The Elephant in the Room

Below are my remarks to the Academic Senate on Friday, February 25, 2021. I was invited to address the Senate after a very productive meeting with Provost Sally Welch, President Del Castillo and Vice President Lee. I decided to transcribe my remarks and share them with the wider college audience and for posterity.

Life at the Zoo (book cover)
As a fun illustration for this entry, I have included the cover of my uncle Phil Robinson’s book Life at the Zoo: Behind the Scenes with the Animal Doctors (Columbia University Press, 2007).

Elephants in the Room

Address to the LCC Academic Senate 2021-02-25

Thank you so much, President Del Castillo. I’m delighted to be here. I want to thank President Del Castillo, Vice President Lee and all Senators. Before I deliver some prepared remarks that I have, I just want to give one more thumbs up to our student senators. Those were great presentations. It’s wonderful to hear from you: very professional, and an awesome way to start the day. Thank you, student Senators.

This is my third address to the Senate. The first time, I was invited here to introduce myself and share my vision for the college. The second time, you’ll recall I was very specifically invited to share my perspective on joining a national student success initiative, and I have a few more thoughts to share with you about that in a minute. Today, President Del Castillo has asked me to address the issues of collaboration, transparency, governance and the phrase that she used, “the elephant in the room.”

I’ve never stopped being an English teacher, so in preparation for today I walked over to our library to consult our idiom dictionaries. We actually have about half a dozen idiom dictionaries. (You are going to be blown away by the library renovations, by the way. I was just there yesterday. It’s gorgeous.) You’ll get a kick out of the fact that all of the idiom dictionaries in our library, none of them have a definition for “elephant in the room,” which I think is simultaneously ironic and a little funny. Here’s the definition of that idiom from the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and Thesaurus: “if you say there’s an elephant in the room, you mean that there’s an obvious problem or difficult situation that people don’t want to talk about.”  So, it’s a little funny that it’s not in our dictionaries. But the reason President Del Castillo used this phrase is not funny, so I’d like to share some of my reflections on that point.

On January 27th, Dr. Welch and I met with President Del Castillo and Vice President Lee, and as she told you at the last senate meeting, the Provost and I spent a lot of time listening. We listened for 45 minutes. I took four pages of notes, and I’ll tell you what I heard.

We heard about these elephants in the room that have developed over many years of history. President Del Castillo talked about collateral damage; she said that there was a feeling among faculty of being unvalued, unheard, and disenfranchised; she talked about trauma, hurt, and pain; she mentioned a revolving door of administrators, and characterized past initiatives at the college as being “flavor of the month.”  I’ve heard this in other places: a perception that LCC does not finish what it starts. She talked for a while about the past developmental education resolution and activities around it that she characterized as ugly and hurtful.

I was really happy to listen, and as you know, I’ve spent a good chunk of my first seven months doing a lot of listening. I obviously had thoughts and responses to what President Del Castillo had to say, but I just listened, and I was happy to do so.  I used the active listening skills that I’ve learned and taught over the years, and then I repeated what I heard just like I repeated it for you just now.  And when I verified that I had heard correctly, I shared some of my thoughts and responses. So, I’d like to share some of those with you now.

From my first day on campus, I have tried to act in a way that draws a sharp contrast between my own leadership style and that of my predecessor. I was pretty upfront and direct about that during my first visit here to the senate. In every presentation and interview—particularly when I was asked about things like facilities or placemaking or public art—I tried to make that clear. I have an example. In August, I was interviewed by Kristen Beltzer, and I want to repeat to you what I said back on August 11th regarding this point. I said:

“Now for me…  I love that stuff. At my previous college, I had a hard hat and I did that kind of construction. That will not be my primary focus. I’m really interested in making sure we do two things. First, that we innovate in teaching and learning, because we’ve got amazing faculty and wonderful programs. They’re designed for student success, so that’s going to be a primary emphasis for me. That comes naturally to me because I was a classroom teacher for so many years. I’m also interested in making sure we do all the work we need to do on our culture, and that culture involves good relationships within our campus. Also paying attention to important issues like diversity, equity and inclusion.”

If you’ve been in many meetings with me, you’ve heard me say this. An important part of communicating is being consistent, and I’ve said this very same thing dozens of times over the past several months because it’s what I believe. I’ve always judged a new leader on what they did, not what they decided to criticize about the person who came before them. From the very beginning, my efforts have been directed at acting, demonstrating, and showing how I’m different and how my approach is different. So specifically for senators: without being defensive, I believe that there’s been more authentic engagement of the academic senate in the past six months than there had been in the previous six years. I’ve appreciated everyone who’s reached out to me and noticed that I attend these meetings, that I listen, and that our team does the same thing.

