Born and raised in the farming and logging community of Jonathan Creek Township, about 15 miles north of Maggie Valley, Mark Sorrells learned the value of hard work at an early age thanks to his elders.
“I grew up on a farm and grew up in a family business. So, I grew up working and being part of the family operation on the farm with my grandfather,” Sorrells says. “Tobacco, cattle and tomatoes — that was the role. When I was 7 years of age, that gentleman walked me out back with my brother and said, ‘Boys, there’s an acre of tobacco, an acre of tomatoes and a steer. Go to work. That’s how you are going to pay for your college.
“‘You will go to college.’”
That was something his parents never did.
When he was in high school, Sorrells stocked groceries and changed the oil and tires on vehicles at his father’s gas station and grocery store in their Haywood County hometown. After graduation, his father pushed him to work at a rubber plant that manufactured fan belts and hoses for the automobile industry.
Though Sorrells wanted no part of the factory job, his father was adamant.
“I want you to understand the hard work that those men and women have to go through working in manufacturing,” Sorrells remembers his father telling him.
Those coming-of-age jobs — in agriculture, small retail and manufacturing settings — rooted Sorrells with a deep commitment to work that has served him well since.
Effective Jan. 1, Sorrells will become the fifth president in the history of Fayetteville Technical Community College, succeeding Larry Keen, who retired after serving since 2007.
“I’m excited about the opportunities,” Sorrells says. “Dr. Keen is a great mentor. He’s done a good job of schooling and preparing me for the role of president. I feel like I’m up to it. I’m very excited about it; I look forward to it. He has put together an exceptional leadership team. Having those relationships, I believe, will help us continue on.”
Building on foundations
Sorrells was selected after a nationwide search that began last March. The N.C. State Board of Community Colleges endorsed his selection on Sept. 16, and the FTCC board of trustees gave final approval. He had been senior vice president for academic and student services at the school for four years, coming from the Golden LEAF Foundation where he was senior vice president.
“I’m not surprised because I worked my butt off,” Sorrells says of getting the job. “And I feel like the things we were able to accomplish during the past four years were things that pointed to my ability to do the job. And do the job well and to carry on. The foundation had been established here.”
Sorrells says he has made connections across the community college system that will pay off.
“(There are) very few of them that I haven’t done some extensive project working with (other) colleges,” he says. “In addition to that, I have worked with most of the universities. I had a rich background and a lot of experience in workforce and economic development. In particular, my focus has been — and I devoted 35 years of my life to — working in some of the more challenging Tier 1, particularly, but also Tier 2 counties to help create more economic opportunities for all the people in all those communities.”
The N.C. Department of Commerce annually ranks the state’s 100 counties based on economic well-being. Tier 1 counties are the most economically distressed; Tier 3 designates the least distressed.
Sorrells, who is 64, has said he will continue building on Keen’s vision of establishing Fayetteville Tech as a principal player in economic and workforce development in Cumberland County, the region and the state.
“It will be a smooth transition,” he says. “We will be doing some professional development in helping guide us through a leadership transition approach. We’ve already got that identified and how we’re going to do it.”
“Quite frankly,” he says, “it’s going to be big shoes to fill.”
Former Cumberland County Commissioner Larry Lancaster has known Sorrells a long time. Lancaster met Sorrells when he was coordinating the FTCC Small Business Center and Sorrells was with the Golden LEAF Foundation.
Lancaster is an honorary trustee at Fayetteville Tech.
“He’s very bright and very articulate,” Lancaster says of Sorrells. “A good businessman. And that’s what that school is — a big business.”
Sorrells, Lancaster said, was his choice to lead FTCC.
“He’s been tutored; he knows our community. I think he’s going to do an excellent job.”
Sorrells says he has five priorities as he assumes the job:
First and foremost, student success: “We’ve made some significant advances in student success in terms of our pass rates, lowering withdrawal rates,” he says. “We are now increasing our pass rate, decreasing our withdrawal rate, increasing our term-to-term persistence and our fall-to-fall retention.”
