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GatorCast Ep. 21: Reshaping the Future - Overcoming Challenges in Times of Change (Part 1)

By College Relations and the Office of the President, October 7, 2020

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Episode Transcript: 

President Johnson: Welcome to GatorCast, the official podcast of Green River College, where we share conversations with the community about topics that are relevant to you. I'm Suzanne Johnson, President of the college. My guest today is Randy Van Wagoner, President of Mohawk Valley Community College in New York and the author of "Competing on Culture: Driving Change in Community Colleges." This is part one of conversation that was recorded prior to the COVID-19 epidemic. If there was ever a time that a podcast was relevant, it's now in terms of what we talked about. We had an opportunity to talk about the importance of community colleges and the role that they play, especially in times of challenge. I hope you all enjoy this conversation today with Dr. Randy Van Wagoner, President of Mohawk Valley Community College.

President Johnson: Randy Van Wagoner, or President Van Wagoner, I should say, we have been talking about getting you on this podcast for over a year. I am so excited to finally have you here today on GatorCast. How many years have you been president at Mohawk Valley Community College?

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: I'm in my 13th year here at Mohawk Valley Community College. It's great to be here. Thanks for the invitation.

President Johnson: I'm delighted that you're here. Lots to talk about. I like to ask some similar questions of all of our guests this season on GatorCast, but I know we're probably gonna get to some really interesting conversation today about community colleges and the inner workings of community colleges and how we best serve students and communities that we reside in. And I'm just really eager to jump into this. 13 years is a notable number, my friend. Well done, you.

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Thank you.

President Johnson: And well done for the college as well. I know that you've done a tremendous amount of work. Your faculty and staff at the college have done a tremendous amount of work in the context of partnership toward greater student success and service to the communities. And I know we'll get to that in a little while in our conversation, but for now I love to start with the same kinds of questions for all of our guests. It helps, we have student listeners here and they're always asking questions about how do you become a college president or how does somebody become this kind of position or that kind of position. And I think it's always interesting to share life stories in terms of how people end up in the roles that they have. It's not always linear and it's not always predicted even by the person who's in the role. So without further ado, who are you? Where are you from? What's your life story? How'd you get there?

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: I'll do my best in a nutshell. That whole notion of like so many community college professionals, I am a first generation college student. Neither of my parents went to college, but college was understood that I was going. My brother pushed back on them and he did not go to college, but he's very successful business person. I did not have that business acumen. And so I basically went to school so that I could play sports. I was not interested in the academic side very much, but played lots of sports and-

President Johnson: Which sort of sports?

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Golf and basketball were the big two, baseball for a little while for school. I grew up just outside of Flint, Michigan, and my golf coach, I explored some four year schools, but they all didn't feel great to me necessarily. I don't know I was ready to leave home just yet. And my golf coach encouraged me to talk to the golf coach at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan. And I ended up playing both golf and basketball for one year. Again, not knowing anything about anything, then my golf coach encouraged me to go to Oakland University just outside of Detroit. Thought I was good enough to work on the golf team there, which I did. So I was able to play, eventually got a scholarship and majored in communications like most of the golf team did 'cause we traveled a lot and most of us majored in communications. And when my senior year, I was able to get a resident assistant position that gave me free room and board, got me connected to the residence life staff, that encouraged me, found me a way to get an on-campus job in the dean of students office. And literally five months before graduating college with zero plan, the dean of students asked me what I was gonna do. I said I have no idea. With my communications degree, and unemployment in Detroit was at 14% at that time. You don't realize these things. I actually went back and looked things up of what the economy was like in Southeastern Michigan back then and in the late '80s, early '90s. And it was pretty bad, I guess, at 14%. So anyway, he said, if you like being around the college, being at college, working at a college is a pretty good gig. And you might wanna look at going to grad school for it. Sounds like you liked your time at the community college. You only need a master's degree to teach at a community college. As much as I didn't like school, I thought, well, I'll go to grad school and long story, get into the University of Michigan, which was way beyond my wildest dreams. And thought I was gonna get a master's in communications to teach and through a sequence of events, I ended up in front of Dick Alfred, a Professor of Higher Education in the School of Education at Michigan. My building director at Michigan, 'cause I was a resident director there, she said, you should talk to my husband, Dick Alfred. He is one of the leading community college academics. And I'm like what does that even mean? She said he studies community colleges as complex organizations. So I met with him and he said, "Oh, you don't wanna teach. You wanna be an administrator." It's a much more dynamic and much more dynamic career with incredible possibilities. And if you stick with me, you'll be a president. You'll either have my job, training presidents or you'll be a president by the time you're 40. And I was 22 at the time. So I just said, okay.

