Monday, March 30, 2009

Education is the key

George Carlin once suggested that, since we have too many golf courses and too many homeless people in the US, we could solve both problems by letting the homeless move from our city centers to one of our underused golf courses. The merits of this idea are debatable, but I give Carlin an “A” for creative thinking. A recent newspaper article in the Observer-Dispatch prompted me to reach out to Steve Darmin from Social Science Associates and ask for his insights on putting this blog post together.

Although homelessness in our region is largely invisible to many of us outside of our city centers, it is a serious, costly and growing social problem. A point-in-time census of homeless persons and families in Oneida County conducted by Social Science Associates for the Mohawk Valley Housing and Homeless Assistance Coalition on January 28, 2009 revealed that there were over 400 homeless persons on that single day. Many more are homeless at other times during the year. Over 40% of those surveyed in January reported that this was the first time they were homeless as an adult, and most homeless persons and families are re-housed within a short period of time. However, approximately one of every four homeless adults in Oneida County are “chronically” homeless, i.e. they’ve experienced more than four episodes of homelessness in the past three years or been homeless for a year or longer.

Most chronically homeless people are struggling with serious mental health, substance abuse, and other disabilities. Unlike George Carlin we’ve failed to come up with any creative ideas to make a dent in this social problem. Instead, we “manage” our chronically homeless neighbors ineffectively and at great expense using local shelters, addiction crisis treatment, emergency medical, psychiatric inpatient and other hospital care and with our police, courts, and jail. We’ve fallen short when it comes to finding and providing solutions that empower and enable them to end their homelessness and stop the drain on our publicly funded service and criminal justice systems. One third of the chronically homeless adults in Oneida County report that they used a local Emergency Department three or more times in the past year. This is the most expensive and least effective way to deliver health care services to this or any other population.

The US Interagency Council, a consortium of federal agencies, recently approached Oneida County Executive Tony Picente, Utica’s Mayor Roefaro, and Rome’s Mayor Brown and asked them to work together with other community leaders to develop a 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in Utica, Rome, and Oneida County (for more information see the Federal Interagency Council website at http://www.usich.gov/). I was asked to chair this initiative and have accepted this responsibility. Working with Steve Darmin and so many other concerned professionals on this effort, I'm confident we'll make a difference on this challenging aspect to our community.

What is the relationship between chronic homelessness and MVCC? When someone is on a path out of homelessness, education and training is a key component. Like Liz Murray, the famous "homeless to Harvard" icon, people can do it. Yet, these individuals are not likely to find their way to an open house or a career fair. We must find creative ways to reach out to the many underserved populations, whether homeless or otherwise underserved, who haven't thought of how College fits for them and create pathways that make it possible. If you have any thoughts on this, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Beyond Nanotech

Last week I had the good fortune to deliver the keynote speech at the Leadership Mohawk Valley (LMV) "Follow the Leader" awards banquet. This gave me an opportunity to reflect on the Mohawk Valley and what I've learned about the area thus far. It’s been said that "the economy never goes too high nor too low here in the Mohawk Valley." Yet history tells us that this region is capable of substantial highs including the Erie Canal, the railroads that followed, and the bustling mills and factories that were nourished first by the Canal and railroads and later by the Thruway. All this led to the era of Griffiss Air Force Base. From the Canal through the Air Force Base, the Mohawk Valley enjoyed a 175-year high.

True, there were less prosperous periods of economic transition during that century and three-quarters. That’s exactly what I believe we’re experiencing now. The Mohawk Valley has lived through a transition for the past 15 years as manufacturing and military employers departed. Yet this same recent period has seen the local emergence of a very strong high-tech sector and our region’s largest employer didn’t exist before 1993. My recent trip to IBM research headquarters (see last week's blog) piqued my appreciation not only for the latest in emerging technologies, but also for the incredible talent, spirit and organizations that make these technologies come alive in the Mohawk Valley. From the Air Force Research Lab to the Griffiss Institute and SUNY-IT, and from IT-based employers to cybersecurity researchers and nanotech entrepreneurs, this region is actively laying the foundations of another defining period of economic prosperity.

Landing a large nanotech chip fabrication plant would be wonderful. The efforts of Mohawk Valley Edge to develop the Marcy Nanocenter site will yield fruit at some point, but the future of this region must go beyond nanotech. We need to change our community focus in the headlines from "chip fab plant to employ 1,000 people" to understand the importance of expanding broadband access here locally; to understand the emerging green technologies and how to best position this area for the myriad applications that are yet to be invented; and to recognize the importance of quality of life issues in an increasingly mobile society where people don't always have to physically locate where their employment is (e.g., telecommuting, etc.).

