are unaware of some of the educational opportunities available here.
“I ran into some people the other day who had not heard of ICCI,” he said, “and they were born here.”
ICCI opened in 1970. Its programs have typically been geared toward working students. Most course offerings are in the evening. The school specializes in business studies.
Mr. Coon thinks more can be done to make the school more welcoming.
“How can we make it more comfortable for you to go to school?” he said. “It’s painful for me to see students who want to come to college so bad, but they may be carrying some luggage and they’re not very good in math or language and they have to take remedial courses.”
Those courses, he said, not only cost students additional money, but they do not count toward degree work. Mr. Coon said he likes the idea of offering free workshops in math and English on the weekends for prospective students.
“I have already been writing a five- to seven-year strategic plan,” he said. “In three years, I want to reduce remedial coursework by 50 percent.”
He also wants to introduce some creative ways of helping students with financing their education. One of his ideas is to have ICCI students tutor those in secondary or primary grades in exchange for part of their tuition costs.
A native of Florida, Mr. Coon’s own education career began in 1974 as a primary school teacher. He didn’t last long.
“The children chewed me up and spit me out for breakfast,” he said.
He ended up instead at Florida’s Department of Transportation, working with property owners to secure rights of way for state and federal highways. After two decades, he decided to go back to school.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in entomology and nematology from the University of Florida in 1997, following it up with a master’s and Ph.D. in the same subject. During his time as a student, he said, he worked for the university.
In 2009, he took a position at Argosy University in Illinois, working at both the Chicago and Schaumburg campuses. He eventually became an associate vice president of academic affairs and chair of the graduate school of business and management.
Argosy was owned by Education Management Corporation, known as EDMC, a for-profit organization which also owned the Art Institute colleges and Brown Mackie and South universities. The corporation came under fire from the U.S. Department of Education for illegal recruiting practices. In 2015, it reached a $95.5 million settlement with the education department to offer loan forgiveness to unqualified students who had been lured into enrolling and taking out loans. The company sold its properties last year to the Dream Center Foundation, a nonprofit agency.
Although the Department of Education did not differentiate between the colleges in its complaint against EDMC, Mr. Coon said the violations were primarily at the Art Institute and not Argosy University.
“I got with the admissions team at Argosy and I said, ‘I don’t want to hear about any of this going on with Argosy,’” he said.
EDMC’s troubles led to downsizing and in 2014, Mr. Coon was laid off. He figured he was retired and he and his wife, Vicki, made plans to travel. Then, a former student who taught at ICCI called him. His wife convinced him to go after the job.
“My wife said, ‘We can live in an exotic place and you can be doing what you love to do,’” he said.
So far, he said, he’s enjoying getting to know the island.
“I’m just absolutely blown away by how absolutely generous and kind the people I’ve met have been,” he said. “I went to a restaurant and people said, ‘It’s so good to have you on the island.’ I said, ‘And we’ve met?’ They said, ‘No, we saw your picture in the paper.’”
As president of ICCI, Mr. Coon said he is looking at the possibility of cooperative efforts involving the University College of the Cayman Islands. There has been talk for years of combining the two entities. Recently, UCCI proposed a federation agreement, hoping such an arrangement would provide leverage for both schools in gaining international accreditation.
ICCI Board of Trustees chairman Mike Mannisto has said he does not think a federation is a good option for the school.
Mr. Coon said creating an arrangement between his institution, a private nonprofit, and UCCI, a government school, is tricky.
“You’re trying to mix apples and oranges,” he said. “I think it’s going to take some time. When both sides can get creative, I think something eventually might be able to be worked out.”
In the meantime, he expects ICCI to move forward by increasing its enrollment and establishing stronger connections between the community and the commercial sector.
“I’m excited about taking on this challenge,” he said. “It’s a big one.”