Ten years later, he joined the Christie administration as Cerf's chief of staff, serving from August 2011 to September 2012.
"I am gratified that David has agreed to come back to work in my administration and allow our students and our schools to benefit from his extensive experience, his passion for education excellence, and his proven track record of getting results at every level of public education in New Jersey," Christie said in a news release.
A lawyer who worked in private practice before beginning his career in state government with the Office of Legislative Services, Hespe focused on education matters as assistant counsel to Whitman and also was first assistant attorney general before serving as education commissioner.
After leaving the post in 2001, Hespe went to Rowan University, where he served eight years as a faculty member and administrator. He then spent a year and a half at the Willingboro School District as assistant superintendent and interim superintendent before serving as Cerf's chief of staff.
Hespe assumed the top post at BCC in September 2012. A school spokesman on Thursday said Hespe was declining comment, pending Senate confirmation.
The Judiciary Committee will have to approve Hespe's appointment before it goes to the full Senate for a vote.
No timeline has been set for that process, said Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari (D., Union), the Judiciary Committee chair.
"I don't have plans," he said Thursday afternoon, saying it was too soon to tell, as the nomination had been announced just hours earlier.
Cerf was acting commissioner for a year and half before the committee headed by Scutari approved him in a contentious hearing that took nearly four hours.
His predecessor, Bret Schundler, served two months as acting commissioner before he was confirmed. The committee also spent hours over two days questioning him.
"It really just depends on the individual, other things that are in the mix . . . could be quick, could be long," Scutari said of the confirmation process. "This is the first [commissioner] nomination that we've seen in a while."
There were no immediate signs of political wrangling over Hespe's appointment.
"I would be surprised," said Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington), a member of the Education Committee.
"Education is such an important priority in the state that I can't imagine that anybody would have a concern. . . . There is no horse-trading here, we just want the best guy for the job."
Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D., Essex), the chair of the Education Committee, said Hespe "represents great stability in a time where we'll be experiencing some transition with new leadership."
"I had an opportunity to foster a relationship with him when he was [Cerf's] chief of staff," said Ruiz. "I'm excited to create a partnership with him. We have many things to accomplish here in the state of New Jersey when it comes to the education frontier and continuing a collective, united conversation about where do we go next, and I think he can be a great asset to that part of the conversation."
She declined to speculate on whether other Democrats would support the nomination.
Hespe's departure means BCC will once again search for a full-time president.
"The board of trustees will soon develop a plan of action to determine the leadership of the college during this period of transition and into the future," said board chair George Nyikita in a statement thanking Hespe.
The board is next scheduled to meet on March 18.
Allen on Thursday said she had hoped Hespe would remain at the school for several years, but added that she considered the move a positive one for the state.
"I just saw a lot of really good things coming out of him being at the helm of BCC, but the truth is, when you have somebody who leaves fairly unexpectedly, as Chris Cerf is, you need to get someone in there right away," she said.
"Clearly [BCC is] going to have to look for somebody else, and that's a problem for them, and I am sad that that's happening," she said.
The leaders of two groups, the New Jersey School Boards Association and New Jersey Association of School Administrators, issued statements Thursday in support of Hespe's nomination. "I can't think of a better choice for the position," said Lawrence S. Feinsod, who heads the group representing school boards.
The administrators group described Hespe as "an intelligent and thoughtful leader."
Hespe said in an interview with The Inquirer last June that he was prepared to spend the rest of his career at Burlington County College.
"I plan on retiring from BCC. . . . With any luck I'll be Social Security age and I'll look back on 10 years of great service," he said then.
But in the same June 2013 interview, describing his move into higher education after years spent working in K-12, Hespe said he usually didn't plan his career moves.
"You never know where your career's going to take you, but you have a sense what you do well. And as this position [BCC president] became open and I looked at it, you say to yourself, 'You know, I think I'd be perfect for that job.' "
Hespe will inherit a number of challenges, including overseeing the state-run turnaround efforts in Newark and Camden, expansion of charter schools, implementation of nationwide Common Core curriculum standards, and introduction of new standardized tests.
"You're always looking for a challenge in life, you always want to apply everything you've learned to get something done.," he said last year.
David C. Hespe
Residence: Belle Mead, N.J.
Family: Wife, son in college
Education: B.A., Rutgers University (1982); J.D., Rutgers-Newark (1985)
Previous jobs: N.J. Department of Education commissioner and later chief of staff; interim Willingboro school superintendent; professor at Rowan University; first assistant N.J. attorney general; assistant counsel to Gov. Christie Whitman
Inquirer staff writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.