Monday, March 24, 2008

The Value of Coming Together

During the first two weeks in March more than twenty workshops were held to assist the College in preparing for the upcoming accreditation site visit. The opportunity was seized to use the workshops as a conversation about the values we all share and the mission and vision statements that should lead us through the door every day at Mohawk Valley Community College.

However, while values, mission, and accreditation were the identified content areas, a key objective was to capitalize on the value of faculty and staff coming together in mixed groups to interact in new and different ways. Overall, the workshop evaluations were positive. The most consistent feedback I've received from those that participated in the workshop was, "it was good - not as bad as I thought it was going to be." Some of the evaluation forms further stated, "a little too touchy-feely for me." For a pilot project experience, I'll take it. The workshops were a great example of small change - just getting people to interact in a new environment and have some new conversations prompted a similar reaction to most changes designed to create positive results - we as humans find ourselves not looking forward to it on the front end and generally thankful for the experience in retrospect. Besides, from everything I've gathered in talking to faculty and staff over the past few months, we could use a few "touchy-feely" experiences anyway.

The evaluations will be used if future similar workshops are developed. The input from the workshops on the creation of a values statement and the revision of the mission and vision statements is being forwarded to the Strategic Planning Committee (SPC). In combination with some additional research and review of statements from other community colleges, SPC members will go about the task of creating a values statement and updating the vision and mission statements. With MVCC poised to move from a successful community college to a significant community asset, the results from these workshops and the ultimate work of the SPC will provide a solid base and clear direction for us to enthusiastically approach an ever-increasingly complex and changing future.

If you have any thoughts on this or other matters, you can reach me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Learning About Change

Two weeks and seven Campus Conversation sessions later (with close to 150 participants) I feel much more informed as I continue to think about change and the enormous potential of MVCC. The Campus Conversations of the past two weeks allowed me to share my thoughts on things related to the changing community needs, the myriad ideas for change internally, and receive feedback and insights from faculty and staff. Along the way, I came across a couple of turns of phrase that warrant further exploration.

The Center of the Community

In one Conversation, someone said, "We need to put the community at the center of MVCC and MVCC at the center of the community." Wow. I love this phrase as it captures so much of what originally intrigued me about this place - the community seems very willing to embrace an even larger, more significant role for MVCC in community and economic development efforts and many working at the College are anxious to find ways to strengthen our connections with the community. Like many colleges, our systems are set up to serve the students we serve. However, we have reached a point that to move from a successful community college to a significant community asset, we need to review our systems and structure to be more intentional about reaching those parts of the community that we currently do not serve. Embracing the community in new and different ways will allow us to serve the community in ways we probably never thought possible, as long as we keep "community" at the center of Mohawk Valley Community College.

The Value of "And"
Another conversation surfaced the notion that many of our past and current efforts at the College have centered around an either/or dynamic. The solution is either "this or that" without spending enough time exploring the extent to which the solution could combine "this and that"? It would seem that it's as simple as working on compromising - that's an oversimplification and misses the point. An illustration of this for me is how I compare MVCC with all of the other community colleges where I've worked. It seems so many of the things MVCC does well were things we struggled with at the other colleges (e.g., recruiting recent high school graduates from local high schools) and areas where MVCC could do better were in full bloom at the other colleges (e.g., serving returning adult students). If we spend less time focusing on the OR and more on the AND, we might find some very interesting solutions that would refresh many of the old and tired internal dynamics that prevent us from reaching our potential. I don't know all the specifics, but I know we'll stretch our thinking to new solutions if we spend more time considering the value of AND.

Focus vs. Results
It was noted in one conversation that we spoke for 90 minutes about change and the need for change and we never once mentioned "the need to change is to increase enrollment and the relationship to increased budgets as a result." In another, one person asked that there was no mention made of increasing student retention - we then explored that a little. Through the conversation, we landed on the notion that if we focus on our mission - why we're here, who we're trying to serve and how we're trying to serve them - students will be successful. Our collective conclusion was that if we focus on our mission, student retention will likely increase - retention and enrollment increases are the result, not the singular focus.

Perhaps my favorite insight was in the conversation where someone stated that perhaps if we actually go through change on a more regular basis, we would all become more familiar with change. If we become more familiar with change then perhaps we will therefore increase our ability to change. All of these and other insights that surfaced during the Conversations are worth reflection. I hope everyone who attended found our time together as useful as I did. I've appreciated everyone who has responded to my blog with additional thoughts and perspectives over the past two weeks. I'd welcome any additional ideas you might have as there remains a great deal to consider in the next two months
- presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Expanding Access

My last post was titled engagment is key to positive change. If engagement is is key to making change happen, student access is key to why change is needed. It is a great feeling to be considering changes while the College is in a position of strength. We can be more thoughtful and deliberate about how we need to change when we're not facing massive budget cuts or severe enrollment declines. Although budgets can always be better, ours is generally stable and enrollment has been up slightly this year over last. This allows us to spend time thinking about increasing our ability to serve students better as well as minimizing barriers for students to access our programs and services.