President Johnson: How'd that all resonate with you?

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: I didn't have a plan, so he gave me one. And said, stick with me kid and it'll happen. And I said, where do I start? And he said, "Well, if you want a job in community colleges, you should start an institutional research because community colleges don't know anything about themselves and you'll learn the entire operation because every department needs data." And that was 1990.

President Johnson: Now that's an interesting statement. Community colleges don't know anything about themselves. What did he mean by that?

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Very few community colleges had institutional research offices at the time. So we really didn't have a lot of data, all we really had, many community colleges, they would have their registrar's office or admissions office do admissions analysis of their enrollment because at the time, all that really mattered was enrollment, which I found out to be true. So just as I finished my master's, I started in institutional research at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor and they were just opening an institutional research office and I worked there for two years. And when you look back at the type of mentors the universe puts in front of you. Jackie Andrews was the director of this institutional research office. And she would literally take me to most every one of her meetings or many of her meetings. And as we'd walk across campus, she would explain the dynamics and intentions of what she hoped to get out of this meeting. And then I would kind of observe and be there to support her or whatever. And then our way back across campus, she would ask me what I observed and how things, just helped me connect the dots on how organizations work and the culture and the relationships of the organization. And I worked there for two years, and then my wife and I got married and we moved out to Denver with no jobs. Denver had five community colleges. So I was hoping I'd land somewhere and my wife was a nurse. So we had that to anchor us. And I was able to get the, Red Rocks Community College was opening a new institutional research office. So in terms of just there in four years, I worked at two community colleges that were opening institutional research offices. So Dick Alfred's patience of saying get into institutional research 'cause it's a growing component of community colleges could not have been more accurate with foresight. And so I became the Director of Institutional Research and Planning. Again, landed in a place that was just incredible. The senior leadership team fostered five future community college presidents. So I was there at 26 years old with all of them around me and me serving them and their data needs. We reorganized and I became a registrar for one year and then we had echo reorganization and I became the Chief Student Affairs Officer on that registrar position. The average age of our students was 31 and I was 29. I was basically the dean of students and I was two years younger than the average student. So I'm learning very fast. The President, Dorothy Horrell, took some wonderful chances on me, and with that senior leadership team of mentors all around me, it was a pretty incredible time. And then I got a call from Dick Alfred back at Michigan, who said he was talking to the president at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, who was looking for a new chief academic officer and was going through a lot of change. And they'd gone through six academic VPs in eight years. And they got talking about... He wanted something different, someone with a different angle to lead academics. And I said, does he know that I've never taught in a classroom? And then kind of one step after the next, I interviewed over the summer and got the job. There were more people in, I went from 7,000 students at Red Rocks to over 10,000 students at Metro in Omaha. Very complex, not only jumped the fence from student affairs to academic affairs but a much more complex organization with three campuses and four centers, seven unions, seven bargaining units. And lo and behold, I ended up being their longest-serving academic VP, staying there for eight years. And then a friend who I worked with at Red Rocks, one of those mentors who became a president, he was at Broome Community College here in New York. We just published an article together a few years back and called me out of the blue and said, I think you should apply for this job at Mohawk Valley Community College. I know you have a young family, it's a very stable place. The president of 24 years is retiring and you should look into it. And lo and behold, I went through the process and landed here as the fifth president in over 70 years. Very stable, amazing place, reminds me a lot of home in Michigan. And I've been here ever since.

