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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 April 8 - 12:00 am

EDITOR'S CORNER: Economy Dominates 89th AACC Convention

PHOENIX — It was an unmistakable twist of irony that the 89th annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges shared the Phoenix Convention Center with an auction of hundreds foreclosed homes across Arizona.

The rapid-fire call of the auctioneer — bidding on some houses started at as little as $500 — could be heard as college presidents, deans, chancellors and others took part in workshops, mingled with one another and interacted with dozens of vendors eager to sell their services to cash-strapped colleges.

The auction seemed to serve not as distraction, but as an affirmation. Community colleges across the country have been called upon as never before to help re-float a sinking economy which has shed 6 million jobs since December 2007.

Yet community colleges are facing severe challenges of their own. Classrooms are crowded. Budgets are lean. Lawmakers seeking ways to cut spending see higher education as an inviting target.  “Doing more with less” has evolved from mantra to way of life.

College leaders are guiding institutions where enrollment is spiking, employee morale is sinking and the future seems uncertain.

“We are peddling very hard trying to keep up with it all,” said Evelyn Jorgensen, president of Moberly Area Community College, located in the central part of Missouri. Her advice to her fellow college presidents? Be realistic. Be honest. Be visible.

“Don’t sugarcoat it, but don’t say these are the worst of times,” she said. “You can’t over-communicate during challenging times. The worst thing you can do is to make some hard decisions and then hide in your office.”

Jorgenson was one of five college presidents who shared their views during a workshop entitled “Leading During Challenging Times.”

They included Joe Forrester, president of the Community College of Beaver (Pa.) County. He said his college was spared a mid-year budget cut this year, but still faces a tight budget as costs rise and enrollments swell. The situation caused the college to look at all of its operations in search of savings, he said.

Key to Forrester’s approach was to welcome all elements of his college into the budget-cutting process.

“The quickest way to doom an idea is to introduce it as the president’s idea,” he said. So Forrester invited the heads of the unions into brainstorming sessions where efficiencies were discussed. Only one topic was off the table, he said: there would be no talk of layoffs.

“The faculty was involved,” Forrester said. “The service staff was involved. The trustees were involved by setting the goal. At the end of the day, it’s all about communication and the inclusion of your staff.”

Instead of slashing jobs and alienating employees, the budget-cutting group agreed on several steps, among them: restructuring the workday of custodians so it did not conflict with the academic day; printing college publications “on demand” rather than producing thousands of brochures that might never be read; and opening up part of the heavily-wooded campus to logging.

A separate session provided advice to community college leaders in dealing with state lawmakers who are managing record budget shortfalls. Arizona, for example, is facing a $3 billion budget shortfall.

Jack Scott, chancellor of California community colleges and himself a former state senator, urged his colleagues to spread their message in the halls of government, and do it loudly.

“It’s not enough for us to do a good job,” he said. “We have to tell people we’re doing a good job…you need to emphasize the economic contribution of community colleges. You need to emphasize your career and technical education programs.”

John Kavanagh is a Republican member of the Arizona House of Representatives and a professor of criminal justice studies at Scottsdale Community College. He said college representatives would do well to stress their emphasis on teaching, in contrast to the research functions that mark four-year schools. That’s what lawmakers and their constituents want, he said.

Kavanagh, however, lamented that as chairman of  the House Appropriations Committee, he no longer doles out money. Instead, he takes it away.

“I’m no longer a powerful man,” he quipped. “I’m just a dangerous man.”

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