Monday, January 26, 2009

Riders on the Storm

With the new year comes a new semester and a new day - every day a bit closer to the budget reality facing New York state. Cries of "it's going to get worse before it gets better" and "we have no idea how bad the numbers really are" are becoming deafening. New York’s financial difficulties are coupled with an economy in recession and unemployment at twenty year highs. As a result, people are showing up at our doors looking to retrain into high demand careers or to get a greater value on their tuition dollar - enrollment this spring is up 8.5% over the same time last year.

The Governor's proposed budget suggests broad and substantial cuts and community colleges are not immune. His original proposal was offered with the possibility of mid-year cuts as the deficit continued to grow exponentially. It's "pay me now or pay me later" and since no mid-year cuts have been announced, the projected budget cut for community colleges has grown from $230 to $270 per full-time equivalent (FTE) student - reducing our state funding from the current $2,675 to $2,405 per FTE. The potential impact of these cuts would reduce our 2009-10 budget by nearly $1 million.

The New York Community College Association of Presidents has created a white paper and posted it on an advocacy website for the State University of New York - http://www.sunyadvocates.org/index.php. While the white paper is necessary, as every other state supported organization is mounting their lobbying efforts, the overall message of simply "don't cut us, cut something else" will likely do more harm than good. Increasingly, the expectation is that every sector will share in the cuts to some extent.

The dire financial picture demands that we take a hard look at things and transform our college, region, state and country. The budget deficit and proposed reductions create a burning platform for change that requires a fundamental review of how things are done. At the College level, we will need explore all possible alternatives and make some very difficult decisions - decisions that have been taboo. I once worked for a great administrator who said we need to ride this storm to make us better than before - managing it by reducing pencils, pens and paper clips will only weaken us. I agree. We need to find new ways of operating more efficiently, reducing expenditures where we can and re-directing dollars where we must to address the growing needs of our community.

At the state level, this is the time to recognize the potential role of community colleges and maximize the resources, talent and flexibility found in our mission. Many organizations in Oneida County provide services that were typically provided by community colleges where I worked in other states - where community colleges were fortunate to have substantially better state-level funding than we have in New York. These local organizations rely on contracts or significant operating dollars from the state that create a confusing network of duplication for people just trying to increase their skills and get a job. Just as we must take a hard look at how things are done at MVCC, the State of New York must seize this opportunity to change the way dollars flow in this state to better serve our communities. If state funding for community colleges must be cut, redirecting other dollars from wasteful, duplicative spending streams to allow community colleges to realize their potential in this state will streamline government spending and better serve the taxpayers of New York. Just as people are looking to get a higher return on their tuition dollar by attending a community college, so should the State of New York seek to get a higher return on their state budget dollar by looking to community colleges as an integral part of a solution to an unprecedented budget problem.

You can share your thoughts on these matters with me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Does the mission need critical care?

Our Director of Marketing and Communications, Joan Andrek, recently had a very eye-opening experience that provides great insight to how our daily work, and the choices we make, reflect on our organizational mission. I asked her if she'd be willing to share her experience in a post on my blog. I have included it in complete form here for your review.
A guest blog by Joan Andrek

I recently underwent a minor but necessary surgical procedure at a hospital. After some initial post-operative issues requiring a three-day stay, I recovered sufficiently to be sent home. However, an unforeseen complication landed me in most urgent fashion at my surgeon’s office after just 16 hours at home. He promptly ordered me to be immediately re-admitted to the same hospital, as round-the-clock care was going to be necessary to resolve the complication. My husband rushed me to the hospital’s front door – and due to their parking regulations – had to leave me there while he moved our vehicle. I knew he would be gone less than five minutes, and in my very weakened state, opted to stay seated in the outside waiting area until he returned with a wheelchair.

