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Leader's Edge


Many Hats

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Since I began working at Howard Community College, Columbia, Md., in 1986, I’ve worn many different hats. As I advanced from my original position as controller to vice president, administration and finance, not only did I learn the particular responsibilities of each role, but within each position I frequently found I was adopting new and unexpected duties. Even though the word “finance” is in my title, I am responsible for so many more areas, such as facilities, capital projects, human resources, public safety, and auxiliary services. 

Experiences like mine are no doubt common among most higher education leaders—who have to be knowledgeable enough about a variety of areas in order to make smart decisions about any one of them at any time. But I believe that the ability to switch hats seamlessly is required especially of those working in the community college setting, where we don’t have the luxury of specialists already on campus to assist with solving problems. Working at a community college, you learn from the ground up, becoming agile and better equipped to manage the unexpected. In the end, this is what I find makes working at a community college so rewarding.

Not Just Numbers

I didn’t always know I wanted a job in higher education. I had been a CPA and working as a controller for a real estate company when I decided it was time to look for something new. Howard Community College was one of several places I interviewed. Ultimately, it was the potential I saw in the higher education field generally, and at HCC specifically, that drew me to campus. 

I have truly enjoyed collaborating across the HCC campus, and the variety of experiences I get to have keep the work interesting. While I love finance, it’s not what I want to do all day, every day, and I’m fortunate that my position affords me the opportunity to meet people who I probably wouldn’t have if I had a strictly finance role. In recent years, I’ve worked with a number of other departments, including with human resources on a compensation study, with public safety on the process of rebidding contracts for outsourced security, and with the bookstore on outsourcing its services. 

Not only am I learning about different departments with every new project, I’m also teaching my colleagues in other departments about finance. Faculty and staff at any institution are routinely frustrated when trying to understand their financial statements, and HCC is no different. To help keep our colleagues from feeling like their statements were written in a foreign language, HCC’s finance department decided to conduct regular workshops to educate the community on how to translate their statements.

In order to help ensure the overall financial health of the institution, it is so important for business officers to make sure that their colleagues across campus know how to read their statements and understand their budgets. That’s why I stress to my staff that we are, in effect, a customer service center. We’re not just here to run the numbers, we also help people understand the numbers. 

The Communication Key

Communication is essential to so many of my responsibilities at HCC. One of the reasons I’ve been able to successfully navigate unfamiliar territory is because I brought people on board who I could rely on and who I knew could collaboratively communicate with others—that is, provide guidance and insight while being receptive to the perspectives and input of the rest of the team. 

When HCC was reenvisioning its master plan for the entire campus—one of the more comprehensive and far-reaching projects I’ve been a part of—my team started by hiring experienced architects who would be able to work with our campus culture. Through a series of conversations, the architects succeeded in eliciting from the faculty and staff those features they wanted to see in their facilities and campus, while also introducing us to new concepts that we hadn’t thought about. Picking the right people from the beginning helped make the process run smoothly.

And, while on a day-to-day basis I’m not a spokesperson for the college, on occasion I have been called upon to be an advocate for the college in the community. A couple of years ago, HCC was surprised when some of its neighbors expressed dissatisfaction with a capital project plan for a parking garage. I participated in several community meetings in an effort to address the neighborhood’s concerns and was expecting to have to manage an angry group. Happily, I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, everyone was very positive about the college—they just hadn’t understood what the college was doing and why it was doing it. Once I explained the specifics of the plan and HCC’s reasoning, the community was much more open to the construction, and actually offered to help advocate for future projects. This experience showed me that our neighbors really do value the college as a community asset and want to work with it, but that it is essential to have conversations and build positive relationships with our neighbors from the start. 

Rolling With Enrollments

As I look ahead and take stock of what CBOs are facing, whether at four-year institutions or at community colleges, enrollment challenges are huge. In FY16, for the first time in 19 years, HCC’s enrollment declined, dropping 2.9 percent, and it has been flat ever since. Howard County, outside Baltimore and where HCC is located, has been growing for years, increasing in population by nearly 16 percent from 2010 to 2018. However, the Howard County high school population that feeds into HCC has declined slightly. In addition, our adult learner population has not been growing.

To mitigate these declines, we took a number of actions. First, we hired an enrollment scheduler who started looking at our classes and how we could more efficiently handle operations. Up until that point, many academic divisions were making individual decisions about specific rooms and running some classes with lower enrollments. By putting the scheduling functions under one area, we began maximizing our class sizes and efficiently running our schedule. This led to a savings in hiring adjunct faculty as well as efficient room use. 

In addition, we have developed a program with the Howard County Public School System called JumpStart that allows high school students to take classes on our campus at discounted rates while they are still in high school. We have always had dual enrollment programs with the high schools, but the JumpStart program, along with a new superintendent of schools, has helped us to promote the program actively throughout the county’s high schools. Within the last year, enrollment has grown from 652 students to 1,208 students—a growth of 85 percent. We expect our partnership to continue to grow, as the program gives the public school system an alternative approach to managing its overcrowded high schools. 

