• 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.

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AACC Day 1: Back to the Land of the Living

My first in-person conference since 2019.

May 2, 2022
 
 

The American Association of Community Colleges conference is in New York City this year. It’s my first in-person conference since the pandemic hit, which makes it both wonderful and strange. It’s wonderful to see familiar faces again and strange to think that this sort of thing was normal just a few years ago.

The location is a mixed blessing. With a home base in central Jersey, I’m commuting to the conference. That saves the hassle of air travel, which is nice, and it spares the expense of both flights and a hotel stay. But for someone who’s accustomed to a relatively mild commute, it’s a bit of a beast. On the bright side, there are many excellent restaurant options within an easy walk of the conference. (When I was walking back from lunch on Seventh Avenue, the combination of great weather, terrific people watching and an uncommonly good tenor saxophonist soloing on the sidewalk almost made up for the commute.) On the downside, many of the panel rooms are too small for their audiences, so many of us got turned away from panels. In terms of the panels I had chosen beforehand, I was turned away from two out of three.

Of course, panels are only part of the point. The major attraction is other people. I saw former colleagues who are now at other places, as well as members of my Aspen cohort and a host of folks from around the country whom I’ve come to know over the years. That’s the piece that gets lost in virtual conferences. The serendipity factor of seeing folks in the hallways and catching up is hard to create online.

The one preplanned panel I actually got to see was by my Aspen colleague Lisa Rhine, who is the president of Yavapai College, and her VP for community relations, Rodney Jenkins. The focus was organizational culture and why and how it’s important to get the culture right if you want changes in practice to have their desired effects. Rhine suggested thinking of culture as the “first among equals” of the factors determining organizational health; Jenkins drew a distinction between smart and healthy, noting that if an organization is smart but not healthy, it will tend toward the negative. I saw some heads nodding at that one.

Rhine suggested an “outward mind-set” as opposed to an “inward mind-set.” The idea was to focus attention less on how things have been done in the past, and more on what students’ current and anticipated needs are. I was struck that they have monthly mind-set reminders. The idea is to hit the same note consistently, so it doesn’t get lost or written off as a previous flavor of the month. They’ve apparently even integrated measures of outward mind-set into performance management and hiring processes, which suggests they’re serious.

The second panel session got me turned away. I had a few good hallway conversations, but still.

After getting turned away from the third one, I decided to find a session that was still open and found my way to Increasing Student Success With Community and Business Engagement, which focused on the FAME program at Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College (or Sky CTC, as they called it). It’s a selective program in which local employers nominate and sponsor employees or high school students for an intensive program of technical training that involves two days a week of class time and three days a week of paid work. As the self-described “loquacious” James McCaslin put it, the answer to the question “school or work?” should be “yes.”

Two parts of the presentation jumped out at me. The first was about program reviews. Through the miracle of technology, Sky CTC invites the entire college to view program reviews, and they’ve even started inviting the local workforce board to view them. That’s daring. I’d be concerned about the possible effects on candor if reviews start to become about marketing rather than about improvement. But McCaslin noted that having gen ed faculty see the program reviews in career areas opened up valuable discussions about which material needs to be covered.

The second was a single statistic. Philip Neal, the president of Sky CTC, showed a chart that compared the percentage of graduates of various sectors of higher ed who live within the service area of their school. Community colleges have a much higher percentage of graduates who stay local than four-year colleges and universities do; Neal pointed out that many politicians haven’t connected those dots and that it’s the sort of number that matters to them. That seemed like news I could use.

Several bridges and tunnels later, it’s on to day two …

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