President Johnson: Now, if I'm doing my math correctly, you became a college president then before you were 40 or around 39, yeah?

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Right at my 39th birthday.

President Johnson: Okay, so now I never had the pleasure of knowing Dick Alfred, but apparently he's got a really accurate magic apple. 22, hey, get educated, follow these opportunities, and you'll be a college president by the time you're 40 years of age. I mean, was that really something that you aimed at, that you strove for, that you wanted that?

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Not in the least. So many presidents that I would talk to, being around Dick Alford got a lot of exposure to community college presidents. And I got to ask them, what's the hardest thing? Do you have any regrets? And the number of community college presidents I met, who were divorced, sometimes second and third marriages because they had to move around a lot, looking back, the position really can take a toll on the family and on personal relationships. So I always wanted to make my marriage and my family a priority that we wouldn't move unless it worked for the family. And fortunately, my wife with a nursing background, and now with a master's in Community Health, she's a grant writer, so very flexible career for her. I always said I would watch it very closely, one step. As a dean, do I wanna be a VP? And I'll proceed very cautiously. As a VP, do I wanna be a president? And the question was, I'd either be a VP for 20 years in Omaha, or do we move before our daughters got too old so that we could make one move while they're in elementary school and hope that everything clicks? And our youngest just graduated last year from high school. So we hit our goal of keeping the girls in a stable environment while they went through primary and secondary school.

President Johnson: It's an amazing journey of showing the importance of networking, in some ways being in the right place at the right time, having the opportunity to see in front of you the potential mentors or individuals that are there in your world for you to make good use of so to speak. For the student listeners here, I think one of the things that really resonated with me in terms of Randy's story is the people that were in his life at different times and how those provided opportunities and being open to trying things out. Some advice.

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: I talk to our students a lot about every chance I get to say, if someone here at the college tells you to go meet with somebody else at the college, particularly, if they put themselves out there and introduce you via email or tell you where to go and make a phone call, follow up on that, and walk through that door because you never know. We had a partnership a few years back, a very big window of time with Wayne State University in Detroit, where they were trying to build up their out-of-state transfer pipeline. And they offered two free scholarships, full-ride scholarships for our students, waiving everything. And we gave a call out to our Phi Theta Kappa students. And we only had seven students show up, but two of those seven got full-ride scholarships. And both of them ended up... One ended up going all the way through Wayne State Medical School and is a doctor today.

President Johnson: Wonderful.

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: And the other one ended up getting his MBA. He got an internship at Ford in Detroit and Ford paid for his masters, and he's got a great job at Ford. And it's all because they showed promise here. Our Phi Theta Kappa advisors saw promise in them and they answered the call. It's that classic Joseph Campbell's hero's journey. When the hero gets the call to adventure and the key is to that call and see where the universe takes you.

President Johnson: This has come up in some other podcasts, The Season, when we talk about taking risks and taking a chance and learning how to just do it afraid, you might be a little nervous. You might be a little anxious or uncertain about how it might turn out. Oh, should I call that person? Or should I follow up on that email? I'm afraid. Well, the difference between people who do and don't isn't that some people have fear and some people don't. It's that some are able to say, I'm gonna do it afraid anyway.

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Yeah, that's exactly it. It's okay to scare yourself sometimes.

President Johnson: It is okay. So 13 years in the current role, that's a remarkable number, when we look at community colleges nationally these days. There's a statistic and you'd probably know whether this is more accurate than I would, but the average tenure of a community college president right now is between three and five years.

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Yeah, it's remarkable.

