Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Chance for Reflection

I've just returned from several days in Baltimore at the 2013 Presidents Academy Summer Institute sponsored by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).  In my nineteen months as president this was the first opportunity that I have taken outside of Missouri to unplug from the immediacy of my surroundings and engage with 70 other community college presidents from around the country on broad topics affecting us all in higher education and the community colleges in particular.  It was time exceedingly well spent, having nothing to do with seafood and crab cakes.

Attendance at the institute was split roughly evenly between newer and veteran presidents, providing a good mix of new energy and questions and veteran experience.  Most discussions were led by active presidents faced with the same challenges and opportunities faced by the rest of us.  Sessions focused on student success and the completion agenda, the concept of disruptive innovation, entrepreneurialism, CEO/Board relations, fundraising and development, job development, innovative uses of technology, and effective leadership.  Take-aways from the sessions were many.

First and foremost, I came away from the institute with a renewed sense of the vital importance of the community colleges in the overall landscapes of education K-16, regional and national economic development, and the personal growth and transformation of our students.  It becomes too easy in our daily business of enrolling and retaining students, solving developmental education riddles, and making financial ends meet to forget that the community college model works - perhaps better than any other in transitioning our learners from where they are to where they aspire to be.  It is easy to lose sight of the transformative nature of our work with students, businesses, and communities.  And we can forget sometimes just how large a vacuum would exist and for how many if institutions like SCC ceased to exist.

Those we serve have come to rely on us for our accessibility, quality, and adaptability - and for our utter commitment to making the communities in which we reside better places to live, to learn, and to work.  No other sector in education takes on the multitude of roles that we play, something I am still learning well into my second year as a community college president.

Secondly, I came away from the institute with the affirmation that those colleges and presidents in it for the long haul - those most able to adapt to the changing needs around them - are those with a willingness to ask questions and seek answers about their relevance and to innovate and create to meet real needs based on those answers.  I feel - and I hope that others do as well - that this is what we have been doing at SCC in our long range planning work these past months.  Asking questions, seeking answers, identifying new ways to innovate and create to meet new needs.

Third and more personally I came away humbled as an individual and as a president.  I have joked with members of Cabinet that I met at least three longtime presidents whom I aspire to be when I grow up.  But this is only partly a joke.  The presidents in question have spent decades earning the trust of those they work with, they have maintained a positive inertia and outlook, they have stayed the course as communicators and listeners, and they have, in the words of one, "led with love, and without regret."  I'd like to be that president - now, five years from now, ten years from now.  I intend to be that president.

Two resources that I have come back with and that I will share in the coming months are Simon Sinek's "Start With Why" and President Sandy Shugart's "Crucible of Work: Discovering the Inner Life of an Authentic Leader."  The first of these asks us to constantly ask ourselves the 'why' of what we do.  Why is it important, to whom, and in what ways.  Again, I feel that we have been engaged in a 'why' conversation throughout our long range planning work this year and last.  The second is a reminder and a guide - a reminder of what it means to lead and a guide to how to do that well and with authenticity and love.

I will plan to share more from the institute when links are provided to sessions and materials.  These are not useful just to presidents, but to all of us in this shared work that we do.  I will also plan to weave the thread of much of this into our conversations at All College Day, where we will plan to spend some time talking about what it means to be powered by purpose, driven by meaning, and motivated by caring.  I look forward to this conversation and am proud to serve in an institution and with people who embrace these things as givens in our everyday work and lives.

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