2022 Person of the Year: Jim Henningson

By Brad Rogers | Photography by Ralph Demilio

Jim Henningsen needs a little love. No, make that a lot of love.

“My whole philosophy toward the college is I need everyone to love the college,” the president of the College of Central Florida told OM.

And Henningsen is working hard for that love.

In just the past year, CF has been named one of the nation’s top community colleges for the fifth time by the prestigious Aspen Institute. The school’s nursing program is ranked No. 1 in Florida among all colleges and universities by RegisteredNursing.org. Oh, and it perennially makes the list of the top 1 percent of America’s most affordable colleges.

The college received $7 million from the Florida Legislature to create a new health sciences building in the old gym, drawing praise from Tallahassee for CF’s innovative solution to an expensive need. Renovations to the college’s Hampton Center were completed, allowing a significant expansion of the center’s dental program.

There has been a litany of other CF successes since Henningsen became president in 2012 – not the least being the rescue of the Appleton Museum from closure. So many, that even the normally modest Henningsen says the college is not just succeeding, it’s setting the bar for 21st century community college education in Florida.

“We’re now a leader in the state when it comes to how we operate and our outcomes,” the 57-year-old veteran college administrator said.

For Henningsen’s leadership in creating a community college that has become a national model for its workforce development programs and its ever-widening engagement of the community, Ocala Magazine name’s Dr. James Henningsen its person of the year.

A series of challenges

Henningsen said the college’s emergence as an educational leader is a result of partnerships throughout the community and state. He said partnering is such an integral part of CF’s long-term strategy that those on his management team have come to refer to the college as “The Partnership.”

“We call ourselves The Partnership,” he said. “We partner with businesses. We partner with universities. We partner with the community.”

Henningsen reflects on when he arrived at CF, replacing the beloved Chick Dassance. CF was doing well, so an enthusiastic Henningsen wasn’t sure where to start moving the college forward.

“That’s the hardest thing — coming in and everything’s great,” he said. “(Former college trustee) Frank Rasbury said, ‘Jim, we’ve got a good thing going. Don’t muck it up.’

“So, we set about asking ‘how can we do things better?’ That’s become our mantra. And we’re about the community.”

Since Henningsen arrived at CF, Ocala has had to pull itself out of the debilitating Great Recession, deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and adapt to the community’s needs as it undergoes a growth explosion and economic diversification.

The first thing Henningsen and his team undertook was examining the programs the college offered and determining which ones were no longer needed because they were no longer relevant, or they were being offered by others.

Then, the task was what programs did CF need to add to serve the fast-changing needs of the business community and prospective students. Henningsen said adaptability and quick response have become cornerstones of CF’s approach, noting that since 2021 the college has added 51 new academic programs to support the community’s workforce needs. Overall, the college has 135 different educational programs.

Among those programs are the state’s only agribusiness and equine programs, a state-of-the-art robotics program that Henningsen says is unmatched among CF’s peers throughout the Southeast and, of course, the nursing program.

One area that he is especially proud of is the new health sciences program that will serve 200 students and allow CF to support Level II trauma centers.

The $7.8 million project, which is expected to open this semester, is a microcosm of the kinds of challenges and decisions Henningsen and the college face as it continues to grow and meet the needs of the community.

He said shortly after he arrived Ocala’s health community began asking for more trained professionals. The requests grew louder and louder.

“They weren’t knocking at the door,“ he said. “They were pounding it down.”

So, he started the process of determining how to meet that need, which would require a new, bigger, modern health sciences facility. The price tag for a new building, however, was between $30 million and $40 million. He lobbied the Legislature; he sought help from the Marion County Hospital District; he asked individual donors. He could not get anywhere close to the amount needed.

Ultimately, Henningsen took drastic measures. CF came up with a plan to convert the gym into the new health sciences building. That meant, however, eliminating the college’s men’s and women’s basketball and women’s volleyball programs. It was a big decision – the men’ basketball team won the national junior college championship in 2013.

The decision was unpopular with some. But, Henningsen said, it was the only prudent thing to do, given there was no hope of raising the money needed for a totally new facility. And besides, the return on investment between the sports teams and a new health sciences building wasn’t even close, he said.

“There’s no return on winning,” he said, referring to the nationally ranked basketball and volleyball teams that CF eliminated. “For the same money, we can have 200 health sciences students instead of 40 athletes, most of whom weren’t going to stay here. We had to move on.”