Despite our relatively low tuition, far too many students face financial barriers that limit their ability to attend college. For students with severe financial need, they most often qualify for the maximum award in the state Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and Federal Pell grants, usually covering the cost of tuition and many ancillary expenses. Access to a high quality MVCC education appears to be open and available for those who have little and for those who have much. For too many students, family income is above the state and federal financial aid thresholds, as these students (40% of MVCC students) do not qualify for the maximum grants. However, the financial aid thresholds are set around $36,000 for household income - beyond that the assumption is that individuals should be able to afford college tuition and associated fees, texts, and living expenses. If students are unable to make that happen somehow, the next best answer is going into debt and taking out student loans.

One very positive change already underway is the creation of the ACCESS Fund. The MVCC Foundation has created a new opportunity for MVCC students who fall into this middle ground. The ACCESS Fund is intended to make up as much of the difference as possible between grants from the State and Federal governments and the actual cost of attending MVCC.

Gifts to the Access Fund at the MVCC Foundation make an immediate impact for those students who qualify. Unfortunately, there is currently far more need than resources available for distribution. The faculty and staff of MVCC have seen first hand the successes of so many students, and they want to see the opportunities continue for more, especially those students who advance their educations, begin jobs or professions here in the area, and contribute to the overall well-being of the community. MVCC faculty and staff have recognized the importance of this fund and have responded generously with their gifts and pledges - as of last week, 71 faculty and staff (along with 100% of the Board of Trustees, Foundation Board and Executive Committee members) have raised $18,575. If we are able to get that figure over $20,000, we will be able to provide more than 80 students with grants of $250 or more. This represents a 50% increase over last year in both participation and dollars raised from our annual faculty and staff internal gifts campaign. Thank you to everyone who has contributed thus far.

Sometimes when we think about changes that will impact us in our work at the College, it's also important to reflect on the reason we do what we do every day - keeping our programs and services as accessible as possible to help others develop their potential through education. If you have any comments or questions about the ACCESS Fund, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Engagement is Key to Positive Change

One nice thing about shoveling the driveway so often in upstate New York is it gives one time to reflect. A valued colleague recently sent me an email with a quote from Michel Eyquem De Montaigne, a famous 16th century French author and statesman who said, “It is good to rub and polish our brain against that of others.” The quote has stayed with me all week and served as the basis for my weekend winter wonderland shoveling meditations.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the three touchstones of access, excellence, and engagement. All three have many layers to their definition and significance in our work at the College. Previous posts have covered access and excellence, but it's increasingly clear to me that engagement is critical if access and excellence are to be fully realized. Two major opportunities for faculty and staff to engage in change efforts at the College will come together over the course of the next two weeks and allow people to "...rub and polish our brain against that of others."

The core staff development workshop, The Times They Are a-Changin' is a two-hour session that will provide all full-time faculty and staff with a shared meaningful experience. The title comes from the fact that our self-study for accreditation identified a number of changes to strengthen our institution for the future. These are commitments we're making that make it clear - these times are a-changin'. One thing that can provide stability through periods of change is a core values statement that will provide clarity on how we go about our work. In addition, a clear mission statement will provide focus in our daily work and a refined vision statement will hopefully provide inspiration for what we strive to be as a community college. The more than twenty scheduled workshops will not only familiarize everyone with the importance of accreditation, but will also create an opportunity for everyone to provide input into the development of a core values statement and input on updating the mission and vision statements at the College.

Scheduled during the same two week period, but (somewhat) separate from the workshops, are seven Campus Conversations. It wasn't my intention to schedule these during the same two weeks as the workshops, but the calendar doesn't always agree with our intentions. To be sure however, we certainly have much to talk about at the College right now - we have a number of commitments from the results of the accreditation self-study; we have system design team recommendations coming together to improve our systems related to student intake (everything from recruitment to registration), student support (everything from registration to graduation), employee hiring, employee recognition, staff development, and adjunct faculty support. All of these ideas and recommendations will feed into the updating of the strategic plan, as will the workshop input on a core values statement and the mission and vision statements.

The Campus Conversations are an opportunity for me to share a little more about all of these efforts and how we might identify resources to implement as many as possible. I anticipate most of these recommendations to prompt changes to many of our primary administrative systems at the College. Systems and structure are inherently integrated, so changes to our systems create the need for changes in our organizational structure. Reviewing organizational structure is not something I take lightly, which is why I want to engage faculty and staff in the conversation. I want to discuss the objectives I'm developing to review the structure - things like, provide the opportunity for everyone to be in a position to do their best work every day; provide for a reasonable scope of responsibility for all areas and positions; strengthen communication throughout the organization; and create capacity to implement the new strategic plan and actively advance the strategic priorities, directions, and initiatives; and many others.

While much is still to be determined, these workshops and conversations are part of a significant moment in time at the College where it's important for everyone to engage and participate in these opportunities. Yogi Berra didn't say it, but I love to affirm that when you work at a College, you get to work with a lot of smart people. I'm counting on that fact and would appreciate any ideas you have regarding opportunities that are before us to implement positive change as well as any ideas or reactions to what I've put forth in this post. Please share your thoughts with me at presblog@mvcc.edu.