Making sure education and workforce programs are closely aligned to employers’ needs and economic opportunities.
Partnerships: “COVID kind of made things go dormant for a while,” he says. “So I really intend on re-establishing those partnerships in the business community with Fort Bragg as well as community partners.”
Developing and continuing to advance an inclusive culture on campus.
Being a good steward of the financial resources “that we’ve been entrusted with by our county and our state.”
Founded in 1961, Fayetteville Tech is the state’s third-largest community college with more than 28,000 students enrolled annually.
As president, Sorrells will oversee a staff of more than 1,300.
He says the faculty is paid about 54% of what faculty members in the university system make.
“We’re working hard to create more parity to that,” he says.
The college is “not on par” with schools in South Carolina and Virginia in terms of faculty pay, he says.
“So, that’s where our legislative focus is this year — bring us up to par with those surrounding states and get us a bit more comparable. It would be only at a 66% or 67% rate to what the universities are. That’s an important piece.”
When he joined the staff at FTCC, Sorrells says, the school ranked 17th in the state in terms of faculty pay.
“We’re No. 1 now,” he says.
Keen, FTCC’s outgoing president, says he is confident Sorrells will lead the college to greater success.
“I think Mark, even prior to his arrival here, demonstrated extensive programs that reflected quality when he worked with the Golden LEAF Foundation, with all the public school systems, community colleges and universities,” Keen says. “Connecting all those things to what we do here and his experience the last four or five years demonstrated that he was a powerful contender.
“He has the ability to take this college to a higher level than I took it.”
Five to watch in 2023
New leaders will have important roles in several fields in Fayetteville and Cumberland County as a new year gets underway. Here are five to keep an eye on:
◼ Clarence Grier, 57, will become the new Cumberland County manager in March, succeeding the retiring Amy Cannon. Grier brings 34 years of local government experience, including in Guilford County and Roanoke, Virginia. Among the issues that he and county leaders will face are homelessness, planning for the new downtown events center, and access to clean water for all residents.
◼ Kemberle ‘Kim’ Braden, 49, will succeed the retiring Gina Hawkins as Fayetteville’s police chief. City Manager Doug Hewett announced the selection on Dec. 28. Braden and fellow finalist James Nolette have both served as assistant chiefs in the department. Braden has been the field operations commander supervising patrol operations and investigations. He has worked with the department for 27 years, starting as a patrol officer in the Murchison Road area. Among the issues facing the new chief are hiring and retaining officers in competition with other agencies; implementation of the ShotSpotter gunshot detection technology; and continued community outreach to boost public confidence in the police force.
◼ Mario Benavente, 32, is one of four new members of the Fayetteville City Council elected in July. Since taking the oath of office, Benavente has been active in council discussions about the ShotSpotter gunshot detection technology and other public safety issues. A lawyer and community activist, he has said he wants to be an advocate for under-resourced residents and neighborhoods. Other newcomers on the nine-member council are Deno Hondros, Brenda McNair and Derrick Thompson.
◼ Toni Dixon, 60, is the interim president and CEO of the Greater Fayetteville Chamber, where she has worked since 2008. A permanent CEO is expected to be named by February. Besides continuing work on economic development and support for local businesses, the chamber will be tasked with moving its offices from downtown to Bronco Midtown, the renamed business center across from Fayetteville State University on the Murchison Road corridor.
◼ Val Applewhite, 61, is a familiar name taking on a new role after her election as the state senator representing District 19. Applewhite, a former Fayetteville City Council member and mayoral candidate, defeated fellow Democrat Sen. Kirk deViere in the May primary, having won the endorsement of N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper. She has said that expanding Medicaid is a top priority for her, as well as support for schools and protecting abortion rights, issues that will be at the forefront of debate between the Republican-controlled legislature and the Democratic governor.