As I said in my keynote address at the LMV banquet, I believe the next five years will define the next fifty for the Mohawk Valley (and perhaps the nation). To make the most of these next few years, we need to align the priorities in this region and move toward the next definitive period for this region. Emerging technologies are going to redefine how we work, live and play and the Mohawk Valley is poised to reap the benefits of what is just now coming in to view - it's up to all of us to look for it. If you have any thoughts on this, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Beam Me Up Scotty...

Going back to get a glimpse at the future through junior high parent orientation was one thing, but zooming forward for a true view of the future was a whole different experience! I recently visited the research headquarters of IBM in Westchester County, New York through the good fortune of joining representatives from SUNY-IT, Utica College, state and local government and members of the vibrant IT and software development community here in the Mohawk Valley on a full day experience. Departing at 5 a.m. and spending 15 hours with a busload of computer scientists provided me with a Walter Mitty experience for the ages. We spent the day in a corporate seminar room listening to presentations from some of the best and brightest at IBM research. We learned that more patents come out of the IBM research labs each year than anywhere else (for the past 12 consecutive years!) and this tour exposed us to much of their latest research and how technology is literally shaping our society.

After listening to presentations on Cloud technology (a non-weather related term now applied to super computer networks that I can’t quite explain here) and getting an overview of global technology trends, we took a break for lunch. I felt like an academic athlete at a super quiz bowl – ready to dump icewater over my head to cool it off from thinking too much. After lunch, we heard more detail on technology trends and potential implications before going on a tour of some displays that demonstrated some of the potential applications to everyday life. Here are a few examples of what we witnessed in this time travel experience:
  • We watched a woman speak into a microphone, asking a question in English and having the computer respond back to her in Mandarin Chinese, with a third component validating the communication in writing. She said this was used at the Beijing Olympics and is being used today by our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. She said soon it will be available for market, most likely as an application for our cellphones – potentially turning our phones into our personal interpreters.
  • Cellphones overall continue to be the mechanism for the future – with RFID technology, they are likely to become the means by which we interact in this hyper-technologic future. From serving as our wallet and electronic payment device to carrying a dna sample and all of our personal health/bio-identification information, cellphones seem to be able to do most anything.
  • We witnessed the latest directions in surveillance technology that reminded me way too much of Tom Cruise in Minority Report.
  • We saw how technology will change our retail experiences and our healthcare provider experiences. From customized displays that appear throughout the store as you shop to remote monitoring of our health through connections between our homes, doctors’ offices and hospitals, the future is hard to comprehend.
  • My "wow" for the day however, came when they showed us a 3-D image on a huge flat-panel display. The speaker said, "to produce this image and this animated motion, it requires the same computing power as the world's fastest supercomputer in 1998...today, I'm showing this to you on a Sony Playstation 3 with an enhanced video card." - yes, a videogame today has the computing capability of the world’s fastest computer did 11 years ago.

I let a passing comment go by - that the world’s fastest supercomputer can now process information as fast as the human brain - but I sat up in my chair when the speaker mentioned research into teletransporting (like “beam me up Scotty”)…and no one laughed. IBM researchers have been able to dissolve an object through this process but they can only reconstitute a single atom. (Fortunately, I think the auto industry may have a few good years left.) I’ll try to digest all of this and synthesize some of the implications for a future post. If you have any thoughts on this, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The 3 Rs (for the 21st Century)

I recently attended a parent orientation at the junior high our daughter will attend next year. I always like getting a look into the future through what our children are experiencing in their school today. Whether it be the fact that most school districts now teach computer use in kindergarten and formal typing skills in second grade (second grade!) or the fact that there was only one formal computer class in the whole junior high experience, the comfort level with technology for our young people is amazing. The counselor affirmed what I assumed, when she told me on the tour that "most kids are so familiar with technology and they pick it up so fast, it's just an integral part of their world." I think about the implications for this in less than five to ten years when these students come to our door...or our website, will we be ready?

Some states have created large-scale initiatives to build on the Rigor/Relevance framework(TM) developed by the International Center for Leadership in Education (which is actually headquartered in New York State!) http://www.leadered.com/rigor.html. Since its creation, this framework has been updated to include relationships. The Rigor/Relevance/Relationships approach is far more comprehensive than the original "three Rs" of reading, writing, and arithmetic (spelling wasn't one of them). MVCC has much to learn from other sectors we work with - business, four-year colleges and K-12 education.

