The new man in charge at Blue U.

Story by Chris Graham

The world has turned over several times at least since John Downey first stepped foot on campus at Blue Ridge Community College in 1992. Few had heard of the Internet by then, for example. And the handful of us who had cell phones had to leave them in their cars, except for the occasional guy who carried around a device as big as your average brick. 

“Even five years ago, we wouldn’t have dreamed that every student virtually at Blue Ridge has a cell phone, or that I’d be looking at e-mail on a cell phone. That’s a five-year period. That’s incredible. What will the next five years bring?” said Downey, who will be taking over the reins as president at BRCC on Aug. 3, replacing Jim Perkins, who announced his plans to retire earlier this year after serving in the president’s office for 20 years.

Downey, 47, has been at what the kids like to call Blue U. for 17 years now, coming to the Valley after a seven-year stint in the admissions and student-activities offices at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. The Syracuse, N.Y., native has slowly, steadily made the climb up the management ladder at Blue Ridge, joining the staff as the school’s disability-services coordinator and working into the dean’s office in 2002 before being named the vice president for instruction and student services in 2005.

Which is to say, he has a host of experiences and perspectives to bring to the job of president from working on the front lines in student counseling to upper-level management.

“There are more similarities and differences to the two perspectives. We’re all focused on the student experience and what students need. Whether you’re making policies about that or you’re actually providing direct service, all of us try to stay focused on, Are we creating structures where students understand the implications of the decisions that they make?” Downey said.

The focus in the Downey era will be building on the work done under Perkins to make BRCC a key player in workforce development in the Shenandoah Valley. The charge for Downey will be making sure the school is ahead of the curve when it comes to the needs of local business and industry in the development arena.

“We’re really increasingly looked to as being part of the solution to some of the economic problems that exist locally,” Downey said. “What I hear from local employers is that despite the higher-than-average local unemployment rate that we’re experiencing now, they still have a hard time finding the right kind of qualified worker that runs that plant well, that’s able to use the technology that is available.

“One of the challenges that we will face internally is, how will we respond to that changing technology so that when industry needs that training we can offer it quickly?” Downey said. “I don’t think industry can wait anymore for an educational program to be developed through bureaucracy. They really need it to be developed and developed quickly. I think the more we can to be prepared and structured to be able to meet that need, the better off the community will be.”

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