Additionally, as CBOs we are perpetually concerned about the rapid increase in the cost of technology. At HCC, we see the importance of technology to the entire campus community, but the speed with which it changes and the funds required to keep up with its continual upgrades make technology a particular challenge. Fortunately for the state’s community colleges, during its 2019 session Maryland legislators passed a bill to provide matching grants to each community college for improving technology. Maryland community colleges are thus incentivized to raise even more donations, which will then be matched to assist with technology needs. 

CBOs are faced with making difficult decisions about which of our institutions’ many needs we can fund. At HCC, having a strong strategic plan that delineates our priorities has helped us stay on track and ensure we are focused on the areas that are most important for our community. By limiting our strategic goals to three areas: student success, completion, and lifelong learning; organizational excellence; and building and sustaining partnerships, we have been able to concentrate our efforts on targeted initiatives. 

Resource Rich

One way I prepare myself for the challenges now and in the future is by ensuring I have access to meaningful resources. Certainly, Business Officer magazine has always been a valuable touchstone for me, helping to keep me current on trends and innovation in the field of higher education finance, but nothing beats talking to my peers face-to-face. I find the annual meetings and workshops hosted by NACUBO and EACUBO, as well as meetings of the Maryland Association of Community College Business Officers, invaluable access points for eliciting the insights of my colleagues in the field. 

Recently, Maryland passed a new law that requires all businesses to provide sick leave to hourly employees and adjunct faculty. The new law had to be implemented in a short period of time and was a major project that initially seemed overwhelming. However, by coming together as a group, the Maryland colleges worked together on solutions to develop consistent formulas for our adjunct professors and also shared programming strategies for implementing the new law. 

I also like to work with and visit other schools to find out about the strategies they are administering, what’s working as well as what’s not, and whether we might like to try something similar at HCC. A couple of years ago, we instituted a dental hygiene assistant program in our new health sciences building. Instead of starting from scratch, our vice president of academic affairs reached out to several four-year schools throughout Maryland in an effort to get some insights into, and maybe even some help with developing, the program’s curriculum. Unfortunately, those schools weren’t willing to help us. 

Instead of accepting this setback, I reached out to Patty Charlton, campus provost and vice president of the Henderson campus at the College of Southern Nevada (CSN), a contact I had worked with through the NACUBO Community Colleges Council. Nevada’s community colleges have a large dental program, and Patty connected our academic area with one of the CSN dentists in their program. He was very receptive to our request for guidance, even coming to HCC to help us set up the program. That situation never could have happened without the opportunity to attend professional development events and make personal connections.

The most important resources for me throughout my career have been professional mentors. HCC’s current and former presidents—Kathleen Hetherington and Mary Ellen Duncan, respectively—have both provided me with reliable and intelligent guidance, always encouraging me to exceed my own expectations. In particular, Kathleen has demonstrated what it means to be a servant leader. She is always thinking of our students and employees first and motivating campus leaders to continuously improve. Her willingness to listen to others and the commitment she shows to our students and employees make us all want to provide them with pathways to success. 

Additionally, and perhaps less commonly, my predecessor in the vice president position, Fred Nunley, was a great help to me when I started at HCC. He had left HCC for a job at a bigger community college, but I got to know him through our statewide affinity group, and we subsequently had many conversations. In addition to knowing a lot about how things work in higher education generally, he had great institutional knowledge about HCC specifically and was somebody I could call anytime. Our continuing conversations ultimately led to us to develop another campus together—the Laurel College Center in Laurel, Md., which began as a partnership between HCC and Prince George’s Community College, Largo, Md. The Laurel College Center is now designated as a Regional Higher Education Center, where four-year institutional partners also offer courses. Students interested in earning a bachelor’s degree can directly matriculate from HCC or PGCC to a four-year partner college. 

If you want to be a successful leader in higher education, you can’t exist solely in the silo of your own department or field. Whether at a community college or any other type of institution, CBOs will always have to face challenges. By sharing information—to, from, and within the finance department—CBOs can prime themselves, their teams, and their campus colleagues for positive outcomes. It is through engagement with institutional and neighborhood communities, as well as fellow finance professionals, that CBOs can build the knowledge bank and networks of support that will see them through the next surprise.  

LYNN COLEMAN is vice president, administration and finance, Howard Community College, Columbia, Md.

By limiting our strategic goals to student success, completion, and lifelong learning; organizational excellence; and building and sustaining partnerships, we have been able to concentrate our efforts on targeted initiatives.

It is through engagement with institutional and neighborhood communities, as well as fellow finance professionals, that CBOs can build the knowledge bank and networks of support that will see them through the next surprise.