Steven VanAusdle, the longtime president of Walla Community College, is emblematic of change and creative leadership.

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INNOVATION in higher education is pondered more than it’s practiced. It’s why authentic trailblazers merit attention.

Steven VanAusdle, the longtime president of Walla Walla Community College (WWCC) who recently announced plans to retire in 2016, is emblematic of change and creative leadership. He avoids buzzwords and embraces what works.

His approach revolves around equal opportunity, academic achievement and raw instinct.

For more than three decades, VanAusdle has taken stock of the Walla Walla Valley and tailored academic and workforce-development programs to align with community demand.

Two years ago, the college received the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, ranking Walla Walla first in the nation. WWCC’s standout initiatives include workforce training as well as programs in wind technology, water management, oenology and viticulture.

Visitors to Washington and Oregon wineries might well meet vintners who learned their craft at WWCC.

The college has metrics to support all the bragging. More than half of its first-time students graduate or transfer within three years. The college is a springboard to the University of Washington, Washington State University and dozens of other public and private institutions.

VanAusdle’s record on dropout prevention holds a mirror to his values. He promoted academic programs that neatly fit with the local economy, consistent with the community college system’s public-service mission. He also helped the college relocate from the small site where the city’s YMCA is now to its current 130-acre campus.

WWCC continues to track with a changing valley. It hosts a student population of 5,500 with 103 certificate and degree programs.

Community colleges across the West labor to emulate WWCC. And much of its success flows directly from VanAusdle’s visionary work and legacy.