Delaware Tech alumnus Mark Brainard provides strong leadership for the state’s community college
Mark Brainard recalls being “pretty hooked from Day 1” during his time as a student at Delaware Technical Community College. “The classroom came alive,” he says. And now, as president, he wants to grow that enthusiasm.
“I have tried to envision what I valued and what I found frustrating,” the 1981 graduate says in an interview in his simply decorated office at the Stanton campus, a mile from where he grew up and where he earned an associate of applied science in criminal justice.
“He has a laser focus on student success, graduation rates and retention,” says Jerry McNesby, a friend since they worked at the Delaware Department of Transportation in the 1990s and now the college’s vice president of Finance. Brainard “is disciplined as an administrator and as a runner,” says McNesby, a fellow runner.
“He’s the first to give someone else credit,” McNesby says, adding that he’s also “the one who can push the ball over the goal line” and “clearly a visionary.”
One example of his leadership came in 2010 with an effort to reduce the college’s carbon footprint by 20 percent by 2020. It’s already down 27 percent, McNesby says.
Brainard, a 61-year-old Delaware native and 1976 graduate of John Dickinson High School, is the first in his family to attend college. His father was a mail carrier, his mother a homemaker and later a part-time General Assembly employee.
“He never forgets where he came from and how he got there,” says Rich Heffron, a friend since the mid-1980s and later a colleague at the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce.
Brainard and wife Charlotte instilled in their kids an interest in higher education and public service: daughter Bridget is a deputy attorney general, and son Mark Jr. is assistant to Newark’s city manager.
“They knew what they wanted, and I stayed out of the way,” Brainard says of his children’s educational and career paths, and that’s a philosophy he also uses as Delaware Tech’s president. “I’m not short of opinions, but 99 percent of the time if a vice president disagrees, I go with them,” he says. He describes his nine direct reports at the vice presidential level as “servant leaders.” By that, he means they care most about what they can give to the organization.
To a large degree, Brainard has been a servant leader as well throughout his career in public service. “He’s loyal to the organization and to people,” Heffron says. “Mark and I talk about that all the time.”
After Delaware Tech, Brainard earned a Bachelor of Arts in behavioral science from Wilmington University in 1983 and, while working for the state, a juris doctorate from Widener University in 1994. He came back to Delaware Tech in 1995 as an assistant vice president and then moved to the chamber as executive vice president.
Brainard returned to state government in 2002 as Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s chief of staff. “I had worked for the governor when she served in both the House of Representatives and the state Senate when I held staff positions in the General Assembly,” he says. “In 2002, when I was executive vice president at the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, the governor was midway through her first term and decided to make some changes and restructure her staff, creating a chief of staff. She contacted me and offered me the position, and I was honored to serve until her last year in office, 2008.”
One of his big accomplishments in that job, McNesby says, was building a consensus in 2005 to create the Student Excellence Equals Degree program, which covers full tuition for certain Delaware high school graduates to get an associate degree. Today, about 10 percent of Delaware Tech students get SEED scholarships.
PERSONALLY, PROFESSIONALLY, POLITICALLY
“I was asked at a couple of points in my career to consider running for office,” Brainard says, “but the timing was never right and, at the time, I was serving in positions that were both personally and professionally gratifying, so whatever interest I might have had quickly passed.”
He returned to the college in 2008 as an assistant campus director. He became president in 2014.
“Mark is a guy who solves problems. He understands change. Change is constant,” Heffron says. “He listens and always wants to know what the other person believes. He understands compromise.”
“Mark has a compassion for people and gets along well with a wide range of people,” says Alan Lavallee, who, as Criminal Justice Department chair when Brainard was a student, was his advisor and instructor in multiple courses. “His whole demeanor is different than your average Joe.”
His approach is simple: be pleasant, listen to all the constituencies (“He has his finger on the pulse of the workforce in Delaware,” McNesby says) and get buy-in.
In his rare times away from his presidential duties, Brainard says he maintains his slim physique by being outside, often as a runner, after having given up hockey following various injuries. “Depending on my work schedule, I try to get in around 20 miles a week, with a bike ride or other types of workouts during the week.”
