Paul Elsner

Paul Elsner served as Chancellor of the Maricopa Community College District in Arizona from 1977-1999.  After an impactful 22-year tenure leading one of the largest community college districts in the United States, Elster and his wife Joyce are currently enjoying retirement at their home in Prescott, AZ.

Paul Elsner breaks ground at South Mountain Community College, August 1979.
Image provided by South Mountain Community College

Paul Elsner was born in West Chicago in 1933 to German migrant parents Otto and Lydia Richter Elsner. Paul grew up within an average sized family, he was the youngest of 4 children. Paul has two older brothers and an older sister, however, one of Paul’s brothers passed away at the age of 7 before Paul was born. During the early years of his childhood, Paul and his family moved around a lot to make ends meet. Paul’s father was very skilled in his craft but due to the economy at the time, it was hard for him to hold a steady job. He got a job wherever he could, even making as much as a dollar a day. Their family moved from Chicago to Minnesota then to North and South Dakota. During that time, Paul began his early education.

Elsner began his educational journey in a one room schoolhouse in Chicago where he attended with his two siblings. Paul recalls having to walk the long way to school, often having to be carried along the way by his siblings because he was so young. Once Paul and his family moved to Minnesota, he endured a big change. Coming from the small one room schoolhouse to a public school in a big city proposed many challenges for a young Paul to overcome. Although Elsner had obstacles to get through like bullies and general school fatigue, his teachers always made his time at school a pleasant one. Paul speaks very highly of all his educators, often stating how important educators truly are, and saying that he loved all of his instructors. After high school, Paul attended several higher education institutions. He first attended Macalester College in Minnesota where he played football. Following that, he attended South Dakota State Normal and Industrial College. After completing some courses, Paul served in the Korean War. An eager Paul, ready to serve, didn’t want to wait to be drafted. He went right to the draft house and enlisted. After serving in the Korean War, Paul briefly served in the Cold War where Paul was later honorably discharged to continue his education. Paul received his Masters Degree at South Dakota State University and eventually received his Doctorates Degree at Stanford University where he was also involved in a fellowship.

Elsner began his work in the community college system in the Peralta Community College District, where he worked for 15-years. After some time, he made his way to the Maricopa Community College District in Arizona. Elsner then served as the Chancellor of the Maricopa Community College District for 22-years. During that time, he was apart of many innovative and transformative events that made South Mountain Community College into what it is today.

Elsner recalls many of the political and racial obstacles that SMCC went through in its early days. One story was that the State Board did not want to approve the opening of the college, and went as far as to change the hearing meeting time/location to butt out community influence. Paul shared the changes so that community members can make it to the hearing. Another major event was the INS Raids of the early 1980s. Paul was instrumental in getting that resolved, even speaking to the Arizona Governor at the time.  

Future Video CLIP: INS RAIDS

Pt1: 1:12:42-1:13:10
Pt2: 11sec-46sec
Pt2: 55sec-1:00

Elsner had a passion for the arts, and was vocal about the opening of performing arts centers at several community colleges. He was very proud to see the South Mountains Performing Arts Center open in 2003, with Maya Angelou as the highlighted speaker.

INSERT CLIP: Pt2: 3:13-3:47

Under his leadership, South Mountain Community College flourished, along with many other colleges as well. After his dedication to serving the community college demographic for many years, Elsner retired to his beloved home in Prescott, where he spends much of his time reading, researching, and writing. He has published four books and several articles, and he is considered an expert in the scholarship of Higher Education. Among his many awards, Elsner was named “one of the most influential college leaders of our time” by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Change Magazine and has named two awards after him; the Paul A. Elsner Scholarship and the Paul A. Elsner Excellence in Leadership Award. Elsner continues to impact higher education through speaking, writing, and his living legacy.

Student Writer: Annisa Cardona, Spring 2020
Student Video Researcher: Mario Cervantes, Fall 2019
Faculty Interviewers: Summer Cherland, Travis May, & Liz Warren, Fall 2018