• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

AACC, Day Two

Recovering from disaster, presidential interviews and more.

May 1, 2018
 
 

As much as I enjoy technology, in-person conferences offer some upsides that webinars just don’t.  

Reconnecting with old friends is always great. Putting faces to names is helpful. But the best have to be the serendipitous hallway meetings.  

One involved an impromptu hour-and-a-half nerdout with some folks from EAB and the CCRC. I was innocently eating breakfast, as I am wont to do, when one sat down and started talking data.  Then another, and another, and another. Soon five of us were looking at line graphs on a laptop and debating the merits of various sorts of studies of student attrition.  I don’t usually nerd out over data with groups of five until at least lunchtime, but this was fun.

A second involved some folks from a community college in Ohio who had read a piece I had posted last Fall about a “buy one, get one free” scholarship, in which good performance in the freshman year would be rewarded by a free sophomore year. They’re actually implementing it. I’ll withhold the name for now, because it’s still in the formative stage, but I was genuinely thrilled to see that one of my messages-in-a-virtual-bottle really landed somewhere. One of them mentioned that it was a shockingly easy sell to donors, because the likelihood of graduation is so high. I’ll be riding that one for a while.

Finally, there was a series of wink-and-nod quick conversations with several folks who appreciated some observation I had made.  There was a bit of cloak-and-dagger to those, which struck me as both revealing and sort of fun.

Anyway, on with the show:

The first panel I actually attended was on colleges recovering from (and making preparations to avoid impact from) natural disasters. Mary Graham, from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, talked about Hurricane Katrina and lessons learned from it. Steve Head, from the Lone Star system in Texas, focused on Hurricane Harvey. 

It was a gloriously practical discussion. Among the more useful tips:

  • Every few months, take pictures and videos of the content of buildings, especially on the first floor. Store them in the cloud.
  • Before a hurricane, move all elevators up to at least the second floor and leave them there.  The repairs will be much cheaper that way.
  • Pre-qualify contractors for mold remediation, cleanup, etc, so you don’t have to do an RFP process in the wake of a disaster.
  • Pre-contract with consultants to deal with FEMA.
  • Have senior leaders print out each other’s phone numbers, put them on laminated cards, and carry them in their wallets.  You can’t count on campus phones or cell towers.
  • Assume that you may not have access to your office for a week.
  • Keep the email updates as upbeat as possible.

It’s the sort of stuff you don’t have to know until you suddenly do.  Brookdale came through Hurricane Sandy relatively well, but many residents of Monmouth County didn’t.  The next one could easily take a more destructive course. Better to learn this stuff before you wish you had.

--

The annual panel on Generation X presidents focused this time on interviews. Once again, the room was standing-room-only. From an informal count, it looked like about half of the audience was people of color. Given the topic, that was striking.

JoAlice Blondin, from Clark State CC in Ohio, mentioned three questions that she asked every search consultant when she was looking:

  • Is there a serious internal candidate?
  • Are there any legal actions pending against the college?
  • Of the last ten years, in how many did the college overspend its budget?

In my experience, the first question invariably gets some variation on “I can’t reveal that,” but it’s always worth a try. The second and third struck me as brilliant.

Kirk Nooks, from Metropolitan CC, stressed institutional fit, which he defined as the ability to be yourself and still fit the role. Even if you’re a good enough actor to fake being someone else to get a job, nobody is good enough to do the job that way for years. Better to go in as who you are, and find a place that wants that.

The single best line, though, was Blondin’s. She commented that her first order of business upon arriving at Clark State was “to find [her] replacement.”  She clarified that it wasn’t because she planned to leave anytime soon; she just saw it as both her duty and a good practice to cultivate a deep bench.  She has. I’ll be keeping that line.

--

A panel on the “Great Colleges to Work For” survey was accidentally interesting.  It spent more time on the survey instrument than I would have, but some of the observations from the various presidents were memorable:

“The one guy who got raises higher than everyone else four years in a row, without a clear reason, is a morale killer.”

“Even at the very best [colleges], there’s a small portion of the population that’s committed to being miserable.”

“You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to show up.”

I was struck, too, by Mary Graham’s observation that at MGCCC, every employee is required to do at least 15 hours per year of professional development, and the development is chosen based on issues identified in the previous performance review.  Professional development isn’t just a cost; it’s an investment. Not everyone gets that...

--

Finally, the Aspen group reunited to hear from some alums of the program who are now presidents.  The discussion was as thoughtful as the program had been, which was gratifying.

All three of the presidents who spoke -- Rebekah Woods, Tonjua Williams, and Russell Lowery-Hart -- had previously been vice presidents, and they all shared the observation that we really need to rethink the role of vice presidents.  Too often, they’re pitted against each other, or pit themselves against each other. That can lead to clear winners, but it doesn’t build the skill of collaboration that presidents need. As Lowery-Hart put it, “If you want to stress out your president, fight with your colleagues.”  The model of silos, or divisions, may have worked in the 70’s, but it isn’t up to the issues we face now.

In moving up, all three stressed the need to lead through questions, parameters, and team-building, rather than providing the answers yourself.  And all of them endorsed the “policy governance” model for Boards, though Woods spoke of it most strongly.

Still, Williams got the Line of the Day award for this one: “We don’t get the cream of the crop, but we make them rise to the top.”  That needs to be embroidered on something.

Back to Jersey, where I plan to check on some elevators...

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