Rigor and Relevance
Assuring rigor throughout the curriculum and across content areas is fundamental to student success and curriculum integrity. Both public education and community college education have a broad array of learners that create some of the most diverse learning environments possible. I subscribe to the philosophy that I see come to life at MVCC - maintain the high standards but provide enormous support in and out of the class to give every student the best chance to succeed. Relevance comes through demonstrating the connection between learning and application. This was missing from much of my formal education until graduate school, which was my favorite learning experience because I knew why I was learning. Most people think of learning algebra – “why am I learning this?” Forget that algebra is all about problem solving, a top-5 skill demanded by nearly every employer - relevance in college comes from having a sense of a career path and an opportunity to apply a student's learning in that direction. Relevance also can come from making interdisciplinary connections. The human brain processes information most productively when it's in a larger context. Learning in distinct chunks of segmented academic disciplines slows the learning process in contrast to the acceleration that comes from learning in context - rigor experienced with relevance.

As I mentioned, the framework was updated to include the importance of relationships. I often tell students that all the research (Astin, 1993; Pascarella and Terenzini, 1991, etc.) shows that if students can make a deep personal connection with even one individual on campus - another student, a teacher, a staff member, somebody they will see on a regular basis - the likelihood of achieving their academic goals increases exponentially. What if we were more intentional about organizing our academic enterprise around Rigor, Relevance and Relationships? What would the impact be on carrying out our mission of promoting student success and community involvement through a commitment to excellence and a spirit of service? If you have any thoughts on this, let me know at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Unbundling the Budget

The budget development process is well underway for 2009-2010. The process itself goes for almost half of the year - from February and the initial call for requests to the synthesis and preliminary budget through April, to the approvals needed by the MVCC Board of Trustees and the Oneida County Legislature - the final approval by the SUNY Board of Trustees doesn't come until September. The process has raised questions at every college where I've worked - always with more calls for transparency of process - so I thought a few insights here might be of value.

Funding Streams
MVCC is supported by three primary sources of funding. We are sponsored by Oneida County (providing 33%), supported by the State of New York (providing 31%) and receive 36% of our revenue from students paying tuition. The legislative goal in this state is to make that closer to 1/3 for each of these sources and under full opportunity legislation ideally 40/33/27 with the smallest share coming from the County sponsor, although that hasn't happened since the early 70s. MVCC has worked hard to adhere to a philosophy of smaller, annual tuition increases for students (generally around 3 percent or less) so that one cohort of students doesn't pay disproportionally for a tuition increase that becomes necessary after a year or more of no tuition increases.

Program Portfolio
Somewhat unique to community colleges is our mix of technical, career-oriented programs and our general education offerings. MVCC was founded as a technical institute in 1946 and as a result has maintained one of the most comprehensive array of career programs in New York State. Our career programs position us to be able to provide the area with a qualified and well-trained workforce, but these programs need to be balanced with a similar comprehensive array of general education courses and transfer programs. It's always been a fiscal reality for community colleges that without a healthy, well-managed transfer program, it will be that much more difficult to afford more expensive career programs. General education/transfer courses tend to have larger class sizes than the career programs - in community colleges that translates into classes with 25-40 with an occasional large lecture near 60 (in contrast to the university lectures more common with 100-300 students). Career programs have different requirements - so many training stations in the machine lab or clinical requirements in surgical technology for example - that increase program costs. In addition, many career programs have substantial equipment needs, from airplanes and engines in Airframe and Powerplant to computers in graphic animation, the per student cost is higher. MVCC tends to carry one of the highest, if not the highest, percentages of enrollments in technical programs as a proportion of overall enrollment among the 30 SUNY community colleges (around 54% of all MVCC enrollment in career programs in contrast to the SUNY community college average of 35%).

Operating and Capital
A common misconception about funding in community colleges is the difference between operating dollars and dollars for capital construction - they come from two different funding streams. In most, if not all, states around the country, community colleges must go through a separate process to secure funding for building projects. This is the background as to why we're able to be in the process of building the Robert Jorgensen Athletic Fieldhouse at a time when there is so much talk about reductions to the operating budgets at the College and around the state. Construction projects are handled through the capital budget process where requests are made and approved projects are funded through the sale of public bonds by the State of New York (50% share) and Oneida County (50%) share.

Budget decisions are never easy and are likely to get even more difficult in the months to come. However, we have worked hard at the College to develop a useful Strategic Plan that will grow in significance and usefulness to keep us focused in these challenging times. If you have any questions or comments, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.