President Johnson: It is remarkable. And your comment about the type of toll, the sort of role, as a community college president, can take on a person's personal life in terms of family and marriages. I'm in my third year here this year at Green River. I'm every day grateful to have been given this opportunity. And every year has been, I think, more exciting, as I get to know this institution and hope to be able to be here for many, many years ahead. And thinking about transitions at institutions, it's hard when leadership changes at a college. It's hard for everyone, and try to have an institution stay fluid and stable and consistent and focused on their mission and their values when you have frequent turnover at the top, so to speak, it can be very disruptive. And I'm gonna wanna touch on that some too, when we get to your recent publication. So 13 years offers you, I think, a great deal of experience and perspective now in terms of how you would describe those 13 years from the beginning to where you are now and how the priorities in your work might have changed. So reflecting back on the 13 years that you've been at Mohawk, are there phases that you experienced with the college in your role? And I guess the similar or parallel question I'd like to ask you is have you observed phases of the institution as they've acquired years with you as their president?

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Yeah, very much so. And I briefly touched on it in my book, but it's the classic. As soon as I finished the book, all of this crystallized and I was almost ready to write more about it. So now I speak more about it, of these phases of how the culture evolves. Culture was here when I got here. It was what it was with an institution founded in 1846. But also kind of paralleled a little bit experience both as a dean and then as a vice president where these phases of leadership and I typically am tethered to a little bit of a longer period timeline, that the first phase, and definitely here at the institutional level, I'd say for two years, I would describe the first two years is I was surfacing the culture. I was just trying to understand the place and listen, and see how people behaved and learn from that. And maybe in years three and four, kind of touch the culture with some low risk, but high impact changes like these design teams that looked at some key systems to make recommendations and make those changes. And then in years five and six, after surfacing culture, and then touching the culture, then it really felt like moving the culture a little higher risk, higher impact, changes, more changes, more activity that then the following two years in seven and eight, really started to get results. Not that it didn't have results in the first six years, but really dramatic results in measurable things like student success and graduation rates and seeing real success markers that created a sense of momentum that in years nine and 10, I like to say that organizational flywheel, it's Jim Collins, the buildup to break through that about 10 years to feel a palpable change deep in the culture, you could feel change in the first couple of years just 'cause I was different and things were moving differently. The palpable deep change was almost 10 years. And when I say momentum, these last three years, to be honest, it almost feels like I'm just playing catch up with the faculty and staff there. They're moving things so fast that my first year, I literally attended every meeting of the Academic Calendar Committee to figure out how we were going to adjust our academic calendar. Do we start before or after labor day in the minutia, just to see how the place behaved, what the issues were, what were the priorities of the people at the time? And then now I find myself going to a conference or something and saying, oh, this is a new, big idea. We need to be on this. And I'll follow up with a staff member to say, we need to look more into it. And they've already put out an RFP, a request for proposals, for some new technology or they've written a grant centered around whatever big idea that I thought I was bringing to the table. So they're already on it. So that's a very different feel than when I first arrived.

President Johnson: So I wanna recap some of the things and circle back to you on a couple of these things. So I've sort of mapped out five or six phases that you described in the 13 years with Mohawk and the first two years, I guess we'd call it phase one, just skimming the surface. You were just trying to get to understand the culture that had adopted you in. And I can totally relate to that in terms of, I'm just in the middle of my third year here with the college, and I'm feeling like for the first two years, that is a huge amount of activity that I would say I was engaging in. And then phase two, you described as just touching the culture a little bit in years three and four. And I think we're in that here, where there are things that we are looking at Guided Pathways to development of teaching and learning center, which obviously supports Guided Pathways and our student completion rates. And of course supports our faculty and staff. And there are some big, I guess, I would say big ticket items that we're now able to talk through, but what's also striking to me as you phase out some other time periods in terms of year five and six, in terms of maybe pushing a little bit more collectively, it's not like you're doing this individually.

