During a visit to campus earlier this week, the commissioner of the state Dept. of Higher Education praised Holyoke Community College for its student success rates and President William Messner for his leadership.
In particular, Commissioner Richard Freeland cited HCC's "above the average" graduation and transfer rates and the strength of its outreach efforts to Latinos and adult learners.
"Very, very impressive," said Freeland.
Freeland attended the March 25 meeting of HCC's Board of Trustees with Jennifer Perkins, director of the newly created Office of Trustee Relations.
He said the mission of that office is to provide information, support and professional development training to trustees.
Freeland thanked trustees for their work and uncompensated service to the Commonwealth, acknowledging that in the past the state has not provided much support for campus boards.
"We're trying to change that," he said. "The office represents a new day of support and appreciation for what you do."
The commissioner noted that the origins of the office were not entirely happy, coming after a report in 2012 that recommended more state oversight of community college boards of trustees.
Freeland recognized President Messner, who was serving as president of the Council of Community College presidents during that time and his work on creating new state funding formulas that last year led to a $20 million infusion of funds for the community college system.
"His leadership was critical," Freeland said. "He played a key role."
"Above all," he added. "President Messner is realistic in his understanding of the best way to strike a balance between the campus and the state-wide system -- the state-wide system is necessary, but the campuses are the heart of that system."
Freeland said this was a good time for public higher education in Massachusetts, which has long lived in the shadow of state's prestigious private colleges and universities.
"Private higher education has a much longer history," he said, "and we're all proud of that, but it has had the problematic effect of making it more difficult for public campuses to find their place in the sun."
But, he noted, "I think we are in the middle of a tremendously important and overdue and much deserved transition of attitudes."
He cited a number of factors leading to this shift toward public higher education: the transition of the economy from industrial to more knowledge-based; and the increase in the number of jobs that depend on college credentials.
"The importance of having a well educated adult population could not be higher," he said.
He also noted that while community colleges have traditionally been at the lowest end of the higher education pyramid in terms of media and public attention, both President Barack Obama and Gov. Deval Patrick have made efforts to change that.
"I think we are in the age of the community college," he said.
Photos: (Left) Richard Freeland, commissioner of the Massachusetts Dept. of Higher Education, visits HCC with Jennifer Perkins, director of the state office of Trustee Relations. (Right) Freeland, right, shakes hands with HCC trustee Jack Ferriter.