Ask Dr. Tracy Hall about her first impression of Memphis upon moving to the city in 2015 and the president of Southwest Tennessee Community College (STCC) smiles and describes an actual physical impression. “I’m more of a hugger,” she says. “Memphians like to hug.” Along with cultivating the warmest of greetings, Hall has improved her small-talk skills, a prerequisite for a healthy meeting in these parts, no matter how grand the agenda. Among her standby topics: “How was your weekend? Grandkids okay? Holiday plans? It’s still the South. And that’s a good thing, because it forces me to slow down.”
Hall grew up in St. Louis, an only child for a decade until her sister, Kelly, arrived. Her mother — still a teenager when Tracy was born — worked for the U.S. Postal Service for more than 30 years to keep her family comfortable. “We didn’t fall into some of the statistics you hear about children born to teen mothers. I used to tell people we were middle class,” says Hall with a smile. “[My mother] says, ‘You may have been middle class. I was poor.’”
Hall attended McCluer High School, where she played basketball for the Comets, was homecoming queen as a senior, and voted “most popular” by the class of 1985. She grew into a voracious reader of both fiction — Judy Blume and Toni Morrison were favorites — and the newspaper, where she found a unique favorite section, at least for a teenager. “My family thought it was strange that I focused on obituaries,” says Hall. “But I was fascinated — still am — by a person’s life. That’s a story. You see what a person managed to accomplish. I still read obituaries.”
Hall became a first-generation college student when she enrolled at Southeast Missouri State for the 1985-86 academic year, but the most significant impact of her freshman year was a senior she met: Anthony “Butch” Hall, a star for the Indians’ basketball team. They began dating during the spring semester, were married nine months later, and recently celebrated their 31st anniversary. (The Halls have three children, ages 26, 22, and 15, the youngest a student at Collierville High School, where Anthony coaches the girls’ basketball team.) When her new husband took a job in St. Louis upon graduating, Hall found herself back in her hometown and graduated with a degree in speech and mass communications from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
During graduate school at Wichita State (Anthony had joined the Air Force and was stationed in Kansas), a faculty member asked her — for the first time — if she’d be interested in teaching. “I was teaching students barely younger than me,” notes Hall. “Teaching interpersonal communications. I enjoyed it. Completed my master’s program and stayed on as an adjunct [professor].” When, in 1993, a full-time position opened at St. Louis Community College-Meramec, Hall returned again to the Gateway City.
The Halls spent time in Atlanta in the late Nineties (Anthony coached basketball at the University of West Georgia) before settling in Kansas City for more than a decade, where Hall became an associate dean at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley. During this period, Hall earned her Ph.D. (in leadership and policy analysis) from the University of Missouri. Then in 2011, Hall’s academic journey led, for a third time, to St. Louis, where she served four years as vice president of academic affairs at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park before getting the call from STCC.
“I didn’t have a timeline [for becoming a college president], but I wanted to make sure I was ready for the role,” says Hall. She prevailed in a search that included more than 60 candidates for leadership of the five-campus school that now has more than 9,000 students and 100 faculty members. “I was looking for an urban campus, where there are challenges in the community,” she says. “But a community that wants to grow. It could be an impoverished community. That’s where I wanted to be. A recruiter showed me positions at Southwest and Chattanooga State. I told her: Southwest. I didn’t want to just be a president; the title is not important to me. Southwest was perfect.”
When reflecting on the leadership qualities that landed her the presidency at STCC, Hall describes herself as results-oriented, a “people person,” and someone passionate about urban communities. “I want to get things done,” she emphasizes. “And making sure people have a voice at the table. They may not be able to physically be there, but they need a representative. When making decisions that impact people, you have to consider those people. If you haven’t walked in their shoes, how can you make those decisions?”
Hall has a distinctive view of a community college’s mission, one that seems inherent, but only when actually spelled out by the school’s president: “We don’t teach what we want to teach. We teach what businesses and industries need us to teach.” Socioeconomics shift, as does technology. Hall now presides over an institution tasked with providing a critical foundation for men and women hoping to find not merely a job, but a career.
“I’m focusing on professional development for faculty,” says Hall, “to make sure they keep the connection to business and industry. We’re public servants. We have to be good stewards of taxpayer money. We have to deliver.”
Hall prides herself on interacting with students. She’s developed a rivalry on the Ping-Pong table with a particular student, a match-up sure to draw attention in the Macon Cove student center. She also hosts “Pizza With the President” each semester, a gathering of students on each campus — linked by a video feed — where students can ask questions of their president, directly and without screening. “The best way to get students to attend was to offer food,” she says with a smile. “They fire away. It’s about them. Student government organizes it. We get some doozies, but we answer them honestly. They’re adults. I don’t sugarcoat anything.”
STCC’s student-veteran organization pleaded with Hall for its own facility, but had chosen a building that would all but isolate it from the rest of the student body. “They’re very vocal, and it got a little heated,” says Hall. “If you’re in a leadership position and you can’t handle controversy or conflict, then you don’t need to be in that position. If you’re upset about something, I’d rather you share it.” Hall agreed that the group needed a place to gather, but found a space more in the regular mix of student life. “Our role is student development,” emphasizes Hall. “If you leave here as you came, we’ve failed you. Our job is to prepare you to navigate the world.”
In leading her faculty — those with the precious task of educating — Hall emphasizes academic freedom. “Teaching what industry needs is a given,” says Hall. “But how you teach it . . . I respect academic freedom. I’d never insist on a certain textbook, or teaching a concept with a certain speech. But the concept must be taught. Nonnegotiable.” That nod from her high school class is the last time Tracy Hall cared about being popular. “You have to do what’s right for your constituency and your community,” she says. “That may not always be popular.”
Memphis has grown on Hall in a short span of time, and she’s confident young leaders will find the same calling she did in the summer of 2015. “There’s a spirit of collaboration I’ve felt in Memphis,” she says. “People are looking to get things done in an environment where people want things to happen. That’s critical. I’ve been places where there’s a need, but not that sense of urgency among other leaders. There may be a sense of denial. Memphis seems to get it. There are a lot of great things going on, but we can be better.”