You are here


Astounding Transformations

There are many roads to community college salvation. Herewith, three of the best.

Successfully engineering change in a corporation is a process that only the most visionary CEOs can accomplish. Transforming an academic institution may be even harder.

"I cannot think of a more difficult area in which to bring about change, than the academy," says Dr. Eduardo Padron, president of Miami-Dade Community College. Even more difficult may be the challenge of dramatic change in a community college, where the problems now faced by higher ed in general-lack of funds, either burgeoning or falling enrollment, need for robust faculty development-are often magnified.

What such transformations require first, say the pundits, is powerful leadership in the form of the college president; an individual with a clear vision of where the institution should be, and the courage to make the difficult decisions needed to steer it there. The greatest challenge to that vision often has to do with how a school got to the point where change is not just an option, but critical to the survival of the institution.

"Status quo is not something you can hang your hat on anymore, and still exist," says Susan Butler, the now-retired managing director of Accenture, a New York-based consulting firm. Butler spearheaded the firm's Change Management practice, and believes in the power of change, managed well. "The big thing is that the work environment has changed, and that means that what students need to be successful in the world is now different. Students need to change, but programs and processes need to change, too." Accomplishing such change requires much more consensus building in an academic setting than in a corporation, and without a guiding vision and motivation from the top, efforts may become paralyzed, says Butler. "It takes is a strong leader, and a team under that leader to help the rest of the organization through the change," she says.

When Padron took the helm of Florida's Miami-Dade Community College in 1995, he knew that only radical change would make a real difference at the battle-fatigued institution. Enrollment had been steadily declining, faculty hadn't seen raises in years, the school faced biannual budget shortfalls, and the south Florida economy was evolving so rapidly, the school had no hope of keeping up.

"I did not want the job just because of the title, or a check at the end of two weeks," says Padron, who had been at M-DCC since 1970 and was a graduate of the institution. "I wanted to make a difference-not to preside over the decline of the school."

And what a difference he's made. Though not yet approved by the Board of Ed, it looks like M-DCC will soon change its name to Miami-Dade College, to accommodate the school's new status as a baccalaureate degree-granting institution. The school also welcomed 76 freshmen into its newly created Honors College this fall, with entrance criteria they claim is as stiff as some of the Ivy League's. Still, these changes-along with remarkable administrative and financial overhauls-did not come easy.

"I didn't want the job because of
the title or the check. I wanted
to make a difference, not preside
over the decline of the school."
-Dr. Eduardo Padron,
Miami-Dade Community College

"I thought the world was coming to an end, with all the territorial things that come into play when you try to orchestrate such change," Padron laughs now-now that his efforts have proved successful.

Start with the money. Fortunately, before Padron became district president of M-DCC, he had been president of the Wolfson campus, one of the school's six campuses, with a bird's-eye view of the reasons the school was declining so rapidly. The chief problem was financial: Twice each year, for almost a decade, M-DCC had been forced to freeze hiring and expenditures in response to a state revenue shortfall. This drained the morale of the faculty, which didn't receive raises for several years running. They had stopped proposing new courses, research, or ideas for improvement because they knew that even if projects won funding, they were likely to be cut midyear.

Cut till it hurts. Padron couldn't do much about the state budget, but as an economist, he quickly saw how he could get his own budget under control. Focusing on the 86 percent of his operating budget that was spent on personnel, he embarked on a cost-cutting frenzy, eliminating academic programs that had outlived their utility, and streamlining bureaucracy (at one point, Padron eliminated 119 administrative and support people). But he led by example, he insists, letting go of two-thirds of his own office staff. "I'm still suffering from it," he says, but he's suspiciously upbeat, nonetheless. The actions allowed him to bring financial stability to the school fairly quickly, reducing personnel costs as a percentage of his overall budget from 86 to 74 percent. As a result, faculty members have received raises that average 4 percent in each of the last six years, and morale has improved dramatically.

Re-engineering with programs and buy-in. Padron also created and funded a master technology plan, and introduced new academic courses in hot categories such as biotechnology, telecommunications, engineering technology, and physician's assistantcy. But he approached his re-engineering challenges more like a CEO than an academic; he knew that stakeholder buy-in was crucial to the success of his efforts. At one point, says Padron, he had more than 600 faculty members and employees involved in different committees guiding the re-engineering process.

"Everyone had a chance to participate and have their ideas be part of the process," he says. "That accomplished a lot, in terms of avoiding criticism."

Still, criticism was there. Because at the core of Padron's changes was the simple tenet, Students First, "Some faculty took offense at the beginning," Padron concedes. "Some felt the institution existed for faculty," he remembers. But the new president remained firm: All decisions would be made based on how they would affect M-DCC's number one customer: the student.

