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2012 December 10 - 12:00 am

POV: Weathering the Perfect Storm through Innovation and Commitment

I am honored, humbled and excited to be selected as Northampton Community College’s fourth president and thrilled to be celebrating the college’s 45th year.

This is a great place, an extraordinary place, a place I have already grown to love in the short time I have been here. It is a place that is notable in its focus on students, community outreach and laser-like attention to our mission.

NCC is an extraordinary institution with a culture that is the envy of many other organizations, but it is also a place that is ready and capable of becoming even better, and I see that as my work, our work, to build on all that has been accomplished and make this college nothing less than the finest community college in the country — the place that others point to as “the example of how things should be done.”

Our journey will not always be easy. The landscape of higher education is as challenging as any in recent memory.

And the landscape is changing more quickly than ever, requiring us to be more agile, nimble and responsive than ever before.

Change in technology is moving at a rate that is accelerating exponentially, requiring us to rethink how we use technological advances to maximize teaching and learning and all that we do.

There is also an increased focus on accountability — from the federal government, state government and the public. Cynicism about higher education is at an all time high. For the first time, there is public questioning about whether college is worth the cost.

And while we are the best deal you can find on the cost end, community colleges have not escaped scrutiny. In particular, we have come under fire for failing to meet community workforce needs, as well as for graduation rates that could and should be better.

We also live in a time of declining public resources. This has affected all levels of education, but it has resulted in a triple funding whammy for community colleges — reducing the state’s share of the budget and local districts’ ability to support the college at the very time when more students than ever find themselves unable to afford tuition because they or family members are out of work. This perfect storm could result in more students being excluded from higher education than at any time in recent history. We simply cannot let that happen.

The good news is our commitment to innovation, informed risk-taking, and ability to move more quickly than other types of institutions positions us well for the future.

In fact, part of what brought me to NCC was my firm belief that the most innovative, exciting, and important work of the next decade will happen at places like Northampton.

But I was also attracted by our focus on the things that I think matter most: students, our community, and working together to serve both. I wholeheartedly believe that the most successful colleges of the next decade will be defined by the clarity of their missions. And we lead the pack on that front.

Shortly after my arrival, the cabinet went away on a retreat to think “big thoughts” and discuss the characteristics of the highest performing community colleges of the 21st century. Discussion of these topics has continued as part of my “listening tour” with others who know the college well. From these conversations several themes have begun to emerge regarding potential areas of focus that will be most important in shaping our shared future.

At the top of that list are students and their success. No longer is it sufficient for community colleges to simply provide access to higher education. The open doors to higher education must not just open—they must lead to clear pathways to success. We are engaged in active conversations with school districts, universities and employers to provide a seamless transition from high school to NCC and then from us to the work world or to a four-year college.

Technology was also mentioned in nearly every conversation on my listening tour. We can and should be the community college on the leading edge of technology. At a recent workshop, Tim Molchaney, who teaches communication at Northampton, led a group discussion on flipped classrooms and rethinking how technology can enhance teaching and learning. Our student body president, Tim Semonich, has also challenged our faculty to become increasingly innovative in the use of technology in their classrooms.

In my opinion, both Tims have it right. The student of today learns differently than I did, and the eighth-grader who will be on our doorstep in a few short years learns differently than this generation, so we need to prepare for that.

A commitment to rethinking the traditional classroom, upgrading our infrastructure, and increasing integration between our online and in classroom learning will be critically important to our future. Colleges that harness technology and utilize it innovatively will be the leaders in our field.

Diversity and global engagement were also discussed frequently as strengths of NCC that we must continue to build and leverage. Diversity (international or domestic) is not something extra we do. It is an educational imperative. Our students are entering a world that is increasingly diverse, interconnected and flat. The more they understand about other cultures and the more effectively they can work with individuals, whose backgrounds are different than their own, the more successful they will become.

I am proud to be working at a college that can boast about a 63 percent growth in students of color in the last five years, and a college where the semester-to-semester persistence of our Latino students is equal to that of our Caucasian students — virtually unheard of in the higher education landscape. We are also a college that attracts international students from 43 nations around our globe. These students not only make us more diverse, they also change the nature of our classroom conversations. A political science class with a student from Dubai or Yemen inspires different conversations because those students are there. Those conversations enrich the experience for all our students.

The last potential area of focus I would like to mention is the leadership role we can and must play in economic development. This, too, has been mentioned in most of my meetings. People say we are a “college of the community.” I love that phrase.

And one of our most important roles is preparing the workforce to serve this community. One in four graduates of public high schools in Northampton County attends NCC. And unlike most other local colleges, 89 percent of our graduates stay in this community after they graduate. We are one of this community’s greatest engines for economic development.

We also believe in partnerships. If we know about a workforce or community need, we can respond to it, as shown by our partnerships with hospitals, auto dealers, dentists, school districts, and hundreds of companies and non-profit organizations who rely on us for training. We know that the leading community colleges of our time must focus on economic development, and we are committed to this path.

Faced with a changing and challenging landscape, various colleges will chose to navigate these times differently. Some will hunker down like a driver in heavy traffic putting on the brakes, but other like us will make tough decisions, go further with less fuel, like a hybrid car, and invest strategically, finding new routes in the face of traffic jams, passing others by.

It is a little audacious that we can become the finest community college in the country. I know that. But Northampton is a place fully capable of reaching this seemingly lofty position.

Let me also be clear that the metrics for assessing our success will be based not on external metrics derived at a national think tank, but by how well we serve our students and this community. We aspire to be the best not for ourselves, for our glory, or for our ego, but because it will ensure we are making the greatest difference in this community and the lives of our students.

One of the great strengths of this college is our faculty. In two of the past three years the Pennsylvania Professor of the Year has come from Northampton. That recognition came from highly respected national bodies - the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement of Education, but every student group I’ve met with — including those who were gracious hosts in the residence halls — has been quick to point out the strength of this faculty.

We also have the second largest endowment of any community college in the country. That benefits our students tremendously, and it speaks volumes about this community. People here believe in Northampton and invest in Northampton, and we are very grateful. Please know this endowment give us and our students a competitive advantage.

As I think about the transformative impact of this place, many names and many stories could be told.

Stacey Tisdale comes to mind. Stacey’s mother died when she was ten, and she dropped out of high school in the ninth grade. After drifting for many years, she made the decision to pursue the dreams she had long since abandoned. She enrolled in our GED program, learned to read and write effectively, mastered algebra, and, nurtured by our faculty and staff, grew in her own self-confidence. She succeeded in earning her GED and went on to take college courses, becoming a leader on our Monroe campus. She graduated with a business management degree in 2007, and continued her studies at East Stroudsburg University, where she completed both her bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in management and leadership in 2010 and now works as a social worker, giving back to the community that embraced her.

Let me state loud and clear that there has never been a more important time for us to invest in education than now. Education like ours dramatically changes the trajectory of the lives of students who come here.

The work we do is important work, inspiring work. I have worked in education for 35 years and have felt blessed every moment, but I have never been more motivated or focused than I feel here at NCC. The impact of what we do is palpable every single day. Thank you for providing me with this opportunity. Thank you for your welcome and thank you for what each of you will do to support this college “of the community.”

Mark Erickson, formerly president of Wittenberg University, was inaugurated as president of Northampton Community College in October. This article is adapted from his inaugural address.

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Q:  What can colleges do to become truly part of their community?
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