It paid off. Henningsen’s controversial move caught the eye of then-Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, who has since been elected state agriculture commissioner. Simpson, who represented Citrus County, part of CF’s service area, openly praised Henningsen and CF for innovative, cost-conscious thinking. He also ensured the $7 million that has funded most of the new health science building’s cost.

“You have to be more business-minded like other businesses,” Henningsen said. “Because resources are scarce.”

One of Henningsen’s passions is art. He used to dabble in pottery and painting; so, when the Appleton Museum, which operates under the auspices of the CF Foundation, lost its state funding in 2017, Henningsen once again had to scramble for help.

Recognizing that the Appleton is a cultural gem – it is among just 6 percent of U.S. museums with accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums – Henningsen went into lobbying mode. The museum was on the verge of folding.

“It was gone,” Henningsen said.

But through intense lobbying, and support from key legislators, state funding flowed again and the Appleton “was saved.”

Right place, right time

Henningsen hails from North Bennington, Vermont. He holds degrees in economics and geography, as well as an MBA and a doctorate in education.

He started his career in higher education in 1989 at Valencia State College in Orlando, before moving to Seminole State College eight years later, where he worked until coming to CF in 2012.

“I felt like I was in the right place at the right time,” he said of his move here.

He and his wife, Jeanne, a leadership coach, have a daughter, 15-year-old Juliana. He said Jeanne compliments his personality and style.

“She’s a great listener,” he said. “She keeps me grounded. She helps slow me down sometimes — I was born caffeinated. She compliments me.”

And Jeanne Henningsen’s assessment of her husband?

“He calls himself a servant leader, and I would agree,” she said. “But I would say what makes him unique, especially being a president of a college, is that he doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not.

“James is just one of those people who won’t compromise his principles just to get something he wants. He has this unique ability to be true to himself and still get what he wants.”

And, she added, Henningsen is passionate about the community. In addition to being CF’s president, he is chairman of the United Way campaign.

“He believes very strongly in the college being an integral part of the community,” she said. “He wants the community to know that he’s there and that he cares.”

Close friend and gym owner Ben Marciano said much of what Henningsen does to benefit his fellow Ocalans is more times than not done without anyone ever knowing.

“He does a lot behind the scenes,” Marciano said. “Jim’s not the guy who is going to be out front taking credit. He’s just a kind and compassionate person.”

What’s next?

When asked what he is most proud of as president of the College of Central Florida, Henningsen did not hesitate.

“No. 1, it’s the team,” he said of his administrative staff and faculty. “You’ve got to have a good team, and we do.

“No. 2, our ability to meet industries’ needs by creating training programs and finding the resources to do it.”

It is the latter that Henningsen said has turned CF from “13th grade” to a 21st century workforce training institution that strives to be innovative, responsive and, most of all, meet the community’s immediate needs.

“Not everyone needs a four-year degree,” Henningsen said. “At CF, you can get a two-year degree or a certificate.”

As for the future, Henningsen said with the health sciences facility done, a new nursing building will be built, the old nursing building will be renovated and turned into an EMS/paramedic training center and there will be a new public safety building. All that will occur on the campus’ west side.

“The west campus will be pretty nice when we’re done,” he said.

In the meantime, Henningsen hopes the gains and successes of the college bring love from the community.

“CF has been an integral part of the community fabric since 1957,” he said. “Our mission is to be here for the community.”

And is he feeling the love?

Well, by at least two measures he is.

In a 2021 poll, 94 percent of respondents in Marion, Citrus and Levy counties rated the college positively, leading pollsters to say “CF stands high above the field of competing public and for-profit college-level providers in this market. It does so by being widely recognized, highly rated, and well regarded by residents of the community.”

And donors are taking notice, too. Since Henningsen’s arrival, the CF Foundation has seen its assets grow by $54 million, or 137 percent. “Donors want to see results,” the CF president said.

As CF moves forward, Henningsen said “we are constantly re-evaluating what we do and what the next thing we’ll see.”

“We’re growing by leaps and bounds. I think our next challenge as a college and a community will be ‘what does our next growth look like?’”

We asked OM’s 2022 person of the year, Chamber and Economic Partnership CEO Kevin Sheilley, what CF’s and Henningsen’s impact is on Ocala.

“I don’t even know how to assess the value of the college to our community,” he said. “I can’t imagine what our community would look like without it. Jim’s emphasis on developing workforce training programs has been critical. He’s such a good partner.”   

Back to top button