Faculty promotion changes. After cost-cutting and academic revamping, the school also instituted major changes in the way it promoted its faculty. Now, in order to be a full professor at M-DCC, faculty members must hold doctoral degrees. This has spurred renewed energy among the faculty, Padron insists, and more than 40 percent of M-DCC's faculty currently hold doctorates. "Understandably," says Padron, "some of the non-doctorate professors were upset about the new contractual provision. However, the contract did receive overwhelming approval. We also initiated a transition plan for those who were working on the doctoral degree, and subsequently, alternative plans that do not require completion of a doctoral degree also have been introduced."

Nurturing innovation. Along the way, Padron and his team began to realize that the two-year plan they had devised would not be enough; that in order to stay competitive, change must be constant. With this in mind, he declared a mission that was itself an oxymoron: institutionalized innovation. He set up grants for faculty members to work on innovations in learning. He encouraged employees to submit their own ideas about how the college could save money. One idea saves the school nearly $500,000 each year: "Turn off the lights when you leave a room!" (A collegewide commitment to such energy-saving measures is continually reinforced, and motion-detector switches are still being installed where appropriate.)

Results. The results of the college's newfound financial stability, renewed focus on students, and improved faculty morale have been synergistic. Enrollment surged 12 percent last year, and 17 percent the year before. The school's reputation has been elevated both in the Miami area and around the state. Padron credits these changes as leading also to the creation of the Honors College in the fall of 2002 and the accreditation by the state to offer four-year degrees in Education, beginning in fall 2003.

New capital campaign. In the late '80s, M-DCC undertook a $5 million endowment campaign to combat diminished state funding. That was followed by a $10 million Endowed Teaching Chair campaign, and in 1992-again in response to inadequate state funding-Miami-Dade County voters okayed a two-year tax that established a permanent endowment ($100 million was raised). Still, Padron and his team are pushing forward. The school has launched a capital campaign to raise $250 million over the next three to four years. M-DCC has never undertaken a capital campaign of the magnitude of the present Opportunity Changes Everything drive, says Padron. The money will go toward student scholarships, construction of labs, and faculty development.

In Flint, MI, the birthplace of General Motors, more than 80,000 people were once employed by the auto giant's factories. By the late 1990s, that number had dwindled to just over 21,000, surrounding Charles Stewart Mott Community College in Flint with a sizable workforce in need of retraining.

"When I was growing up in this town, you could flunk out of high school and still get a job for the equivalent of $45,000-$50,000 today," says Michael Kelly, executive director of Public Information at Mott. "Those days are gone. You need at least an associate's degree to get hired at a plant, and they're not hiring much. We needed to create a new workforce."

Uncovering enthusiastic buy-in. While leaders with vision often have to convince constituents that change is necessary, sometimes the need is so obvious that little persuasion is required. This was the case at Mott a few years back. With cooperation from city, state, and federal officials, along with the Flint business and nonprofit community, Mott set out to build a premier training facility-the Regional Technology Center (RTC)-and offer the nation's first associate's degree in Manufacturing Simulation Technology. (Manufacturing simulation technology allows new products to be designed virtually, going far beyond computer modeling. The process is said to cut 40 percent of the time and cost of bringing a new product to market.)

"Our vision? A community where
business has a trained workforce-
one that can be retrained when
technology changes."
-Michael Kelly,
Charles Stewart Mott Community College

The level of partnership on the RTC project was astounding: Genesee County voters approved a $15 million bond issue to build the RTC; a local health system donated the land downtown; the Mott Foundation provided grants totaling nearly $6 million; the state of Michigan authorized $17 million for construction; the National Science Foundation issued a $500,000 grant; and the U.S. Congress found nearly $2 million for curriculum development.

On the cutting edge. Nearly four years in the planning and building, the RTC is the height of technological sophistication. All phones in the building are Internet-based; there is a 120-seat multimedia auditorium with full video and teleconferencing, and power/network connections for 60 of the seats. The building also houses a two-story manufacturing lab that is totally modular, allowing small assembly lines to be built for training right in the classroom.

Innovative courses and scheduling. But Mott's transformation wasn't just about new technology or a new building. President Richard M. Shaink wanted much of the curriculum redesigned to take advantage of the technology available. Now many courses, particularly technical courses like electronics or computer applications, are taught in modular lessons. Students must master each module before moving to the next. Labs are open 18 hours per day, and rather than have a class meet for a standard semester, students can finish coursework as quickly or as slowly as they want. This breaks down classes into quarter-credit increments, and required faculty to completely redesign their curricula.

"There's been a cultural shift," Kelly says. "Some of the older faculty were reticent, but all classes that move into the new tech center must be broken into these modules."

When the RTC opened in fall 2002, more than 1,300 students filed in for classes. Mott, which has about 18,000 students, has seen double-digit enrollment growth in the past five semesters.

