There’s a broad lesson for public institutions in the overwhelming success Tuesday of College of the Mainland’s $162.5 million bond proposition.
The lesson is this: People will support important community institutions with their time, money and votes when they perceive themselves to be a relevant part of the decision-making.
On the other hand, public institutions that isolate themselves — set themselves apart from, or in the college’s case for years, above the residents — won’t get that support no matter how much election-time cajoling they do.
A little less than 15 years ago, the board of trustees impaneled at the time began acting, in our estimation, as if the college belonged to it, rather than the larger community.
The Daily News years ago suggested the college board’s imperious, and sometimes illegal, treatment of residents and taxpayers during public meetings, for example, would one day undermine its ability to pass bond propositions.
“As the elected leaders of an organization that depends on public support, College of the Mainland’s trustees are displaying an odd attitude toward the public and the public’s interest in the college’s business,” a Daily News editorial argued in 2005.
So, it was no surprise when voters in 2007 rejected a $103 million bond proposal and did so again in 2011 with an $86 million proposition.
The situation Tuesday was about as near to opposite as they come. Voters approved a much larger bond proposition by almost 67 percent of the vote.
That outcome was not surprising either, because college leaders have worked hard, and effectively, at improving the relationship between the institution and the community it serves and relies on for support.
The change began long before Election Day, perhaps with the hiring of President Warren Nichols, who has helped create a sense of stability at the college and has worked to improve its relationship with the community at large.
The change was definitely apparent by the time officials began seriously planning for the bond effort, in the fact that they formed a large committee and sought input from residents and the business community about the details of the plan.
It seems clear that an important part of the difference in Tuesday’s outcome and those in 2007 and 2011 is that the college opened itself up to and engaged with the community, rather than walling itself off and talking down to it.
That in itself was as important to the college’s future as was passing the bond.
• Michael A. Smith