• December 22, 2014

The Importance of an Approachable President 1

Tristan Spinski for The Chronicle

Kerry Hart (center), president of Morgan Community College, holds twice-monthly meetings with administrators to keep them in the loop and solicit their advice.

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Tristan Spinski for The Chronicle

Kerry Hart (center), president of Morgan Community College, holds twice-monthly meetings with administrators to keep them in the loop and solicit their advice.

Sixth Annual Survey

Great Colleges to Work For 2013

The Importance of an Approachable President

By Katherine Mangan

The Importance of an Approachable President

Tristan Spinski for The Chronicle

Kerry Hart (center), president of Morgan Community College, holds twice-monthly meetings with administrators to keep them in the loop and solicit their advice.

 

Kerry Hart didn't expect to win any popularity contests when he took over as president of Morgan Community College in 2008, just as the nation was slumping into a recession.

Budget cuts were inevitable at the two-year college in Colorado. But while campus leaders across the country were facing challenges from disgruntled employees, the former music instructor and college dean was winning his over by including them in decisions and nurturing their talents. Employees at the college, which has 445 full-time and 1,394 part-time students, took to their new leader, who urged everyone to pursue professional-development activities, roamed the halls to chat with employees, and sent personalized letters to recognize their accomplishments.

Chronicle Vitae

Morgan employees who responded to The Chronicle's sixth annual Great Colleges to Work For survey gave their college high marks in the category of confidence in senior leadership. The results were based on whether respondents felt that their leaders provided a clear direction for the college's future, had the skills and experience needed, and communicated openly with employees.

When Mr. Hart became president of the college, which has a main campus in Fort Morgan and four regional centers spread across eastern Colorado, the statewide higher-education budget amounted to $706-million. By 2011 it had plummeted to $519-million. As educators across the state were starting to realize the scope of potential budget cuts, Morgan's new president convened a collegewide meeting to reaffirm what the college still had control over. "We agreed that we can maintain a climate based on trust and respect, transparent communication, and striving for excellence," he says.

Avoiding layoffs required sacrifices, however, and over the next year, morale began to sag. "Because of salary and hiring freezes, we were asking faculty and staff to do more with less," Mr. Hart recalls. "We were starting to see signs that people were getting burned out."

In the fall of 2009, the college canceled classes and held a mandatory team-building day for faculty and staff members. In one exercise, each blindfolded participant had to make his way through an obstacle course holding on to the person in front of him.

Professional development, Mr. Hart says, has a rejuvenating and bonding effect on employees, so after a two-year hiatus because of budget cuts, he resumed it last year. Employees participated in a daylong session that helped them relate to impoverished students. Among the topics they covered is how important relationships are to many low-income students, knowledge that might make a professor a little less irritated if a student shows up late for class because he was helping an uncle fix a flat tire.

This fall a clinical psychologist will provide tips on how to recognize signs of emotional trouble in students.

Mr. Hart believes in transparent communication, and employees say they appreciate being in the loop—even when the news that's being delivered is unsettling. The president holds monthly brown-bag lunches and has the minutes of his staff meetings distributed to all campus employees.

"I never make a decision that's going to have an impact on an individual or program or group without getting input from them first," he says.

When the bookstore was struggling financially a few years ago, a campuswide meeting was called to unveil changes that would require students to order books when they register for classes, and require faculty members to select the books much earlier. The store was having trouble competing with online booksellers and, each year, incurring steep shipping costs for the hundreds of books that went unsold. Because everyone stepped up to cooperate, and the bookstore now orders only what it can sell, the operation went from being $70,000 in debt to $30,000 in the black in a little over a year, Mr. Hart says.

The Great Colleges to Work For recognition for Morgan comes at a time when strained budgets and deep-rooted disagreements over issues including online learning and vocational-focused courses are driving wedges between faculty members and their leaders. In March, faculty members at Rollins College voted no confidence in the college's president, Lewis M. Duncan, after a speech in which he spoke of the potential for online learning to replace some of the classroom-based teaching the liberal-arts college has long been known for. Tensions had been building over what critics said was the president's failure to consult the faculty before making important decisions.

Still, Rollins scored high in several categories measured by the Chronicle survey, including professional- and career-development programs, compensation and benefits, and job satisfaction.

And in March, faculty members at New York University's School of Arts & Science voted no confidence in their president, John E. Sexton, describing his management style as autocratic.

Morgan's leaders, with a much smaller staff to keep happy, can involve employees in decision making in a way a large university can't. Anyone with an idea to improve the college can click on the "feedback" link on Morgan's Web site. That takes them to a suggestion box. A tab to the right lets people check the status of their suggestions.

For example, April Amack, director of the college's Learning Resource Center, asked whether her staff list, which was alphabetized on the college's Web site, could be redesigned so that users didn't automatically click on the first person in the list—which was always her. "My inbox was inundated with pitches from vendors. People wanted to know when the center was open, how to change their schedules," she says. The management team that reviewed her request took it seriously and redesigned the site, she says.

Mr. Hart extended the personal touch this fall by giving each staff member a personalized letter of appreciation along with a bookmark woven by his wife, Jacque.

Morgan encourages all employees to pursue professional development. Jaylene Evans, division chair for business and applied technologies, participated in a weeklong "Dean's Academy" last year, in which participants discussed such issues as tenure and promotion and how to maintain academic integrity. Everyone was assigned a mentor; Mr. Hart was assigned to guide a dean at another community college in Colorado.

"We're a small enough college that there aren't layers and layers of people we need to go through," Ms. Evans says. "If we have ideas, we can turn to the management leadership team any time."

Mr. Hart says the support goes both ways: "When faculty and staff know the reason we're asking for changes, and they have a voice in the process, they'll step up and support us."

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