Today after meeting with the leadership of our Academic Senate, I found myself thinking back to an address I was invited to give back in October. The Senate had been discussing the issue of re-joining a national student success network. Given recent history at LCC, there was healthy skepticism among some Senators about joining a national network again. I was invited to provide my own perspective as the new college president. My goal was to persuade Senators that re-joining a national network was worthy of our college’s effort, time and resources. Further, I hoped that the Senate would make this determination on their own in the form of a recommendation to the Provost. That is exactly what happened: a subcommittee of the Senate later recommended that the college re-join Achieving the Dream. I consider this one of the “early wins” of my time here at LCC. I don’t record many of the speeches I give, but I had a sense that this one would be important. What follows is a transcript of what I had to say when I addressed the Senate. The topic on which I was asked to speak was labeled “Perspective on Joining a National Student Success Network.”
There Is a World Elsewhere: Perspective on Joining a National Student Success Network
October 9, 2020
Thank you so much President Curtain and Senators. I really appreciate the invitation to provide my perspective. I hope you have noticed that I’ve waited to take my turn in the conversation. I’d like to take about ten minutes and be very mindful of your time. I’d also like to stay for questions and answers about what I have to say. And then, in conversation with President Curtain, I think it might be good for me to leave the meeting so you could have some frank discussion without me listening. That’s what I would like to propose so I could add my perspective.
I do feel that we would benefit from joining a national network, and I’d love to tell you why. First, I want to give you my assessment having been here for 80 days. My first assessment is that LCC has tremendous internal capacity to work on student equity issues, and as has been noted by Senators just this morning, we’re not starting from scratch. There is a lot of great thought leadership and a ton of smart people who have been doing this work for a long time. I do think, though, that we have a need to focus that activity around a consensus strategy to drive improvement. I think Senators would agree with that: there is a need to focus our efforts to make additional improvements. More than any other time in our movement—and I really do feel that we are part of a community college movement, all 1,100 of us—there’s exciting momentum and energy on this issue nationally. I do think LCC would benefit greatly from joining a national peer-drive network, and there’s a reason for that context-wise. With a relatively new Provost, who really understands this work, a brand new President, and hopefully a clean slate on institutional history regarding our initiatives on persistence and completion… we’ve got a great opportunity to move forward.
My perspective is that it’s really a false dichotomy to think of leveraging internal expertise on the one hand, and going outside to get external consultant help on the other. The truth is much more nuanced than that. That’s what I want to share with you this morning.
My background is that our internal expertise exists because of our external engagement. Our smart faculty and our great administrators have their expertise because of being engaged with other peer colleges. Because of being part of other state and regional peer groups. And for me it brings to mind a great line from the end of the soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus where Coriolanus says “There is a world elsewhere.” There is a world elsewhere, and we’re a big important part of it.
Now, as someone who studied Shakespeare, the comparison to Coriolanus should end there, because if you’ve read the play, after Coriolanus delivers that line he does a bunch of bad stuff, and then he gets assassinated, so let’s not talk about the play. But I do love the idea. There is a world elsewhere.
My approach as the new President, as I hope you’ve noticed, is to approach this issue with sensitivity. I’m still learning our academic culture. I’ve lived through this before, as a faculty leader and as an administrator on multiple campuses. As President, I’ve been careful to not get deeply involved in the grassroots effort to select a path here because I think the Senators who spoke earlier are correct: this has to be something that we all do together. And I agree with the previous comments about “buy in.” We don’t want buy in; we want to build grassroots consensus and support.
It’s my understanding that even before I came this was a live topic: trying to decide whether we should be part of a national peer network. I’d love to tell you what’s happening in these networks, because I do pay attention. These are my colleagues, and I do a lot of work nationally. First of all, the leader colleges in these networks also have great internal expertise, and I would argue that the prominent colleges in these networks have more internal expertise among faculty and staff than most. It’s not a function of needing to go outside to get experts, because these colleges really do have smart people and great things going on “in house.” And believe me, I understand the very familiar tropes in our culture about consultants, about flavor of the month, about initiative fatigue, and flash in the pan, and next big thing. I get it. But I believe that we need the community, the culture, and the resources that come with a national cohort in order to focus our efforts and to accelerate our efforts. The good initiatives out there—and there are a few of them—begin with an asset map of internal capacity. And then, they move quickly to aligning that internal capacity around common goals that need to be achieved.
The question that President Curtain asked me is “Why do I feel we need to join one of these networks?” I actually have seven reasons.
First, I do think we need the sense of national community. There’s a lot of great stuff going on, but there’s incredible energy across this country with colleges that are moving the needle on student equity.
Second, I think that joining a network like this would give us access to high impact practices. I like that term better than “best practices,” because these things are so context specific. Everything that we do is very specific to our context, and so the high impact practices on persistence and completion, and food insecurity and homelessness and the kinds of social determinants that you all know about are very rich in these networks.
Third, these networks have research staff that can extend our capacity. We’ve got a great Center for Data Science, but these networks also have researchers, and they are not run by washed up administrators. They really are researchers and peers doing this work.
Fourth, I think access to faculty peer networks is really important, particularly when they can give us different perspectives and challenge our perspectives or give us alternative viewpoints.
Fifth, any one of these networks would bring with them technical assistance and national convenings. We just finished the virtual ACCT conference, and it was not the same as being there, but those of you who attend national conferences know that these national convenings are great ways to see what’s happening at other places. Again, there is a world elsewhere, and sometimes we’re better than our peer colleges, and sometimes there are things we can learn.
Sixth, I think external accountability and benchmarking are really important. All of these networks would have leadership coaches, data coaches, and ways for us to have someone externally to help keep us honest about whether we are making progress going forward.
Seventh and finally, joining a network would bring us a common framework, a common set of tools, a set of metrics, and language to use in this important work. It brings to mind one of my favorite quotes from the statistician George Box who famously said “All models are wrong, but some models are useful.” These national networks bring with them useful models for working on these important issues.
Before I end, I want to make a few concessions. I concede that these networks are expensive, but so is a lack of student success. So is lack of completion. And I believe that gains for our students are worthy of investment. And yes, we have started and stopped things. But I do believe things are different. We have a Provost who really understands this work and is committed to this work. We have faculty who have been doing it for a long, long time. And we have a new CEO who comes from faculty, and I’ve been deeply involved in this student equity work for a long time. We’re not starting from scratch.
Let me just conclude by making a few points. From my perspective, I agree completely that we have excellent internal capacity and expertise among faculty and among administrators to do this work. We’re not just starting; we’ve been doing it for a long time. There is a sense of urgency and the time is right for us to do something more to improve student equity outcomes. I really do think we need to leverage that internal capacity and that timing by joining a larger community of scholars and researchers. I also think—and this is a side benefit—that LCC would shine in any one of these networks. We would quickly demonstrate our leadership and results, and that can have a motivating effect internally for our culture and for our students.
For me, this is really a classic “both/and” situation. We can leverage our internal capacity and the work we’ve done in the past, but we can also join the national conversation of our peers who are getting great results. By joining a national network, I think our internal expertise can be recognized, it can grow, and most importantly, that we can move to action to improve student outcomes for groups of students that are currently—despite our best efforts and history—still being left behind.