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Exactly

President Johnson: The college is along with you, right? And it's year seven, eight that you started to see some marked differences or you started to see results. And then by years nine and 10, there was a palpable, deep change. And I really wanna emphasize that to our college listeners. And we have staff faculty who listened to this and we have also community members and actually people across the country because you can listen to GatorCasts on all the typical platforms we have out there in terms of podcasts subscriptions. And what's interesting to me is the eagerness that everyone at the college, including me, has for getting to a different place than we are. And you can define getting to a different place in a thousand different ways, that has different meanings, depending on what area of the college you're in and where you are in a particular officer division, where you'd like to be. And I think we can underestimate the amount of time it takes among humans in relationships and communication and interactions to really produce these marked, as you say, palpable, deep improvements. And I'm wondering what your... So I'm saying that for a couple of reasons, one to set up the question I'm about to ask you, but the other to remind myself and also others at the college about the importance of patience and consistency and perseverance and persistence in terms of keeping our eyes on the prize. We know where the big goal ends might be. And it will probably likely take far longer than we would like it to, or that we think it should to get to that place. But to not, this is a marathon, these aren't sprints, right?

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Yeah, correct.

President Johnson: So I'm saying it for that reason, but here's the setup to the question. Why do you think it takes so long to have these deep, palpable improvements at a college even when those changes can be things that in year one, people can articulate? We want this to be better in the following ways, and they can list off all the things they wanna have different and better. Why does it take so long?

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Human beings are involved and you go back to the cave dwelling times of humans and a change in our environment could mean death. So it does not come naturally to us. So context is extremely important. And a great example is when I was first hired and my appointment was announced here, after going through the interview process, a staff member came to me and said she was so excited that I was selected. And she said, you're gonna change us. We need you to change, you'll change us. So two years in, when I started to touch the culture and create some changes, she was one of the ones that struggled the most because the change was directly affecting her. So that notion of we need change but then, well, it depends on what kind of change you're talking about and how much it's gonna affect me. So context is so important for people to be able to connect how the change that's impacting their day-to-day work at the college connects to this larger context for change. And I think it depends on the culture and the organizational readiness, a place that maybe has seen a fair amount of change already because of a presidential churn of... Say our college had three presidents in the last eight years. Well, they get changed, but it just hasn't been very coordinated change. So you might be able to accelerate those phases by just having better strategic and coordinated change. The change itself isn't a problem. It's about being coordinated. So you may be able to take those five phases, and instead of two years per phase, you could do that one year per phase, where an organization like MVCC had had the same president for 24 years. So any change was just significant. What would seem like a small change to some other places, it was more significant here because there had been such stability here for so long.

President Johnson: Sure, that phrase is so interesting that you shared, we need you to change us. I'm not sure that I've had that explicit statement shared with me, but similar phrases. And I've worked really hard with the college. And we have an amazing faculty here. We have an amazing staff here. The heart and soul, the commitment of everyone here who's at Green River is like nothing I've ever experienced all in a good way. And I'm finding some of the most important work at our institution, as you were talking about, the human animal, right? Some of the most important work that we're all needing to do is to improve our communication, build experiences, no matter how small that help build or re-energize trust and respect, opportunities to listen. I mean, authentically listen to people's opinions and viewpoints and thoughts and feelings to build a cultural stability again for the institution so that we can, in more coordinated ways, move forward.

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Looking back over the 13 years here, when I think about culture and change, I come back to levers. Like if I knew the levers on the front end, that I've only been able to really learn in retrospect after following instincts and the best research I could find through readings and whatever is, early in a president's tenure, when you have so much, you can change anything, and everybody wants to change something, but very few wanna change the same thing. So how do you prioritize change? And it's a matter of...

President Johnson: Right, or there are many things that we can all agree that need to be changed. And so in what order and what can we do simultaneously and so, all right?

