A new captain will be at the helm of Trident Technical College for the first time since 1991 when classes start next fall.
President Mary Thornley began her 50-year career with the college as an adjunct instructor in 1973. Her retirement will be effective on June 1, 2024.
“It is with deepest gratitude and humility I submit this retirement letter,” she said in a letter submitted to the Trident College Area Commission on Sept. 26. “I realize I will never be ready to leave, so I must leave Trident Tech without being ready.”
Thornley is the college’s fifth and longest-serving president, according to a news release that included her letter to the commission. She became a full-time instructor in 1974 and over time moved up the ranks to hold positions including department head, dean and vice president.
The commission will conduct a national search for a new president. These searches typically take between six and eight months, the news release stated. Trident Technical College Area Commission Chair Anita Zucker will serve as the search committee chair, and the commission will follow the state Board of Technical and Comprehensive Education’s policy (pdf) for presidential search committee appointments. The policy requires a search committee that includes the chair of the state Board for Technical and Comprehensive Education or another board member and a president of another South Carolina technical college. The commission will establish a timeline and share updates about the process in the coming weeks.
“Mary Thornley exemplifies visionary leadership. Her unwavering commitment to meeting the ever-evolving needs of our region has been a key factor in the Lowcountry’s continued growth and economic success,” Zucker said in the release. “As we begin the process to find her successor, we look ahead with hope, eager to welcome a new president who shares her boundless ambition and tireless drive to meet the college’s mission to educate the individual, accelerate the economy, and inspire the future.”
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The Area Commission voted to honor Thornley with the honorary title of president emeritus upon her retirement. At her request, this title comes with no monetary compensation, according to the release.
Thornley has received numerous awards and honors over the years including the Order of the Palmetto, the Joseph P. Riley Leadership Award, the Shirley B. Gordon Phi Theta Kappa Presidential Award of Distinction, and the South Carolina Association of Technical College Commissioners CEO Award. She also won the Association of Community College Trustees CEO Award twice — in 2009 and 2019. In 2018 the college’s Area Commission voted to rename the college’s Main Campus in North Charleston to honor Thornley for her years of service and leadership. The college’s original and largest campus is now the Thornley Campus.
Highlights of Thornley’s tenure include:
- Enrollment has grown from 7,997 in the fall of 1991 to more than 13,000 in the fall of 2023. Since 2010 Trident Tech has been the largest technical college in the state, and it is now the third largest college in undergraduate enrollment among all colleges in South Carolina.
- The college has more than doubled in physical size growing from 503,635 square feet of facility space in 1991 to more than 1.3 million square feet of facility space today.
- The college has grown from three campuses in 1991 to five campuses and two training sites today. During Thornley’s tenure as president the college added the Dorchester County QuickJobs Training Center in St. George that opened in 2010; the Mount Pleasant Campus that opened in 2011; the Workforce Training Center in Jedburg that opened in 2018; and the Dorchester Campus in Summerville that opened in 2021.
- Since 1991 the North Charleston campus has grown to meet the education and training needs of the community. In 1993 the college purchased 118 acres from the Commissioners of Public Works north of the existing 50 acres on Rivers Avenue. In 1994 the college purchased an additional 32 acres with three buildings including a 230,000-square-foot warehouse and an office building adjacent to the campus. A series of phased renovations transformed the buildings into the Complex for Economic Development, which houses the Culinary Institute of Charleston, the College Center conference center, and other academic and continuing education programs, classrooms and labs.
- The North Charleston campus expanded again in 2001 when the college purchased the North Rivers Commerce Center on Mabeline Road. The two buildings were renovated over time and now house the bookstore, offices, classrooms, a café and a fitness center. More recent additions to the campus include the 90,000-square-foot Nursing and Science Building that opened in 2014, and the 227,000-square-foot South Carolina Aeronautical Training Center that opened in 2019.
- The Trident Technical College Foundation has grown from $812,983 in assets in 1991 to $18 million in assets in 2023 through fundraising campaigns and special event fundraisers including the annual A Night in the Valley wine dinner, which will celebrate its 20th year in 2024. During Thornley’s tenure, the foundation received the largest donations by individuals in its history: separate $6 million and $1 million donations from Anita Zucker and the Zucker family and $1 million from Carolyn Hunter.
- In 2005 the college expanded and enhanced its culinary and hospitality offerings through the creation of the Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Technical College and the opening of a new 77,000-square-foot culinary and hospitality training facility within the Complex for Economic Development on the North Charleston campus. After extensive renovations to the Palmer Campus, in 2008 the college opened an additional Culinary Institute of Charleston training space on the downtown Charleston campus.
- After research showed students were more successful in shorter courses, the college transformed its 16-week semester schedule in 2014, creating two seven-week terms within the full semester. The college has served as a national model for other colleges looking to improve student success rates through shorter-term courses.
- The college on 2014 launched the Charleston Regional Youth Apprenticeship program with an inaugural class of 13 manufacturing youth apprentices. By 2023, 694 youth apprentices had been hired in 21 pathways encompassing fields such as information technology, advanced manufacturing, health care, business, security/pre-law enforcement, and hospitality and culinary arts.
- The college partnered with the Charleston County School District to house the Early College High School on the college’s Palmer Campus and with the Berkeley County School District to house the Berkeley Middle College High School on the Berkeley Campus. The college’s Thornley Campus is home to the Charleston Advancement Academy High School and Goodwill’s Palmetto Excel Center.
- In the early 2000s enrollment in dual credit classes (classes that offer both high school and college credit) averaged around 550 students. This fall 2,387 high school students are enrolled in dual credit classes.
- The college’s enrollment has grown to reflect the diversity of the college’s service area, from a minority enrollment of 22% in fall 1991 to a minority enrollment of 46% in fall of 2022.
- In 2022 the college secured the final funding needed to pursue a $34 million renovation of the Berkeley Campus in Moncks Corner. The renovated campus will increase the education/training capacity on the campus from 1,000 to 3,000 students annually and provide new and enhanced spaces for training in transportation and logistics, cybersecurity and other programs. The project is currently in the design phase.
In 2023 the South Carolina legislature provided initial funding of $5 million toward creating the Electric Vehicle Institute on the college’s Thornley Campus. Once funded and completed, the project will provide training space for electronic technicians, engineering technology technicians and electric vehicle technicians to support the manufacture and servicing of electric vehicles.