Inside Track: A long, winding road
Lifetime educator, incoming Grand Rapids Community College president achieves goal after detours along the way.
Bill Pink believes one of the biggest favors you can do for yourself in life is to grab hold of the thing you love and chase after it.
So, it’s no surprise to the 10th president of Grand Rapids Community College life has led him to this point.
The Abilene, Texas, native, the youngest of five children, learned early from his “incredibly hard-working” parents the value of faith and doing a job well. The couple, who served as custodians at a local university, had never attended college themselves, but they encouraged their children to pursue that dream if it was what they wanted.
Pink wanted it. The question was how to finance it.
One day, when he and his friends were playing a game of pickup basketball after church, a recruiter stopped by and noticed Pink. He invited him to come try out for the basketball team at York College in York, Nebraska.
Pink made the team. He played there for two years as he earned an Associate of Arts degree with an emphasis in physical education, graduating in 1987.
Having that chance gave Pink more options after graduation. He chose to transfer to play basketball for Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City, where he played on scholarship.
“That to me was a God-given blessing, to be able to play and get a scholarship for it.”
Pink’s thirst for higher education continued. He received a bachelor’s degree in physical education with a minor in radio and TV (1990), a master’s degree in secondary education with an emphasis in physical education from the University of Central Oklahoma (1995) and a doctorate in leadership and curriculum from the University of Oklahoma (2004).
All along the way of his educational journey, Pink was either coaching or teaching.
“I wanted to be a teacher for some of the same reasons I wanted to be a coach: to make a difference in the lives of kids,” he said. “That’s always been important for me. And to figure out what my personal stamp of that meant. I wanted to do it my own way, to see how my idea of how you make an impact on a kid’s life, does that work?
“I found yeah, it works. It matters.”
When he finished his doctorate, Pink already had been an educator for a number of years.
“By then, I had started down this road of wanting to be a college president,” Pink said. “I thought, ‘If you’re going to generate change, you can be in that seat, and it’s a good seat to be in.’”
But one tempting phone call from a friend at the University of Oklahoma changed his plans. It was the head coach of the women’s basketball team, asking him to come and be the program’s director of operations. So in 2004, he left his job as a full-time faculty member at Oklahoma Christian and went to join the staff at OU.
“It was a fun program with great colleagues,” he said. “But then, literally, I woke up one day two years later in May and said, ‘Bill, you are so off track with what you said you wanted to do.’”
So, Pink headed back into “the academic side of the house,” taking an associate dean and director of teacher education position at University of Central Oklahoma, a post he held for five years.
Pink said a big break came next: a jump from associate dean at UCO to vice president of academic affairs at Oklahoma State.
“My career at that point was centered on getting as close to the presidency of a college or university without being president, so I could see what that looked like and so I could always ask myself the question, ‘Do you still want to do that? With everything you see, do you still want to do that?’ And if the answer kept coming back ‘yes,’ then that meant keep going,” he said.
So, he kept going. His path eventually led him to GRCC, where he applied for the provost role and didn’t get it. Then-President Steven Ender created the position of vice president and dean of workforce development, and Pink was hired for the role in March 2015.
Pink said during his VP role at GRCC, he grew to admire West Michigan for its spirit of collaboration.
“I have not seen this level of collaboration between businesses, the community, education, nonprofits and economic developers.”
When the role of president opened up and Pink went through the selection process and was chosen, he immediately began looking to the future.
He said he thinks Ender and the presidents before him have done a great job putting the school on a trajectory of success.
“What appeals to me about that role is that Grand Rapids Community College is already a great institution today. … There are friends of mine who get into these positions, and there is so much to be done. We have work to do here, too, but this is already a great campus.”
Pink said he believes the diverse roles he has held in education and all the places in which he has lived have led him to this point.
“I can’t make the statement that I’ve done everything on a college campus, but I feel I’ve had enough experience and been blessed with knowing what some of our people do and what their challenges are. Hopefully, that means I can have more empathy.”
As the college’s first African American president, Pink said he sees the areas where GRCC graduates are doing well and the economy is solid, and he sees the “pockets” where often for minority groups, the unemployment rate still is high.
“While our unemployment rate overall in West Michigan looks really good, there are pockets where it also looks really bad,” he said. “We have great nonprofit partners all over Grand Rapids; I want to continue to move those processes, so we are a strong player in helping people get into living-wage jobs.
“I see myself as having leadership of this entity that can truly be an agent to help change poverty cycles. That’s the kind of work we do. We move people to jobs, whether they come straight out of here and get a job or move to another college and then to work. We are a catalyst, and I get to help lead that.”
Pink said he is “honored” to use his influence to help students of all ethnicities and backgrounds.
“My hope is that I can give students of any color a dream and a vision that they can do anything they want to do.
“I want to leverage the fact that I can be a voice to students in middle school all the way up to college that you can pull this off, as well. Doesn’t matter what your color is, doesn’t matter what your economic background is — you can do it, too."