Friday, September 28, 2007

Learning on Display

Learning on display is a phrase the leading educational architects use these days when designing new educational facilities with open, flexible classrooms and soft-spaces outside the traditional classroom that expand the concept of learning environments. In the past few weeks I have had the great experience of witnessing learning on display in a variety of ways here at MVCC.

The notion of learning on display is what pops in my mind each time I see so many of the civil engineering/surveying students out and about on the quad with their surveying equipment - going beyond the classroom - and putting learning in action right here on campus. Being new, I don't know if this kind of thing happens all the time, but I've recently gained a new appreciation for all the different ways learning can happen.

I watched the theatre auditorium fill with students and faculty to participate in a great constitution day event. A week later a number of students joined close to 100 community members to watch the Oneida County District Attorney debate at 5 p.m. in the evening, as our social sciences department continues to creatively expose students to the complexities of democracy at work.

That same week, I watched the auditorium fill once again for a fantastic lecture on the top 5 emerging technologies by New York Times writer David Pogue. A few days later, more than 80 students attended a special cultural series lecture on the crisis in Darfur, Sudan. I particularly enjoyed this event as I got there early and went upstairs to sit in a comfortable chair and just take in the rhythm of the campus while I waited. For about ten minutes, everyone who was hanging out in the lobby was wonderfully entertained by a spontaneous piano concert from a very talented student who breathed amazing life into a normally dormant piano that many fail to recognize in their daily travels. As I sat and listened to the impromptu concert, I watched a senior faculty member on his way to teach a class. He had a skip in his step, a glow on his face, and an energy about him as he moved among the students in the hall - a visible enthusiasm that would make one think it was his first day on the job. As I watched him go, Ipods, laptops, and cellphones were buzzing all around me and it felt good to just take in a small sliver of the daily student experience at MV.

Similarly, the very next day I walked right through the middle of a classroom on my way to a meeting. A wise faculty member decided students might be more engaged in learning if the class met outside and left the confines of their four walls. Perhaps it was the lack of a single cloud in the sky, the warm sun, the 73 degree temperature, or the gentle breeze that prompted the relocation, but it was great to see someone seize the moment and spontaneously create a more active learning environment for students. It was also nice to see the campus take advantage of another beautiful fall day in the Mohawk Valley when I walked through the tent on Student Clubs and Organizations Day. I enjoyed getting to see the more than 50 student groups on campus available for students to participate in and extend their learning beyond the traditional classroom.

The manner in which MVCC faculty support and encourage their students to participate in these learning opportunities - whether it's required, extra credit, or simply encouraged - and create spontaneous (or planned) non-traditional learning environments is part of what makes MVCC special...where learning is clearly on display.

If you've seen learning happen in surprising or creative ways, let me know at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Friday, September 21, 2007

More thoughts on meetings

I recognize the element of paradox in my previous posts on strengthening communications and closing meetings that were formerly considered open. This post is a follow-up to share a few more thoughts on this important aspect of our culture.

Communication certainly needs to be strengthened, as it can be in any organization. However, the sense of teamwork also needs to be strengthened, which is why some meetings have been moved from open meetings to what some would call "closed" and I would call staff meetings. The advantages to this approach are multi-fold:

  • in a staff meeting, the group of individuals can interact in a variety of ways that allow them to grow together as a team

  • team members can "muddle" through issues without hesitation or sense of being misunderstood in a more open setting with non-team members sitting in and observing the meeting proceedings and potentially taking things out of context

  • the "closed"nature of the staff meetings places the responsibility on the group leaders to communicate the meeting outcomes in more visible ways to the College community

Hopefully, these potentially positive elements will result in better decisions being made and more consistent and meaningful communications being shared. I recognize only time will tell on this and I will be watching the developments closely.

Additionally, I have received some questions about why I have removed the Vice Presidents from a number of committees. The main filter I've used here is to remove Vice Presidents from committees that generally make recommendations to the Executive Committee (i.e., College Senate, etc.). I feel it is important that committees are allowed to conduct their work in ways in which they feel trusted to do their work versus having VPs participate in making the recommendations that they will be receiving as members of the Executive Committee. I have left the VPs on some other committees that are more like work groups that require perspective from one or more of the VPs (i.e., Campus Safety Committee, etc.). Removing the VPs from some groups also helps to strengthen the positive dynamic and the importance of a well-functioning Executive Committee.

I sincerely appreciate the feedback I've received on this blog thus far. If you have any additional insights or questions on this or other topics, please let me know at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Voting Versus Consensus

Recently, I've commented on the extensive use of voting among various groups and committees at the College. I find great value in this blog, because it allows me to clarify things as I continue to ask questions and attempt to understand the current culture and prompt thinking about the future. I have shared my observations that this is a "voting culture" and contrasted that with community colleges where I have worked in the past that were more of a "consensus culture". I have shared those observations to get people to reflect on the extent to which this is so; if it is so, why is it so?; and what it is the impact on the culture? I did not intend to imply that all voting is bad or that votes shouldn't be taken on issues. Rather, I expect only that we understand why things are the way they are and we find the right mix of voting (if only to periodically vote by acclamation when you know you have consensus) for where and how we want to be in the future.

