Gateway to a Better Life
Philip Sisson Prepares to Redefine the Academic Experience at Middlesex Community College.
Accessibility, equity and student success: These will be among Philip Sisson’s focal points as he begins his first year as the president of Middlesex Community College (MCC).
The Lowell resident, whose appointment took effect in July following a vote of approval by the college’s board of trustees, already has an intimate understanding of the unique mission and needs of the Middlesex community. For the past 11 years, he has served as the college’s provost and vice president of academic and student affairs, leading MCC through a range of student pathway and inclusion initiatives.
“I’ve already been part of the change process here for over a decade and am excited to be going about it in a more external way as president,” Sisson says. “I love this place.”
Sisson’s understanding of the community college experience, and the challenges that its students face, runs much deeper than his professional history. In some ways, it’s a role come full circle.
Originally from Newport, Rhode Island, Sisson grew up in a working-class household, the son of a custodian and a dry-cleaning attendant. In his younger years, he says, the idea of one day becoming a college president never would have crossed his mind.
“I was sort of a troubled child,” he explains. “Teachers identified me as problematic in school. I couldn’t concentrate, and completed things too quickly and inefficiently.”
That all changed thanks to the influence of one teacher, who recommended Sisson for enrollment in a gifted student program after seeing a spark in him. Sisson says his love of learning really took off in the more customized project-based environment.
“It was the formative moment that laid the foundation for my love of education,” he says.
Sisson, like many of the students he serves, was a first-generation college student. By the time he graduated from high school and enrolled at a nearby state college, he had become thrilled by the prospect of all that higher education could offer — and quickly dove in. His undergraduate career included roles as student government president, orientation leader, and member of the international parliamentary debate team.
“I was sort of a ‘Joe College,’” he says with a laugh.
Sisson went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in communications, theater and secondary education from Rhode Island College. He worked as a full-time faculty member at the Wheeler School in Providence and assistant director of the school’s gifted student program, serving in the same type of environment that fostered his own love of learning.
By this time, his passion for higher education had solidified. After returning to Rhode Island College for a master’s degree in counseling, Sisson went on to serve in many roles, first as director of the first-year experience at Nichols College, and later as a faculty member at Bristol Community College. He then worked in the administration of the Community College of Rhode Island, and as vice president for academic and student affairs at Cape Cod Community College before finding his home at Middlesex.
His recent appointment as president comes less than a year after MCC’s 50th anniversary, and during a time of transformation for the MCC community. Sisson’s work in the short-term will be focused on reimagining the community college experience in a post-pandemic world. With nearly 45% of Middlesex courses being offered in person this fall, a large part of his strategy will include the implementation of hybrid course options that will provide students more scheduling flexibility and allow them to better balance school with outside work and home obligations.
He also emphasizes that race equity, early college, and concurrent enrollment programs will be of high importance as the college continues to shape its vision.
“Lowell has the second largest Cambodian population in the U.S., and Middlesex has long been a proud designated Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution,” he says. “We will continue to focus on race equity and access so that we can set up our students for long-term success.”
Ultimately, Sisson says, the future of Middlesex Community College rests in its ability to remain attuned to its values and to the evolving needs of the Merrimack Valley region.
“It’s about asking, ‘What are we as an institution? What’s our unique proposition for the region?’” he says. “It’s about finding what needs to be articulated so that we can fight declining enrollment and bring people back to what we know is a gateway to a better life: That’s community college.”