At age 23, Steve Gunderson was talked in to running for a state senate seat in Wisconsin.
He was a college student at the time on the way to becoming something very different from an elected official. He was taking courses to be a broadcaster, not a politician.
Despite being a long-shot, Gunderson pulled out an improbable victory and would serve three terms in the Wisconsin State Legislature. After three terms in Madison, he would go on to a powerful career in the U.S. Senate spanning eight terms or 16 years, including his longstanding service as a member of the Education & the Workforce committee.
The experience he amassed in the political realm would eventually strike a perfect balance with the vocation he had practiced in professional baseball stadiums and hockey arenas.
Gunderson’s broadcast education came from Brown School of Broadcasting in Minneapolis, Minn. After studying at the University of Wisconsin–Madison., he enrolled in the career training-oriented institution for the hands-on learning and in-game experience he needed for the profession.
On Monday, Gunderson brought his career around full circle. He participated in his first external event as the fifth President and CEO of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU). The association hosted a town hall meeting – a conference call led by APSCU for its members – to introduce Gunderson to the sector.
After fighting to be heard through a few technical glitches, his first statements drew an immediate connection between his past and the mission of career colleges.
“In so many ways, my career prepared me for this opportunity,” Gunderson said.
APSCU’s new leader has a clear understanding of career education. His objective from the outset was to clearly set out his new organization’s goals.
Gunderson stated on at least three occasions that APSCU’s focus will be using 2012 to prepare for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in 2013. He called for a grassroots involvement from members to meet with elected officials in their area and to travel to Hill Day to visit with leaders on Capitol Hill. And he noted that data about the career college sector’s impact on the American labor force and economy would play a significant role in shaping opinions in Washington. Those were all the stated goals to preserve something larger: access to higher education.
“The access to postsecondary education will determine the future of so many families in America,” Gunderson said. That issue is not only critical to his new role, but also to a personal project – he noted he’s at work on a new book, Re-Creating America’s Middle Class.
The town hall call was not as much about Gunderson, though, as it was the issues facing the sector. The sector has been waiting for a new leader while continuing to take attacks from all side. Gunderson’s presence – while strong – seemed understated compared to the general tone of the call. Most of the members listening in wanted to know how APSCU was going to move forward in handling the attack still being waged against career colleges.
APSCU is laser-focused on the issues impacting the career college sector and will continue to be under Gunderson. At the beginning of only his second week at the helm, it was clear Gunderson was absorbing all the background pertinent to the battles facing career colleges. No doubt, with his education background, he’s already aware of many of them.
But there’s still a bit of a learning curve. During the question and answer session from attendees, Gunderson answered questions in tandem with Brian Moran, who served as APSCU’s interim president after its previous leader, Harris Miller’s departure. The synergy between the two men was evident, and that’s exactly the spirit of togetherness the sector needs as it moves forward.
“When you look at the job data for next 10-15 years in this county, the role career colleges must play in getting people back to work is essential,” Gunderson said.
He went on to say, “Public sector colleges don’t have the resources to expand in ways to allow them to serve these needs.”
This is among many of the points he’ll reiterate in the coming months in discussions with his colleagues on the hill. APSCU has the task of making the value of career education prevalent among that audience. They’ll be looking for something like respect or even appreciation for career colleges needs to trigger a change in attitudes, and it takes belief on the part of the purveyors to create such a change.
“We are strong together,” Gunderson said, acknowledging all schools in the sector will need to coalesce to bring about new perspectives. He’s done that for years.
At age 60, Gunderson sought the APSCU job because its mission is his passion. He's looking for another victory. To use some language from his broadcasting days, career colleges are trailing, but there’s still time on the clock to pull out another improbable victory.