Making decisions in groups can be challenging - exploring ideas, sharing perspectives, and then somehow arriving at a decision or recommendation to bring closure to the discussion. For me, voting has its place and makes sense for some groups. However, when it's the standard operating procedure for most all groups, the overall culture of the place is noticeably different. I recently shared with one group, that if they move their recommendations forward on a 5-4 vote, they have four individuals working against those recommendations the minute the last meeting is over and team members walk into the hall. A split vote like that will move an initiative or idea forward with some team members still having potentially significant concerns. The recommendations or decision of a group have a much greater chance of success and support if the group reaches consensus on what moves forward. Consensus, by most definitions in its simplest form, means "everybody can live with it." It means people are - in the words of a well-respected colleague here - "willing to give it a try." Consensus also often requires that pros and cons have been explored, the reasons for the recommendation or decision are well-communicated, and everyone involved is willing to own the responsibility for being part of the consensus.

How does voting take form in the culture differently from consensus? My sense is that voting works best in a culture where you need to get that vote taken to get it in the permanent record so that if things ever go adrift from that original vote, the vote protects things as they are. In contrast, consensus is an artifact of a culture that values risk, supports giving things a try, has strong lines of communication that allow for continuous evaluation and commitment for continuous improvement. The reassurance that "we can always come back and revisit a decision if things are not working" is the key for most people to be willing to give it a try. The more those elements are in place, the more likely consensus is to become commonplace.

As I mentioned, I'm simply trying to explore these interesting artifacts of the culture here and recognize that mine is but one perspective. The questions and ideas I propose here are meant to continue the conversation, as we consider how we collectively create the future together here at MVCC. I'd be interested in your thoughts, so please share them with me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, September 10, 2007


For the past few weeks, I have been asking questions. I've been asking about what needs to change and asking about what needs to be preserved. The responses have been very insightful and reminded me about the power of positive psychology. I've added to the "Profile" section of my blog and included brief summaries of my top five themes from StrengthsQuest - a psychometric instrument developed by Gallup University. I had a chance to get to know some of the amazing staff at Gallup when I worked in Omaha, Nebraska (where the University is based). I read the Now Discover Your Strengths book along with How Full is Your Bucket? These books are part of the positive psychology movement that provides a research base toward exploring the notion of abundance, which focuses on what is good and what should be enhanced versus a deficit approach that looks at what is broken and what needs to be fixed.

Recently, I was compelled to dash down a list of abundance from what I've learned so far at MVCC. When my family and I moved halfway across the country here, I was excited to become a part of a MVCC - a comprehensive community college with all the components of a complex mission that is the basis for serving the community so well; a place where the people are very giving and want to be appreciated for hard work; a college well-respected and supported in the community with an amazing alumni base; and an organization with a solid financial base from which to approach a complex future. Since I've been here, I've found all of that to be true and much more. My preliminary list of abundance is one that not everyone at the College may agree with or even be aware of, but I hope it prompts some more thinking about just how many great things are already in place as we strive to identify ways for MVCC to build on past success to a position of future significance.

  • According to state education records, 28% of all graduating high school seniors in Oneida County attend MVCC each fall. Many community colleges tend to secure about 15% or so.

  • Like the best community colleges in the country, MVCC sets high standards for all students and then provides key support to assist students to achieve those standards. A national model to address this is supplemental instruction (SI) - in the simplest form, SI is basically a system of enhanced/intensive peer tutoring. Many colleges are just now experimenting with SI...MVCC has had it in place since 1993.

  • The athletic program is amazing. In the last 10 years, MVCC has won 11 national team championships; 8 national runner-ups; 94 individual national champions; 266 all-americans; 19 coach of the year recipients; 9 national player of the year recipients; and had an overall winning percentage of 71% across all 20 athletic teams.

  • With limited resources, I have found many aspects of the College extremely efficient. From scheduling and class fill rates to money and environment-saving steps taken in physical plant management, MVCC has many points of pride.

  • As a former Resident Assistant and Resident Director in residence halls, I am very impressed and pleased to know that the policies and procedures in place and the talent of the residence life staff associated with the operation of our residence halls are second to none to provide a safe and engaging residential life experience for our students.

  • The fact that everyone worked so hard to get multi-year labor agreements in place is a great testimony to the manner in which the College can come together for the common good and provide a solid base for the future.

  • Transfer data show time and again that MVCC students who transfer to SUNY four-year institutions outperform other SUNY community college transfer students in their first year after transferring.

  • Many community colleges try to provide some kind of solid experience for first-year students. A key component is a College Seminar class. Things can always be improved but the basic infrastructure is already in place at MVCC with the ED 100 class. Many community colleges would be envious to have such a program in place.

  • The commitment among faculty and staff to diversity and global view for our students is inspiring. The foundation for a solid international program is in place at MVCC well beyond what most community colleges have even approached.

  • Our student life area takes a partnership approach to positioning student life as an integrated compliment to the overall student learning experience. We have only begun to pursue the potential of this wonderful commitment.
I'm sure I have left out many aspects of wonder as to what MVCC has in abundance that provides a great foundation for an exciting future.

What would be on your list of abundance for MVCC? Let me know at presblog@mvcc.edu.