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Exactly, and so what are those levers that will lead to better change that you can rush off and change these job descriptions over here and put this new function in without seeing that if we would have paid more attention to making sure we have our onboarding, our professional development, and new employee onboarding strong and an infrastructure of professional development. And let's pay attention to supervisor training very early.

President Johnson: Well, any of the listeners from the college that's listening to this list, they're gonna say, oh my goodness, we're talking about all of these things. And depending on what meetings you've been in, I mean, some people who are listening are in all of these meetings and they're like, oh my goodness, these are all the things we're talking about at one time. It's like you're reading the mind of Green River college because there are conversations about all of these things happen.

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Well, when I had the wonderful opportunity to be there last year, it was evident that there are a lot of forward thinkers. And I think a real challenge is how do you align the passion because what can be seen as huge debates and disagreements and people, just the intensity of it all is that community colleges as mission-based organizations and mission-driven organizations, attract people who are attracted to that mission of transforming lives through education.

President Johnson: Through education, right,

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: It's really about passion and sometimes that's how people end up not listening well to one another. And if there's this default respect that everybody respects the passion that others bring to the table, we might be able to listen and be a little more respectful as we're trying to problem solve then trying to get our passionate opinions to lead the day. And I think that's why having data in front of us is so important too, 'cause it levels the playing field. And it's not just the loudest opinion gets the votes and wins the day.

President Johnson: Sure, and I've always said I'd be very worried if I was on any college campus where everyone said that there's complete and pure harmony and there were no debates or disagreements going on. I'd seriously be concerned about what had happened at the institution because as you're saying, the heart and soul of the institution, besides it being our students who attend, it's the people who work here, right? They feel passionately about the mission and purpose of community colleges and the work that community colleges do. And that's a wonderful, wonderful thing, we all have it. We've all made choices and we've all chosen to be within community colleges. And so then that leads us to debate and sometimes some pretty emotional expressions of passion in terms of conviction of one's viewpoints. And the balance with data becomes really important because it doesn't discount the anecdotal experiences an individual has within their position or purview at the institution. If they're in the classroom, if they're in a particular office, the qualitative experiences they have and the anecdotal examples they have are valid. And accounts for part of that experience that we're talking about or the topics that we're talking about. And then the quantifiable data adds a broader context and perspective many times. We're learning at our institution how to derive the most meaningful data that we need to prioritize and look at more closely and just getting more comfortable with data. And I know that that's happening at lots of community colleges these days in terms of how to know what the right data might be to look at? What's the most important things to look at? And then what's the next level and the next level? And just becoming more comfortable with it because data does have a way sometimes of seeming counter to what your opinion or your perspective may have been.

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Yeah, and the shifting context of community colleges also affect that pace of change and things are accelerating from when I came in 2007 to 2000- We didn't join the Achieving the Dream network until 2014. So my first seven years, data really were not particularly prevalent throughout the college. I mean, we had a good IR office and we had standard data, but we didn't really talk about our graduation rate. And it was mainly through the recession. So enrollment was booming and not a lot of problems with students, as all we could get a little better on how we serve students and all, but it wasn't until we joined the Achieving the Dream network that we recognized that our graduation rate was completely unacceptable. And when we desegregate the data and get into achievement gaps and differences between graduation rates, between different populations of students, it was kind of an organizational wake up call that it took us a couple of years to get comfortable with joining the Achieving the Dream network. And after three years in the Achieving the Dream network, it was almost a no brainer for us to actively and aggressively pursue Guided Pathways.

President Johnson: Let's talk a little bit about that because the past year, and we continue to have conversations here around Achieving the Dream. We've had that conversation. We are having that conversation about whether to be a member of Achieving the Dream. And so back in 2007 when you joined the institution, through 2014 when you did join, can you tell me a little bit about the conversations that emerged around Achieving the Dream and what motivated Mohawk Valley to ultimately join ATD?

