Meet Wake Tech’s new president as he comes home to Raleigh to take over for departing president Dr. Stephen Scott.
by Ilina Ewen | photography by Eamon Queeney
“Just call me Scott,” says Wake Tech’s new president. Beginning May 1, Dr. Scott Ralls will helm the largest community college in North Carolina, an institution that serves 74,000 students and contributes an estimated $3 billion dollars to the local economy. He succeeds longtime president Dr. Stephen Scott, who retired this spring, “a man whose shoes I’ll never fill, but on whose shoulders I hope to stand,” says Ralls.
A native of North Carolina, Ralls’ life has spanned the state: He was born in Charlotte, spent his formative years in Waynesville, and graduated from UNC Chapel Hill. He spent many years working in state government before serving as president of Craven County Community College, and then of the North Carolina Community College system. “I may be one of the few people who’s been to all 100 counties in the state,” he says. For the last decade, he’s worked nearby—helming the Northern Virginia Community College (NoVA) system outside of Washington, D.C.—but his heart has been in Raleigh, where his wife and four children live. Finally, his weekly commute down I-95 will come to an end as Ralls returns to the city he calls home.
The morning of our interview, we joined the Interim Dean of Health Sciences Barbara Coles for a tour of the Perry Health Sciences Campus, which offers 15 areas of study to train for the region’s growing healthcare needs. Inside the new Medical Lab Technology space, scrubs-clad students peeked into microscopes, leaned over X-rays and tended to a code-red mannequin patient in an emergency room simulation. Dr. Ralls hopped into the driver’s seat of the teaching ambulance, but resisted sounding the siren. As our tour concluded, Ralls exclaimed, “This is my favorite campus!”—then admitted he says this, only half in jest, at every one of the Wake Tech campuses he visits.
As we walked, Ralls offered an outstretched hand to students and faculty alike. “Community college hallways are the most inspiring places,” he says. “This is where you encounter heroes.” As a former teacher himself—he taught statistics while at Craven County, rare for an administrator—he has a particular respect for the profession. He asks students one question over and over—“What should never change at Wake Tech?”—and often gets the same answer: the people. Here, students say, the faculty and staff are supportive and focused on community-building and inclusivity. Ralls assures them that he wants to open his tenure not as a force for change, but a thoughtful listener.
Wake Tech’s Board of Trustees Chair Tom Looney said that Ralls stood out for to his knowledge of the region and its economic landscape and workforce training needs, plus his ability to work with elected officials on both sides of the aisle. “It was clear to the search committee that Scott Ralls was the right person to address the accelerating changes technology is making on all workforce disciplines,” says Looney. “His appointment will ensure Wake County has a workforce that will support continued economic expansion while delivering diversity and providing economic mobility to our students.”
Ralls understands the nuances of higher education, especially as it relates to first generation college students, adult learners, second career students and ones with diverse learning needs. At NoVA, the nation’s second-largest community college, Ralls created a new Information and Technology Division and oversaw the construction of three new advanced training facilities. This experience aligns with upcoming projects at Wake Tech, thanks to the $349 million bond Wake County voters approved last year: It will fund a high-tech, innovative training facility for first responders, as well as new buildings for Health Sciences, Automotive and Collision Repair, and other classrooms and labs.
Among the qualities Ralls values most about the Wake Tech community is its diversity: the student body is almost 25 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Asian, and represents more than 135 countries. Ralls says he’s proud of Wake Tech’s 2020-2024 strategic plan, which highlights equitable outcomes for students regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic status, as evidence of its pledge to being a community where people from all backgrounds can learn and thrive. “I take pride in our inclusivity the way other schools take pride in their exclusivity,” he says.
Ralls notes that North Carolina has a unique community college system that is well-supported and valued through its state and local funding. Wake Tech offers a wide array of services to meet students’ academic and personal needs, including a food pantry, travel abroad opportunities, volunteerism, athletics and a wellness center. As president, he says he plans to continue serving the “top 100 percent,” his quip to show that Wake Tech is for everyone. Looney agrees: “Ralls is a humble leader who will serve the community and have compassion for those who need a chance!”
Ralls is keen on the idea of “new collar” workers who blend traditional and technical education rather than follow a college-to-career path. Wake Tech has an influx of adult learners who are changing careers and learning new skills, coupled with students who are concurrently learning technical trades and taking traditional core classes. One of Ralls’ areas of interest is expanding the early college high schools, where graduates complete their schooling with an associates degree and are ready to enter the workforce or continue on with higher education. Throughout his career, Ralls has focused on issues around college financing and customized workforce training programs to ensure that students graduate with gainful employment and little to no debt. Currently, about one quarter of Wake County high school graduates pass through the doors of one of Wake Tech’s six campuses, and a 2018 bond referendum will allow the school to improve infrastructure, expand and serve an additional 5,000 students by funding new classrooms, parking decks and buildings on five campuses.
Already, Wake Tech’s culture sparks curiosity, challenges students, fosters collaboration and values diversity, all aligning with Ralls’ sensibilities. “Wake Tech is already a purveyor of hope, an engine of opportunity and a pathway to jobs,” says Ralls. “My number one goal as the new president is to do nothing to mess that up.”