BY MARY KATE MURPHY
When Sandhills Community College’s Board of Trustees set out to hire a new president, they cast a nationwide net for someone who could live up to John Dempsey’s formidable legacy.
But in the end they didn’t have to look far for a candidate with experience as a teacher, academic researcher, public administrator and, as a bonus, international trade envoy.
In a unanimous vote on Tuesday afternoon, the trustees selected Alexander “Sandy” Stewart as Sandhills’ next president. Stewart has served for five years as the assistant commissioner of agricultural services at the N.C. Agriculture and Consumer Services.
He, his wife Carol and their three children live on a working farm outside of Whispering Pines that has been in his family since the late 18th century.
The State Board of Community Colleges met virtually on Tuesday morning to approve the trustees’ selection. After a brief meeting Tuesday afternoon, Sandhills’ trustees announced their choice to the college’s faculty and staff and county officials.
“He’s got a really big job with the state of North Carolina, and even though he’s not been in academics all his life, he has a PhD from N.C. State University,” Vice Chair Larry Caddell said after the vote Tuesday.
“He’s one of our own. He’s a local guy, he grew up here, he was educated at Union Pines. So we’re really excited that now we can get on with running the college.”
In a phone interview with The Pilot this week, Stewart described Sandhills as the latest fork in a career path that he could never have charted when he started college at N.C. State University.
Stewart studied agronomy and turfgrass management as an undergraduate. As a high school student, he had worked at the Country Club of North Carolina under course superintendent George Thompson and planned to follow in his footsteps.
But a summer spent helping a professor with cotton research evolved into a prolonged stay at N.C. State to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in crop science. Scarcely a weekend after defending his dissertation in Raleigh, he started work as an assistant professor of cotton production at Louisiana State.
Stewart spent nearly a decade in Louisiana, teaching undergraduates and working farmers alike in an agricultural extension role.
“I really enjoyed the extension component of the university. That’s where you engage with people,” Stewart said. “It’s sort of like teaching in an outdoor classroom, being involved in the industry.”
Soon after returning to North Carolina for a similar role at N.C. State, Stewart joined in a trade mission led by state agricultural Commissioner Steve Troxler to China. That country at the time was America’s top agricultural trading partner.
“He was instrumental in helping, especially from a technical standpoint, explaining protocols that we had for disease safety and food safety in North Carolina and he was very helpful in that trade mission,” Troxler recalled.
In short, Stewart stood out, and Troxler began to follow his career. In 2011, he recruited Stewart to the Department of Agriculture as director of its research stations division, which is responsible for managing 18 agriculture research facilities in partnership with N.C. State and N.C. A&T State universities.
Since his promotion to assistant commissioner in 2018, Stewart’s responsibilities have included “a little bit of everything:” direct supervision of the department’s agronomics, soil and water conservation, soil testing, USDA food distribution and marketing programs overseeing about 500 employees all in all.
“My day-to-day is keeping those trains running. Agriculture is our state’s largest industry, so there are always issues that come up, almost on a daily basis, that I deal with and I represent the commissioner in a lot of events,” Stewart said.
“So my day-to-day is never boring. We try to keep ag in North Carolina going and keep it profitable and serve the industry for the good of the state.”
Whether guiding farmers in the latest techniques for improving production or helping with disaster relief after hurricanes, Troxler said that Stewart’s passion for public service has always defined him. So he wasn’t necessarily surprised when his right-hand man started to pursue leadership of his hometown community college.
“I know his capabilities and know what he can do. There’s dread, yes. The thought of losing him in the department was something I didn’t relish but it was something that I wholeheartedly encouraged him to do,” Troxler said.
“One of the things that he is going to do is do his very best to make it the best. That’s what he’s always done.
“It’s very special that he is local, but it’s also very special with the experience he brings. He’s very well-known, especially in the ag community, across North Carolina and all of these relationships that he has built over the years are going to pay big dividends for Sandhills.”
With the state board’s approval, the trustees will now move forward with negotiating the terms of Stewart’s contract. Caddell said that has been delegated to a subcommittee including himself, Chair George Little and trustees Joseph Clendenin, Tim Carpenter and Helen Probst Mills.
Stewart is expected to start work in July. Having recently spent seven years as a Sandhills trustee by appointment of the Moore County Board of Commissioners, he’s already familiar with the college, what it does and how it operates.
”Getting involved with the college was a way for me to serve locally. You get to know the programs, you get to know the people, you see the impact a little bit closer,” he said.
“When you see what kind of real change in people’s lives that the college can make, it’s hard not to develop some affinity and love for the place.”
Looking back, Stewart has made most of his career shifts toward opportunities to serve a larger community. Leading Sandhills into its next chapter — offering students access to lucrative careers offered in the wave of industrial growth coming to central North Carolina in the coming years — qualifies.
“The workforce development aspect of what Sandhills does is so critical. When we see these large projects that are coming in, in the area in general with Toyota and Vinfast and those kinds of things, there’s going to be economic impact to Moore County and Hoke County,” he said.
“Working with the industries, working with the business community and making our workforce development programs as relevant and responsive as possible needs to be a focus area from Day One.”
Marketing the college — its virtually nonexistent barriers to entry and opportunities like the tuition-free Sandhills Promise program for dual enrolled Moore and Hoke County high school students — will be part of that puzzle.
Those high school students have accounted for a growing proportion of Sandhills’ student body in the last few years. Bob Levy, chair of the Moore County Board of Education, said that though he isn’t personally acquainted with the incoming college president, he’s encouraged by Stewart’s resume in the agricultural field.
“He should be able to broaden the vocational opportunities available at Sandhills. I hope to work closely with the new president and with the Sandhills Board of Trustees to make sure that we continue some of the great programs that both the school district and the community college have partnered with,” Levy said.
“My sincerest hope is that Sandhills will explore its ability to graduate elementary school teachers through its work with UNC-Pembroke. Overall I’m very optimistic about the choice that was made and I hope to meet with the new president very soon.”
Stewart will be just the third president at SCC, the state’s flagship community college when it was founded in 1963. The school was led for 25 years by Raymond Stone and then 33 years by Dempsey, who retired in December.
The other finalists selected from an original 84-applicant pool were Charles Marshall, a UNC-Chapel Hill vice chancellor and general counsel and Greg McLeod, the current president of Edgecombe Community College in Tarboro.
Stewart was the only one of the three with substantive Moore County connections. The stature of his new position is not lost on him.
“I think you’d be hard pressed to find any other community college in the country with a 60-year history just starting on their third president,” said Stewart.
“That kind of presence in that community that Raymond Stone and John Dempsey had for so many years was so impactful in the community that stepping into that position — first off it’s a tremendous honor, and it’s also a tremendous responsibility. These are big shoes to fill.”
Contact Mary Kate Murphyat (910) 693-2479 or email@example.com.