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: From 2007 to 2011, to be honest, it was almost just like our focus was dealing with almost pent up ideas of changes that people had wanted to make for years. And through our system, looking at our systems and processes, those design teams, and those recommendations, that kind of kept us busy with making improvements that were implementing people's ideas that were kind of pent up, if you will. And then 2011, I was feeling we should go Achieving the Dream. So I started those of conversations mainly through our Strategic Planning Council and our College Senate. And people were saying, we're not ready. That's joining a huge national network and they're gonna come at us and tell us what to do, and we're not ready. And then come back 2012, 2013, still not ready, still not ready. Dealing with enrollment, we got huge enrollment with the recessionary. And then we were having so much activity. People were having a little bit of change fatigue a little bit because we were running ourselves ragged and had some sister community colleges that we were in with Strategic Horizon Network, a very small network of only about nine, 10 colleges, almost everybody in that network of colleges we respected, they were all in Achieving the Dream. And a couple of them said, what was nice about it is that when we got... Achieving the Dream helped us get comfortable with our data and it helped us identify things that we could stop doing, because it was clear they weren't working.

President Johnson: That's a really-

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: And that was the tipping point. Somebody said, you mean we could actually stop doing something? And that was the tipping point, and we joined ATD.

President Johnson: So it was a three year conversation though, essentially, among members

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: It really was.

President Johnson: of the college in terms of viewing the 2011 to 2014 conversations around it?

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Yeah. But again that goes back to the lack of familiarity a little bit with change 'cause it had been so stable for so long that it was a big move. That another organization that may have been a little more comfortable or at least familiar with change probably wouldn't have to take three years there. I wanted us to pursue it for the right reasons so that it would hold and that it would fit. And to give an example of how ready we were, we probably could have done it after two years, but we waited a third year, I think, to be sure. But we went through the training, the kickoff in July, got exposed to this notion about all college data summit. So we took our spring semester opening in January and turned that into our annual data summit. So we just had our sixth annual data summit earlier this month. And that is an all-college convening where we have surfaced our graduation rates, shared college wide, and had discussions about our desegregated data and the success rates of different populations at the college to show the difference between white students, black, Hispanic, and Asian students and the gaps between all of those groups and to really own, over the last five years in particular, I think the data has helped us show the dramatic impact of the lives our students lead outside of class and how those experiences and circumstances affect their learning and their success at college.

President Johnson: Sure, yeah, we did a similar process in '17, '18, my first year. We held four different town halls across student data. I had presented some of the aggregated and desegregated data in my first presentation to the college when I arrived officially in September of 2017. And we spent that year looking at student outcomes data, and it was an opportunity for the college. I mean, some people were looking at those numbers because of their role or position at the institution, but it did open up a variety of conversations for us. And then we started conversations around Achieving the Dream last year. And we continue to have those conversations. I'm wondering, what were the main concerns of the faculty and staff at the college who did not want to join Achieving the Dream? And then once you did join Achieving the Dream, what were the benefits that you found being a member of that organization provided to the staff and faculty there? So what were the main obstacles?

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Main obstacles, that notion of we're already part of the State University of New York. And it was kind of in the water here about resisting mandates from the regional accrediting body and resisting mandates from the State University of New York and is Achieving the Dream just gonna lap on another set of mandates and telling us what to do and inhibiting academic freedom and those kinds of things? All from a space of lack of familiarity. No matter how much information had been shared, again, without data, you would have the loudest opinions winning those arguments and carrying the day yet things like College Senate or Strategic Planning Council were things I wanted this to go to a vote to be able to have the support of key governance bodies within the institution. So those kinds of concerns were raised constantly and raised at elevated levels with opinion leaders. And when we got to that tipping point, I think some of the biggest benefit was traveling. We got a tremendous support from our county executive. We're funded in part by our local county sponsor. And our county executive made student success in increasing educational attainment a priority here locally and provided us some separate funding specifically for student success initiatives that continues to this day. So we were able to use some of those dollars for travel to be able to send 10 or more faculty and staff to the amazing dream conference for Achieve the Dream.

