CHAMPAIGN — Pam Lau, who started at Parkland College in 1995 as a part-time faculty member teaching developmental reading and writing courses to at-risk students, is in line to become the sixth president of the Champaign-based community college in 2023.
Parkland’s board of trustees is expected to name Lau executive vice president and president designate at next Wednesday’s board meeting.
She eventually would replace Tom Ramage, who has been president at Parkland since 2007. Ramage said Wednesday he intends to step down in December 2022, when he will be 55 years old.
Under the arrangement that trustees are expected to approve, Ramage would be paid $269,694 annually through June 30, 2023, and Lau would be paid $159,647.
“The president designate (title) says that the board is putting its faith in Pam for the future,” board President Greg Knott said Wednesday. “And it’s our intent to name her president at that time. Another contract and another decision will be made by the board at that time to name her president.”
Planning for the transition began in the summer of 2018, Knott said.
“It was kind of informal and then this spring we got together and that’s when we really dug in and looked at what that means next,” Knott said. “We talked about it this spring and summer and we had a (closed) board meeting in August, and Pam met with the board. We wanted to talk with her without Tom and get to know Pam and hear what her thoughts were about the position and the arrangement.”
Ramage will retire after almost 16 years as president — including a seven-month stint when he was interim president following the resignation of Robert Exley, who lasted less than a year at the helm. Only William Staerkel — Parkland’s first president, who directed it for 20 years — and Zelema Harris, who led the college for 16 years, will have had longer tenures.
Knott said that succession planning is important to Parkland board members.
“The pool of excellent people who I see who rise to the top is small,” he said. “And we look over on the wall there and see (the photographs) of Zelema Harris and Doctor Staerkel in particular and now Tom, those are long periods of stability and leadership and growth not only in enrollment but programmatically.
“That’s when Parkland has excelled, when we’ve had those good leaders. And we don’t want to leave a gap in that so we started talking. We knew we had someone in-house who is ready to move up to that level. Pam is that caliber.”
Ramage has been at Parkland since July 1998, first as a department chair in distance and virtual learning. He said Wednesday he was pleased with the transition plan.
“I set my retirement date. My last evaluation was good. This is not a bad thing,” he said. “I’m going out on my date.”
In the next three years, he said, he plans to focus on fundraising for the 52-year-old college.
“It’s my intention to work through December 20th of 2022. We have an arrangement for how we make decisions that will be collaborative. I will be leaning more on (Lau) to be the initiator of the decisions but not much will change,” Ramage said. “When I step out and Pam steps in, it will be seamless. Everyone will know what is happening and when and how.”
Lau’s beginning at Parkland 24 years ago “was my first foray into community colleges. I had no idea what community colleges were like but I needed a part-time job and I haven’t left.”
A young mother at the time, she said she never imagined she’d become president of the college.
“I was just happy to have a first teaching gig,” she said. “In the year 2000 was when a full-time teaching option opened. I came in to teach development reading. In community colleges, we are open access; anyone can come but not everyone is academically ready to start college coursework. So I spent the first decade actually working with students who are not yet prepared. That was my introduction to Parkland and the whole mission of community colleges.
“We take everyone. When you come in here and you’re not quite there, we don’t say, ‘You can’t come in.’ We say, ‘Come on in and we are going to do what we can to take you to that next level.’”
Singapore to Chicago
Since then, she has served in a number of positions, including director of the Center for Academic Success, dean of academic services and vice president for academic services.
“This has been a very good institution to me,” said Lau, 65. “When I came in, I was really a greenhorn. I didn’t know anything. Yet always somebody came alongside and told me how to do it. And there was always somebody encouraging every step of the way. I grew up here at Parkland.”
Lau came to the United States from Singapore as an international student in the 1970s.
“When I came to this country, my thought was to get a Ph.D. in philosophy. I came to the University of Chicago, finished my master’s and did my coursework for the Ph.D.,” she recounted. “But then we (her husband, Lawson, who is also a college professor) moved down here, kids came along and I stepped aside.”
But in 1995, a friend told the Laus about an opening at Parkland and wondered if they were interested.
“I told my husband that I didn’t know anything about Parkland and that he should go,” she said. “He connected with Connie Hosier and they were making arrangements and he asked if he could bring his wife. She said sure. We both walked in here, our first time at Parkland, and she hired me.
“She figured that I had the temperament to deal with students who were not academically prepared. So she didn’t hire him. But she passed his name to someone else and he started teaching in a different area.”