Connecting with faculty is key to success

By Ellie Ashford, Published February 19, 2014
Published in Community College Daily - American Association of Community Colleges

Editor's note: This is the first article in an occasional series on leadership issues focused on new presidents and CEOs.

If new community college presidents want to ensure success in moving their strategic vision forward,

SKYCTC President Dr. Phillip Neal speaking to faculty and staff of the College 
SKYCTC President, Dr. Phillip Neal speaks to faculty
and staff of the college at College in-service event.
establishing strong relationships with the faculty is a must, though it's not always easy.

Being available and accessible to faculty members sends a message that they are being heard, says L. Marshall Washington, president of New River Community and Technical College in West Virginia. He believes it’s crucial to reach out to faculty because “they are central to what we are doing every day to make sure our students are successful.”

One of the first things Washington did as president was meet with all faculty and staff at the college’s four campuses and hold meetings with different constituent groups “just to listen to them and hear their concerns.” He also makes it a priority to attend faculty senate meetings and visits regularly with the senate's chair to find out faculty's top concerns, such as compensation, workload and the process for approving curricula.

Tough decisions

When Washington arrived at New River, he found there were few major conflicts between the faculty and administration, but “the flow of communications may not have been as open as it should have been.” To fix that, he initiated an electronic newsletter for the faculty that not only updates them on what’s going on at the college, but celebrates people’s successes.

In his early days at the college, he carried out an exercise with staff to reaffirm the college’s values, including civility and accountability.

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“I don’t mind disagreement as long as we’re not being disagreeable,” he said.

Conversations with faculty took on more of an urgency last fall after the governor announced a 7.5 percent funding cut for the state’s community colleges — which is on top of a 7.5 percent cut the year before. Washington initiated meetings with faculty to “elicit their help on how to prioritize goals and objectives for the coming year” and how the college could be reorganized.

Several faculty members serve on a "human capital committee," which includes representatives from various constituent groups, that reviews the strategic plan and makes recommendations for savings. The committee will have a chance to comment on Washington’s recommendations before he presents them to the board.

Strong relationships

For Phillip Neal, president of Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College, the importance of having a positive relationship with faculty is underscored by his own experiences as a psychology professor at another college, as well as former provost at Southcentral.

“Relationship” is the key word, Neal says. And that means bringing faculty into the decision-making process. Neal attends faculty senate sessions and meets with the organization’s leaders regularly.

“We involve faculty on just about every major decision,” he said. “Shared governance can’t just be a concept. It has to have teeth in it.”

Faculty and other staff are also represented on Southcentral’s board of directors and the committees formed around the seven goals in the college’s strategic plan. Neal believes it’s “philosophically important” to include the faculty perspective.

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“Students come here for the expertise our faculty bring. It’s very important to appreciate that,” he said.

On the flip side, faculty conduct the majority of the advising at Southcentral, so “for most of our students, that’s the only ongoing one-on-one relationship a student ever has with an institutional official. That relationship is key to student engagement,” he said.

At the same time, faculty are probably more in tune with the student pulse than anyone at the institution, Neal added.

“Appreciating and understanding those dynamics are important,” he said.

Addressing a workforce problem

As an example Neal cites a situation where faculty from different departments worked together to develop strategies to prepare students for success in the workplace. That initiative, which won the faculty an award from the League for Innovation in the Community College, stemmed from discussions among faculty and local employers, who cited a lack of a work ethic, particularly among younger employees.

During a series of brainstorming sessions, faculty came up with the idea of integrating a workplace ethics practice into all classes. All students are now expected to show up for class on time, turn off cell phones, pay attention to the instructor and treat one another with courtesy — the same sort of behavior expected on the job.

“We all worked together on this, and the faculty uniformly enforce it,” Neal said.

In addition to benefiting employers, the practice has affected student success, too. For example, faculty can get through the material faster when everyone shows up on time ready to learn, Neal said.

A focus on integrity

When Michael Ash took the reins as president of Southeastern Iowa Community College about a year and half ago, he and his leadership team developed some new attitudes aimed at strengthening the college’s value system, he said, focusing on excellence, integrity, good stewardship and continuous improvement.

Ash’s prescription for dealing with students, staff and the business community, as well as faculty, is to stress integrity.

“Don’t overpromise. Be respectful, engaging and approachable. Remind staff that respect is the key to a successful relationship,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things that make us people of integrity.”

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That was a key element in addressing issues at the college, which was in a bit of a disarray when Ash arrived.

“There had been a major tug of war between the president and senior leadership” with conflicts over the closing of programs and lack of disclosure, he said. His predecessor had received a vote of no confidence from the faculty.

The administration decided to close the college's precision-machining and horticulture programs, citing enrollment declines and that the programs no longer served the community’s needs. However, local businesses and industry disagreed, Ash said. In addition, the instructors, who were unhappy about losing their jobs, felt “their voices were unheard and the process in closing the programs was unfair.”

In response to those concerns, the college is developing a new associate degree program in manufacturing technology that will incorporate some of the areas covered in precision machining. The college has invited business and industry leaders to join an advisory committee to recommend equipment and recruit students. Ash also hopes to bring back a couple of the horticulture classes as part of the agriculture department.

Be approachable

Ash calls his leadership style “management by wandering around.” During his first months on the job, he roamed the hallways and engaged in informal conversations.

“The message I was sending is ‘I’m approachable'; I’m interested in what they have to say,” he said.

Ash meets with groups of faculty and administrative departments — even the maintenance staff — to answer their questions; visits regularly with the union heads; and schedules brown bag lunches, inviting “whoever wanted to come together and just chat.”

This interaction has helped Ash understand “the issues beneath the surface that need to be addressed.” For example, he learned that the college’s decision making on snow days needed to be better communicated. Faculty didn’t know if they were expected to come to work on time if classes were delayed or canceled. The policy has been clarified and the college now uses multiple media to get the word out.

He also discovered that some employee groups perceived that “they weren’t being heard and that their perspectives didn’t matter,” Ash said. Others felt that there had been favoritism or that they “had been labeled as troublemakers.”

Ash aimed to get to the root of those concerns, noting that employees won’t be productive if they feel devalued or disrespected.

“If you don’t have a healthy workforce, you won’t be able to do good things,” he said.

Ash has brought faculty and staff support representatives into the cabinet and has involved the cabinet in the process of meeting candidates for a vice presidential slot — a role that had not been previously available to people outside the administration.

Bringing stakeholders into these processes doesn’t mean the president is shying away from making tough decisions, Ash emphasized. Presidential leadership is crucial, but when it’s done in a transparent, honest and trustworthy manner, staff is more likely to be supportive, he said. As a case in point, Ash noted, it took just six minutes to negotiate a new contract with faculty, while the year before it took six months.

“Happy employees do a better job and treat students better,” Ash said. “They are better able to focus on students if they’re not worried about what the administration is up to.”