Jean Sarto Floten served as Bellevue College’s president for 22 of its 50 year history. She began in May 1989 and throughout her time on campus she spearheaded and oversaw significant advances in the college’s development, including the conception of four-year degree programs, the addition of buildings and the Puget Sound Regional Archives, BC’s participation in the human genome project and the creation of the Early Learning Center.
Floten said of Bellevue College, “I knew I was coming into a community that valued higher education, where people cared deeply and were committed to the things that they value.” She reflected also on the surroundings and landscape of BC in its earlier years, how it was painted primary colors and “looked like a high school” back in 1989. “Over 22 years, it’s matured to be a lovely campus. Each new building adds character and depth.”
“There were so many things that happened during that time period,” she said. “It was an amazing time of growth for Bellevue College and for me.”
Before Bellevue Community College could transition into Bellevue College offering four-year degrees, the college had to face major challenges conceptually, legally and financially.
When the idea of offering four-year degrees was brought up during a board meeting, Floten remembered her initial reaction was to dismiss it. However, it ended up being such ideas that urged her to reflect on the state of the college and possibilities for the future that helped make change happen. “I went home and thought about it and went ‘wait a minute, my knee jerk reaction was no, but is there a way?’ And inevitably there was a way,” she said. “I’m always thankful for people who push others out of their comfort zones.”
“Any time you fly in the face of tradition, it’s never immediately accepted,” Floten said.
Though local universities didn’t outright support the idea of BCC offering four-year degrees, the end result was that the legislature offered benefits to the universities and to BCC, granting the universities branch campuses and allowing BCC to begin offering four-year degrees. “The legislature took care of both of them and the ostensible purpose of both was to increase upper division capacity,” Floten added.
BC’s first four-year degree program was in radiation and imaging sciences. Before the bill was passed, Floten recalled, “We asked every four-year university if they would offer the degree. Nobody would because they said it was too expensive,” and universities didn’t typically use hospitals’ equipment like BCC did. She expressed how proud she was that Governor Gregoire came to make the commencement address for the first graduates of the program, and that every one of the graduates was employed with a six-figure income. “We were totally exonerated that there was a dramatic need for a different kind of education,” she said.
“Many people have been served, and I think served well, by opening up those avenues,” Floten said.
Acquiring funding for the numerous building projects and expansions that occurred during Floten’s time as president of the college was also one of the major hurtles jumped.
“We had a consultant who came from out of town who said ‘oh yeah, you can raise money, you can raise enough money for that in 18 months,’” Floten said. “Well 18 months came and went, 24 months came and went.” What the consultant didn’t understand was that people weren’t used to giving to a community college.
The first building the college did raise money for was a small addition on the library, the first interactive multimedia center in the state funded by community members.
“You put out to the universe that you really want something to happen badly and you work hard enough, you’ll be rewarded,” Floten said.
She ended up meeting with Ralph Monroe, Secretary of State at the time, who said he was looking for a place to put the Puget Sound Regional Archives facility and asked her if she’d be interested in a colocation. “I said, ‘yes, if you’ll put a building around it for me,” Floten recalled. The N building and archives facility was built as a result, and outside lies a monument dedicated to Floten.
Funding and grants began to come in from Microsoft, Boeing, the National Science Foundation and others. The college began to flourish. “To get the inertia to get to that point was unbelievable. But once you reach the tipping point and go down the other side, it was a fabulous ride,” Floten said.
“The way I thought I would get there and the way it finally turned out were remarkably different,” she said.
During her 22nd year at BC, Floten met with President Mendenhall of the Western Governors University. She said that after talking with him, she really believed she “was seeing the future of education.” She elaborated, “It was competency-based, recognized what people already know and could do, and had a way of students demonstrating that in a way that was very logical, online available all the time at any place and massively less expensive model using the power of the internet.”
Floten then made the decision to leave her position as president of Bellevue College. “I always think that new leadership assists an institution to grow and mature in different ways,” she said. “For me, I think it was time to take on a new challenge.”
The Student Union building was named after Floten shortly after she left her position at BC in 2011. “It was hard to leave,” she said.
“I think the next 50 years are going to be characterized by amazing technological transformations that we can’t even imagine right now. I think it’s going to dramatically affect how students learn and where they learn,” Floten said.