He also competes in about 10 races a year. “This year started off with the Delaware Tech Chocolate Lovers 5K in February and will end with the Rehoboth half-marathon in December,” he says. “I always try to do the three Delaware Tech 5Ks as well as other long-time favorites like the Annapolis 10, the Bottle & Cork and the PNC Thanksgiving morning event.”
SLOW DOWN AND BREATHE
Indoors, he enjoys reading about history. On LinkedIn, he follows two Microsoft leaders (Bill Gates and Satya Nadella) and two experts in emotional intelligence testing and training (Travis Bradberry and Daniel Goleman).
Brainard continues to take personal enrichment courses at Delaware Tech, including recent classes in conversational Italian and tai chi. And what did this self-described Type A personality learn in the latter? “Slow down. Breathe.”
As president, Brainard answers to what he calls “Delaware’s CEO”: the governor. The college “is in lockstep” with Gov. John Carney’s top goals of economic development, jobs and education, he says.
The college’s mission thus is clear: produce a “high-quality workforce for local business and industry.” The more than 120 programs leading to associate degrees, diplomas or certificates must lead to real jobs. And sometimes real jobs lead to programs, as when ChristianaCare (the state’s largest employer) decided it needed people trained in health information management. Delaware Tech created a program, one of 31 in its health and science cluster, by far the college’s most popular cluster in terms of enrollment.
All of these courses—at college sites, online, at work and just for fun—mean a fourth of the state’s population has taken courses at Delaware Tech, officials estimate.
Of its students, 96 percent are Delawareans, and 87 percent of its graduates work in Delaware.
DEVELOPING DELAWARE’S WORKFORCE
McNesby says Brainard has led Delaware Tech ahead of trends, such as helping high schoolers develop career pathways and establishing sites for customized training in Bridgeville, Middletown and New Castle.
Another lesson Brainard learned as a student was the importance of persistence, as he noted in his Message From the President in the summer issue of the college magazine. “Hard work is closely linked” to persistence, he elaborates in the interview. “You can’t be persistent and lazy.”
Persistence is at last paying off on what he calls the college’s main threat: aging infrastructure. State legislation created the school in 1966, and classes began in 1967 in a Georgetown building that was once a high school. Campuses in Dover, Stanton and Wilmington followed in the early 1970s. In 2006, Brainard says, the college identified $40 million in deferred maintenance, a figure that grew to almost $100 million by the time state legislators agreed in May on a funding plan.
“With over $400 million in assets, industry standards call for an annual investment of $12 million to maintain quality, safety and value,” a college webpage says. But “the college has averaged just $4.9 million over the past 14 years to address deferred maintenance costs.”
The college gets 42 percent of its budget from the state and relies upon the state’s annual Bond Bill for such capital expenditures, Brainard says. This year’s bill allocates $10 million a year for five years “to issue bonds to finance the cost of major and minor capital improvements, deferred maintenance and the acquisition of related equipment and educational technology.”
LOOKING FORWARD—AND BACKWARD
In 2020, Delaware Tech kicks off its next round of accreditation, a multiyear process where colleges “document what you do and do what you say you do.” At the end of the last accreditation, Brainard recalls being told “you have a culture of assessment. We plan to hold ourselves accountable.”
Assessment intensifies in a new initiative called Achieving the Dream, a network of 277 community colleges in 44 states using data to improve student success. “It’s a great opportunity to take a hard look at ourselves and help us focus on our processes, access data in a more meaningful way and use it to make us better,” he says. After a year of research, the college in June developed a plan to improve course formats, communication to students and other elements.
Another achievement: centralizing the staff—moving from separate operations at each campus for development, facilities, human resources, marketing, public safety and technology—into “a seamless organization” with unified teams.
When asked to recall how he envisioned his career from his younger days, Brainard says he didn’t know what the future would hold.
Lavallee had a more specific achievement in mind: “I always thought he would be governor. Little did I know that someday he would be my boss.”
And McNesby is more poetic: “He’s always the kingmaker. Never knew he’d be king.”