I believe that our decision to rejoin Achieving the Dream is a case study in this. On October 9th, at the invitation of this body, I came to the senate and delivered a 10-minute speech that I called “There Is a World Elsewhere.”   I published that speech on my blog, because I’m proud of what I said. More than that, I’m proud of what we did. In the face of skepticism and “elephants in the room,” this body listened to me, and I felt authentically heard. A subcommittee of this body later recommended that we rejoin AtD, and as I pointed out before… that wasn’t a directive. I came here and used my skills and experience from the classroom, my training in rhetoric and composition, to persuade. And we followed it up with listening sessions and dialogue about what has been done in the past and what the focus should be going forward. We’ve also discussed, conferred, and acted upon issues brought up here at the senate, including things like Foundations for Success and non-credit ESOL. Again, my team and I come here, we listen and act. As we talked about just a moment ago, our strategic planning refresh process includes leadership positions for senators for each focus area, and we’ve had input from senators on our Equity Action Plan included in our numerous presentations to the board since I’ve been here. To me, this is shared governance. You really don’t have to guess what I think about shared governance. I’ve had conversations, individual conversations, with many of you on the topic. During the question and answer at my first address when I first arrived here at the senate, we talked about it. And when I was a candidate for the presidency, I wrote several essays as part of the search process. One of them was on shared governance. In that essay, I outlined the history of the concept. I analyzed the famous 1966 AAUP statement; I talked about my career-long experience with it. I won’t bore you with it: you can read it. I published it on my blog.

I guess the bottom line from my perspective is kind of an outcomes statement. As someone who served as an HLC Accreditation Liaison Officer for 10 years, it’s clear to me that here at LCC we not only meet but exceed the Commission’s Criteria for Accreditation on shared governance, as well as the Assumed Practices. Now, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t improve and work for greater collaboration and transparency. I hope that you’ve seen the members of my team and me working toward that over the past seven months. I can honestly tell you after being here for more than half a year: this is who I am. There’s an old computer term WYSIWYG: what you see is what you get. This is it. If you’ve liked what’s been going on over the last six months, that’s good because this is what I’ve got. I’ve worked hard every day to be the guy that I said I was during the search process. And regarding revolving door: I didn’t leave a successful presidency in another state to walk through a revolving door. I meant it when I came here at the beginning and told the senate that I didn’t plan to reorganize or rearrange, and I haven’t. I presented myself as someone who listens, empowers team members, celebrates the contributions and accomplishments of others, enthusiastically tells our story to anybody who will listen, and considers myself a student of our history and our culture.

I just want to say that I have appreciated the faculty and staff who have reached out to me expressing appreciation for the fact that my team and I attend these meetings, expressing an appreciation that my enthusiasm and the excitement of our team is real. Because it is. I have appreciated the recognition of our team’s increased communication and consultation through email and blogs and videos and all that.

In closing, I guess my biggest thought is that the there’s only an elephant in the room if you don’t talk about it. If you think back to what the idiom really means, it’s only an elephant if you avoid the subject. In my brief time here, I hope I’ve demonstrated my commitment to collaboration and transparency through action. I’ve been working to change our culture, and so is our team. I haven’t been doing this alone. This is an amazing group of people, and I just want to say to the folks who report to me on the senior team: I have never asked people to work harder in more extraordinary circumstances. I would hope that the senate would have an appreciation for the amount of time and care that our team puts into making sure that LCC is doing what it’s supposed to do.

This is a really interesting time to be working as hard as my team members have been, and I’m very appreciative of them.

When I first came here, I talked to our labor coalition, and I repeated what I said to them on the first day of the senate.

(By the way, speaking of our great labor partners: our commitment to interest-based bargaining and mutual gains is also a fantastic example of collaboration and transparency.)

You’ll remember that I told the labor leaders that I hope we could build some trust and relationships that would withstand the first major disagreement, because that kind of debate and disagreement is inevitable in the work that we do. During the PA Days, someone asked me and others what needed to change with our culture. I went out on a limb a little bit, and I said that I had picked up on a little bit of an “us versus them” mentality here at LCC. I received some really nice and appreciative feedback from faculty and staff about that answer. A number of people have told me that they want to work to change that.

I am also a realist. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I know that when that first disagreement comes, there will be those who’ll say “see, nothing ever changes;” “see, it’s the same as it ever was.” And there might even be some people who never feel that things improve or change. But I firmly believe that in the not so distant future, most faculty and staff here at our college will reflect on our culture and think: “you know what? Things have improved; this place does feel different; I’m hopeful; I’m excited; I’m optimistic.” Looking around my computer screen right now at the faces in this meeting, some of you have already said that.

I hope you can tell that our entire team listens intently when we come here. Dr. Welch and I listened very intently to President Del Castillo and Vice President Lee when we had our meeting.

I want to thank you again for your opportunity to address the senate, and I would be happy to stay for any questions. Thanks for your attention.