In that same outside waiting area was a hospital employee – out on a smoke break – standing just 15 feet from me. I don’t know what this individual did specifically at the hospital – their name badge didn’t clearly indicate their occupation. What I do know is that this person worked there, and presumably embraced the notion of care and compassion for all, as espoused by the hospital’s mission statement. My husband had probably been gone less than a minute when I realized I was going to be violently ill – a condition that I had been experiencing all day. To put this in context, I had had abdominal surgery – and as you might guess, I was in absolute agony every time I became ill. I inched closer to the edge of the sidewalk…and you can guess what happened next. Every wave brought with it my cries of anguish. The hospital employee stubbed out their cigarette, concluded their cell phone conversation…and walked away.

Foolishly, I assumed this person had gone to get help for me. After all, I was less than 20 feet from the entrance and a hospital employee could easily see how sick I was. Foolish, indeed. The next person to help me was my husband who lowered me into a wheelchair and got me inside to the Admissions desk. Once inside, a number of professional people, from the Admissions rep to the nurses, nurse technicians, and housekeeping staff all offered caring, compassionate service, as one would expect in a hospital setting. But what about that same care and compassion 20 feet from the front door? Do we have the right – no matter where we work – to disconnect from our organizational mission while still on organizational grounds? Does a smoke break, coffee break, lunch break mean we can take a break from caring about what we do and the people that we serve?

Mohawk Valley Community College is a service environment. I know many will argue with me that our students bear as much responsibility for their college experience as we do, and that may be true. But we exist to provide excellent education and service for all and that is, in their minds, a 24-7 commitment. Yes, there is always a need for structure, rules, and even mandates that we can’t control. But what we can control is how we deliver on our promises every day. What we can control is our ability to be flexible – to be compassionate – to care -- beyond normal operating hours, or even within them.

My New Year’s resolution, in addition to resolving to work for better personal health, is to renew my commitment to be the best I can be for our students. Believe it or not, I come in contact with many of them every day. Whether I’m giving them directions to a campus office, or advising them on careers in advertising or marketing, I’m going to spend just that much more time to understand what they need and how to help them. Our mission demands nothing less.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Answer to How? is Yes...

Last fall I read Stewardship by Peter Block for probably the fifth time in the last fifteen years. It is a book that redefines leadership and provides continued inspiration for me each day. His writing connects with the more intangible aspects of what it means to work in a mission-driven organization like MVCC. As I was revisiting Stewardship and thinking about the conversations we're having at the College, I wondered what else Peter Block had written and came across a most amazing book that he published in 2002, The Answer to how is Yes - acting on what matters.

Block's premise in this book "is that this culture, and we as members of it, have yielded too easily to what is doable and practical and popular. In the process we have sacrificed the pursuit of what is in our hearts. We find ourselves giving in to our doubts, and settling for what we know how to do, or can soon learn how to do, instead of pursuing what most matters to us and living with the adventure and anxiety that this requires" (p. 1). For all the study and experience of change I have over the years, this opening from Block speaks to me in ways that prompt reflection at the individual, community (Mohawk Valley) and organizational (MVCC) levels.

Although I haven't finished the book yet, the applications and connections I've found to our work at MVCC are interesting. Having asked the college community to "start with yes" in my remarks at fall convocation in August 2007, I am pleased with our progress. I have witnessed many examples of starting with yes and despite numerous challenges, committing to figuring out the rest as we go. For us to continue advancing our mission, we need to continue leaving our comfort zones to realize our collective potential. As Block says, we need to replace cynicism with idealism, choose intimacy over virtual experience and depth over speed whenever possible. He continues, "...when we lose idealism, intimacy, and depth, we function at a cosmetic level, pushed along by fashion, out of touch with our center, and we react as if we are the effect of the culture, rather than the cause" (p. 51).

The last line, "...we react as if we are the effect of the culture, rather than the cause" is a powerful one that speaks to our mindset in the face of uncertain times. When offered sincere questions that are intended to solicit input into new processes at the College, immediately jumping to the questions of “what”, “how” and “why” assumes that someone already knows all of the answers. Our overall success will be far greater if we embrace the idealism, intimacy and depth encouraged by Peter Block and actively listen to each other and engage in helping to create (or "cause") the culture we hope to collectively shape for the future. I'd appreciate any insights you have on this topic at presblog@mvcc.edu.