President Johnson: We're attending this year, we attended last year.

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: So this great feeling of going to these national level conferences with big teams and having time to experience the program and then digest and reflect on what they saw and experienced and compare where we are as an institution to say these are national leader colleges out there. We may not be as good as them. We may not know ourselves as well as they do, but we could be as good as them, if not better. So we started thinking of ourselves a little differently, I think, and challenging ourselves to be better. Then with the coaching that comes with Achieving the Dream, our data coach and our leadership coach pushing us to behave in new ways and look at data in new ways and then checking in with their site visits when they'd come a couple times a year. It was almost like having a personal life coach to a great extent on an individual level. You get that at an organizational level.

President Johnson: Sure, I mean, actually I wanna follow up about a question about coaches and you brought up that there was expressed concern about taking away academic freedom or these are gonna be individuals or being a member of ATD means that that organization or the coaches will come and give us mandates, right? How did those concerns about academic freedom and mandates from external entity play out in the context of coaches? Tell us a little bit more about coaches and how to balance the concern that people have in terms of academic freedom and mandates.

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: Yeah, what people found here was rather than mandates and telling us what to do, the coaches, like any good coach, asked really good questions that forced us to figure out what the answers were together. So that was probably the biggest way that that played out. And then we found ourselves looking at the data, the earliest moves that we made based on Achieving the Dream, if you will. We wrote a Title III grant based on the academic or based on the Achieving the Dream framework. So that was more than $2 million five-year grant that gave us completion coaches and allowed us to do some different things. They were mostly related to the classroom, but outside the classroom and didn't get at academic freedom. Yeah, it took a couple of years before we started making those changes outside the classroom and over time, started having more and more conversations about those student life circumstances and how they affect the classroom. So now we're talking about equity-minded syllabi and how are faculty approaching teaching through an equity lens? And really wrestling with the difference between equality and equity, they're not the same. And so many people conflate the two.

President Johnson: So if somebody were to pop onto your campus now, or say at the end of 2017, so you joined for those three years. Are you still a member of ATD?

Dr. Randy Van Wagoner: We are, this is the first year. We did not continue our coaching with Achieving the Dream 'cause in 2017, we joined the Guided Pathways, AACC cohort, which are Achieving the Dream core team voted. I didn't even take it to them. They said we need to go into Guided Pathways. It's the natural next step for us. And we used in our money from the county. The first three years, Achieving the Dream was a little more expensive or a lot more expensive. And then the membership fees changed dramatically. So we used the difference in that to join the AACC Guided Pathways cohort 2.0 and New York state got a student success center. So we were double timing training on Guided Pathways. Almost every other month, we were going to either a national or a state two or three day institute on Guided Pathways. So there was a natural evolution from Achieving the Dream to Guided Pathways.

President Johnson: Well, so just a side note here and we'll jump into a different angle. Washington State now is a Guided-Pathways state and Green River is as all the other community and technical colleges in our system. I'm working on the development of Guided Pathways. And I think our conversations around Achieving the Dream last year and continuing this year has helped somewhat. As I explained to the college this fall at the State of the College Address, regardless of whether we're a member of Achieving the Dream or not, the work is the same. Guided Pathways' work, which is equity-minded structures that help all students stay on their path or find a path, bring them to completion without equity gaps is the work of ATD. They're sort of hand in glove, depends on what title or topic you wanna reference, right? Achieving the Dream, Guided Pathways. It's all the same work. And we are working vigorously right now in the context of creating work plans and so on. Our conversations around Achieving the Dream will continue. We'll see how the will of the college moves in terms of whether that would be something that will be a support for them or not.

President Johnson: Hi listeners, this concludes part one of my conversation with Randy Van Wagoner. The following episode will feature part two, where we further explore the importance of community college in transforming and driving change. That's next time on GatorCast, have a great day.

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