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2014 February 17 - 12:00 am

POV: Putting Wings on Dreams

It is a delight to lead Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) at this time in its history. We serve nearly 60,000 students each and every year, preparing the residents of Cleveland and northeastern Ohio for productive careers and continued education.

As I have engaged in numerous meetings with prominent leaders in our community since I became president in July 2013, I have been humbled by the immense outpouring of support for our institution and our mission.

While this support is rooted in a history far larger than any one person, I nonetheless have the distinct pleasure of following the path of three distinguished individuals who have been committed to the leadership of this great institution.

Charles Chapman, our founding president, truly did the impossible in creating this college out of whole cloth. He presided over our first levy, our first day of classes and the construction of our first campuses.

Nolen Ellison, our second president, led the college to greater technological achievements and established this institution as a Beacon of Hope on the Great Lakes.

And Jerry Sue Thornton, who served as president of Tri-C for nearly half of its history, propelled the college to national prominence as a leader of innovation that enables students to catch dreams for the future. She developed an institution of world-class facilities and unparalleled faculty and staff.

As I reflect on my three predecessors, my goal is not only to follow in their footsteps but also to build on the rich foundation of educational excellence that they have laid along the way. But this responsibility arrives at a challenging time in our nation’s history. The educational attainment of Americans age 25 to 34 years-old is ranked 16th among developing countries.

Unless we can improve this ranking, America’s ingenuity, innovation, and competitive edge are jeopardized. Without a trained and educated workforce, the nation’s economic vitality may be threatened as well. And beneath the statistics, on a personal level, millions of Americans have dreams of a better future that are unfairly deferred.

In response to this new form of “A Nation at Risk,” the country’s government and educational organizations have sounded a call to action. They have proposed that by 2020, America’s post-secondary institutions will produce 10 million more graduates, an increase of 50 percent over 2010. Nowhere has this clarion call been heard more loudly than at the nation’s community colleges, whose collective goal is to help reclaim the American dream by redesigning, reinventing and resetting to tackle this completion agenda.

We are striving to do a better job to get our students the degrees and certificates they seek in a timely manner, and then guide them toward meaningful careers or four-year universities. We are working, quite simply, to put wings on their dreams.

We are focusing on five key priorities at Cuyahoga Community College to produce 13,000 more graduates, our contribution to the nation’s 2020 goal. First, the mission of Cuyahoga Community College has always been about educational access. But the focus on completion has been strengthened. We are working with our K-12 partners to ensure that students are prepared for college coursework without becoming mired in developmental education. We are developing innovative approaches, in and out of the classroom, to ensure that students connect with the College, take responsibility for their own education, and have the tools they require to succeed. I am excited by the collaborative environment between our faculty and administrators as we seek to solve these difficult problems together and rejoice together over our successes.

Second, we are working more closely with employers to ensure that we are providing our students with degrees and certificates that have labor market value. We are preparing a generation of workers to meet the workforce needs of a new era. We are fighting to reduce the gap between available jobs and the people with skills to fill them, a gap estimated to be 17 to 25 percent.

Third, as the landscape of information is also changing rapidly in Greater Cleveland and around the world, we are adapting to present the college in effective and innovative ways. We have become more proactive in our approach to our media partners, telling loudly and clearly the stories of our successes and promoting transparency about our challenges. We are adapting our marketing to new interactive media in order to most effectively meet our region’s residents where they are. And we are expanding our internal communications to ensure that our own college community can engage in productive dialog about our priorities and actions.

Fourth, we must continuously prioritize our resources for the benefit of our students. This is especially important as funding from public sources, particularly the state, becomes increasingly tenuous. Nationally, community college students pay 50 to 60 percent of the cost of their education. At Cuyahoga Community College, that figure is 33 percent. We must ensure that we maintain that percentage to preserve the affordability of a Tri-C education. At the same time, we are maintaining and developing the facilities and technologies that are required for the competitive education our students need and deserve. To do this, we must be more entrepreneurial. We are seeking out additional funding opportunities. We are maintaining and growing the support of foundations and employers as we partner together.

And, finally, of course, Tri C has a strong legacy of collaboration and engagement with our community. That must continue to be carefully nurtured and grown, as we seek increased partnerships with educational, business, government and non-profit institutions for the benefit of our students.

Undergirding these five priorities are the perspectives I have formed along my journey. My segregated childhood contributed to my desire to foster inclusion, fairness and the opportunity for individual attainment at each of the institutions I have been responsible for. I believe in making opportunities for leadership open to all. These opportunities shape and enrich an individual’s life and the future of our institutions; our personal lives shape who we are as professionals, and our professional lives shape our institutions.

A Tri-C education must not just be about learning how to weld, or care for patients, or manage a business or even to succeed at college. It must be those things, but a Tri-C education must go beyond them. We have to be about the business of preparing successful citizens who situate themselves in the larger context of our community.

Cuyahoga Community College has touched the lives of 900,000 individuals. Over the next 50 years, we will touch the lives of hundreds of thousands more. The vast majority remain in our community. But the future of this college, and, in fact, our nation, depends on empowered, responsible students with dreams bigger than themselves, who not only live in their communities but also live for their communities.

I was raised by my parents, James and Betty Davis, to respect work and to persevere, and encouraged by my maternal grandparents, Willie and Marion Johnson, to honor educational excellence and civic engagement. I stand on their shoulders and the shoulders of so many individuals who in the past marched, sat-in and died for the freedom that I enjoy today. The question is now: Are our shoulders broad enough to support subsequent generations in their quest for their dreams, for this educational achievement, personal enlightenment and transformed communities?

If we can provide this foundation as Tri-C enters its next half century, it will enable us, individually and collectively, to solve our nation’s most pressing problems. We will lift up those less fortunate, and ensure that all people, regardless of their backgrounds or life circumstances, have a chance at productive, meaningful lives.

We will help them form these dreams.

And then we will give the dreams wings, and watch them take flight.

Alex Johnson is president of Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) in Cleveland, Ohio. He previously was president of the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, chancellor of Delgado Community College in New Orleans and president of Tri-C’s Metropolitan Campus. He is a member of the board of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). He serves on AACC’s 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges and is co-chair of its Implementation Committee. This article is adapted from his Nov. 21, 2013 inaugural address as he became Tri-C’s fourth president.

This article is the continuation of a series authored by principals involved in National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between NAU’s Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to mbmathis@national.edu or, call 512-813-2300. It’s Your Turn CCW wants to hear from you!

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