Dennis Rittle said getting hired as president at NorthWest Arkansas Community College is one of his life’s great moments. In a recent interview at Burns Hall on the Bentonville college campus, he recalled the phone call vividly.
“I was sitting peaceably in my den,” he said. “The college had hired the Association of Community College Trustees, the ACCT, as their search firm, and it was Kennon Briggs who called. We didn’t know what the decision was, just that [the finalists] would get a call.
“Outside of the birth of my children and my marriage and other personal events, it was the greatest moment of my life. It was the most satisfying moment of my professional career, no doubt about it.”
That phone call was this past spring, and Rittle began the job as NWACC’s fourth president on July 11. Rittle, a Pennsylvania native, a former pastor and the first in his family to attend college, replaced Evelyn Jorgenson, who retired after the 2021-22 academic year. She had been president since 2013.
Rittle, 52, said he is excited to start planning where he wants the state’s largest two-year college to be in the next several years. His goals include prioritizing the college’s academic programs, increasing funding and stabilizing enrollment.
“Dr. Rittle has hit the ground running, and I believe NWACC and Northwest Arkansas will be enhanced by his leadership,” said Ron Branscum, NWACC’s board chairman, who was on the search committee for a new president.
‘ALL IN’ ON NWACC
Rittle comes from Cowley Community College, a two-year school in Arkansas City, Kan., with about 3,800 students. He had been the school’s president since 2015.
Before that, he spent three years in Arkansas as provost and executive vice president of learning of Ozarka College (Izard County) in Melbourne. That’s where his interest in NWACC began.
“My wife and I loved Arkansas, and if there was ever an opportunity at NWACC, we were going to pursue it,” he said. “My wife is from Kansas, and [Cowley] was a very good fit for me at that time in my career. It’s not as big as NWACC but just as diversified with its operations. It was a great place, but if NWACC ever opened it, I was going to apply. When it did, we were all in.”
Rittle has worked part-time or full-time in higher education since 1995 and is a highly decorated veteran. He served 15 years (1988-2003) in the United States Air Force and the Air National Guard, both stateside and abroad, during peacetime and war.
He worked at the world’s most technologically advanced military weather station during his service. He earned two two-year degrees in teaching and meteorology, then a master’s, followed by a Ph.D. in organizational leadership from Regent University School of Business & Leadership.
He has completed five degrees, including a postdoctoral program in education management from Harvard University, and is pursuing an MBA from the University of Kansas.
Rittle also spent eight years (2000-2007) as a bi-vocational pastor in Pennsylvania.
He said the itch for education goes back to his high school years in Lebanon, Pa. A multisport athlete, he spent evenings volunteering at a local YMCA to teach math and science to adult learners completing their GED.
“That gave me a lot of satisfaction,” he recalled. “I get so much satisfaction over watching somebody improve their station in life. For me, there is no greater joy.”
Rittle has served on numerous state and national boards, councils and committees, including as president of the Kansas Community College Council of Presidents and as a board member of the Arkansas Association of Two-Year Colleges.
Rittle said enrollment is the first topic discussed in each cabinet meeting he’s convened at NWACC.
“We want to get back to where we were pre-pandemic,” he said. “And largely, we have started to do that. But we are not there yet.”
In October, NWACC reported a fall enrollment of 7,593 students, up nearly 8% from last year. The fall 2021 enrollment was 7,037 students, a decrease of 5% from fall 2020.
Like Rittle, Branscum said enrollment is also an essential topic for the board.
“To get that number swinging back in a positive direction is important,” Branscum said. “We’ve seen a declining trend over the past three years, and COVID impacted that. With the area’s growth, I feel there should be annual growth for the school. That would be a natural effect of the growth we are experiencing.”
Rittle said he wants NWACC’s perception to be the college of choice for various students. The college offers nearly 80 degrees and certificates that can lead to careers in health professions, business, culinary, science and the arts.
“We have to view ourselves as offering higher education for a life value,” Rittle said. “We must ensure the value and branding of NWACC are out there. With 30-plus people moving to the region daily, we must keep our message out there. We’re here, we’re a great value, and this is what we contribute to the Northwest Arkansas ecosystem.”
Rittle also understands the importance of two specific possibilities for attracting more students — on-campus housing options and adding sports.
“To me, housing and athletics are attached at the hip,” he said. “When I met with the student government group, their top request was more campus life, and housing is on the tip of their desired list.”
In 2021, NWACC fielded teams at the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) level for the first time — men’s and women’s cross country.
“The students like that we have cross country,” Rittle said. “Their statement to me was, ‘We want more.’ I don’t get afraid of those conversations. I took it as a challenge, and we will start walking in those spaces one day at a time. Sometimes it might be yes or next year. Sometimes it might be no, not now, but in two or three years.
“As a leader, I’m comfortable in all of those spaces. We have to have a conversation. Assess the cost, but also recognize the reward. Because there are rewards.”
Ritter’s previous stop at Cowley College had on-campus dormitories and a robust athletics program with 13 varsity programs for men and women.
Rittle also sees a growth opportunity at NWACC’s Washington County facility near Arvest Ballpark in Springdale. The 38,000-square-foot building opened in 2020 and houses courses in general education, nursing, health information management and emergency medical responder and emergency medical technician. It’s also home to the college’s high school concurrent program.
The building is in an area the Springdale Chamber of Commerce has dubbed the Springdale Care Corridor. It’s a four-mile stretch of Interstate 49 that includes a dozen healthcare-related providers, including Arkansas Children’s, Highlands Oncology, Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
“That [healthcare] is a strength for us,” Rittle said. “We have one of the finest nursing campuses in the state and this region. It would be derelict of us if we didn’t get out there and ensure we provide quality education for that [healthcare] workforce.”