According to Kelly, "Our new vision is to make this community a place where business can come and meet a trained workforce-a workforce that can be retrained when technology changes, as it inevitably does."

When Ira Rubenzahl became president of Capital Community College in Hartford, CT, he took over an institution that was limping through the process of change. In 1992, the state formed Capital Community College by consolidating a community college and a technical college, hoping to save money on higher education costs. When Rubenzahl took office in 1996, the two administrations had been merged, but the school was faced with two aging campuses, enrollment that had fallen by more than 25 percent, and inadequate student services.

"We had two very tired buildings; we needed to consolidate in order to reduce costs in operations and improve services to students," Rubenzahl says.

"With the opening of the new
vertical campus, we're a victim
of our own success, but that's a
good problem."
-Ira Rubenzahl,
Capital Community College

At the same time, Connecticut's Gov. John Rowland envisioned a downtown campus as a way to help revive Hartford, one of the poorest cities in the nation. Rubenzahl was amenable to the move, as long as the state could meet his vision of the new facility. Planners homed in on the shuttered G. Fox department store, once the retail magnet of the downtown area, but closed since 1992. The 1917 building (with some glorious Art Deco additions) was selected, despite the challenges it posed.

A new home for Capital CC. "The challenges were significant," Rubenzahl recalls. "When I toured the building-concrete slab with pillars that were 20 feet off center-we were concerned about adequate space for classrooms. There was also the challenge of putting in a large lecture hall; issues about circulation; and concern about being able to move students throughout an 11-story building."

But the project had the support of Gov. Rowland, who deemed it the first of six "pillars" he would erect to revive downtown Hartford. A plan was hatched to devote half the building to the school and half to a private developer for offices and retail stores. Sixty million dollars in state funding was allocated, and the renovations began. The building was designed to retain many of the original architectural details, but it was updated with a wholly modern telecommunications infrastructure. There are 32 all-purpose classrooms, 19 computer labs, and 33 discipline-specific laboratories (including those for science, nursing, civil engineering, photography, etc.), a 350-seat auditorium, 140-seat lecture hall, 60- to 80-seat community room, four small conference rooms, and a five-story atrium that floods the upper floors with light.

Meeting the opposition. When the work was underway, opposition echoed from all sides. The student senate opposed the move to downtown, as did a vocal group of faculty members. There were protests, editorials, and a letter-writing campaign, all aimed at scuttling the move. Along with this internal opposition, many members of the business community ridiculed the idea that moving the college downtown would have any effect on Hartford's prospects. But when Capital's vertical campus opened in September 2002, there were mea culpas all around. More than 1,000 people attended an opening reception, with more turned away at the doors.

"It was fantastic," Rubenzahl recounts. "Everyone was pleased with the project; students, faculty and staff, executive branch, city government-all agree it's been a fantastically successful project."

Revamping services and programs. If Capital's move downtown was one of Gov. Rowland's six pillars, you might say that resolving the facilities issue was one of Rubenzahl's three pillars: For while he was presiding over the planning and construction, he was also quietly transforming the school's services and portions of its academic program. With a $1.75 million federal grant geared toward "Strengthening Institutions," Rubenzahl began to overhaul all of the intake functions-registration, financial aid, admissions, and academic advising. Now many of these functions are available online, and the college conducts student satisfaction surveys to monitor areas needing improvement.

Results. Since Capital's transformation, the school has reported a 15 percent increase in enrollment (as of September 2002). Along with gains that were realized prior to the school's move into its new building, this nearly brings the school back to its peak enrollment level, before the decline began. Enrollment yield is up as well, and student retention has increased from 43 to 48 percent since 1999. Cynthia Adams, director of Nursing and Health Careers, reports that 530 people competed for the 125 freshmen slots in the nursing program this past fall, and the school is contemplating adding a night and weekend program to accommodate some students on the waiting list.

But some results are less quantifiable in the short run. Adams says the state-of-the-art nursing labs, when compared to the "dungeons" her students were taught in before, have an incalculable effect on learning. And downtown businesses are showing increased eagerness to partner with the school as their outsourced training facility, according to Linda Guzzo, dean of Continuing Education.

"We're more of an equal partner with business now; they see us as a very vibrant, high-quality, excellent resource for training," she says. The new facility has allowed Guzzo to create training programs like "Java Bootcamp" for one corporate partner, and "This Team is on the Rise," a team-building seminar that has groups making pizzas in the school's culinary arts center.

But there is a downside to all this success. The new vertical campus was only built for a 20 percent enrollment bump, and 15 percent of that was realized on opening day.

"We're a victim of our own success," Rubenzahl admits. "But that's a good problem."

Rebecca Sausner is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY.