Pathways to success: New community college chancellor wants clearer guide for students
After more than 30 years with the statewide community college system in Indiana, Jeff Pittman is in his first month as chancellor of St. Louis Community College.
Pittman says he is happy to be back in a job that brings him into closer contact with students and campuses.
He left his job at Ivy Tech a few months before assuming his new job on July 1 to familiarize himself with an area where the lifelong Cardinals fan has family and has spent time on vacations, as well as begin to talk with faculty, staff and students at the college.
When Pittman was selected as the college’s next chancellor earlier this year, he was in charge of corporate college services and online education at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana – that state’s community college system, with 30 campuses in 14 regions. It is the state’s largest public postsecondary institution and the nation’s largest singly accredited statewide community college system, serving nearly 200,000 students each year.
Now, he will be in charge of the four-campus St. Louis area system that has more than 20,000 students taking for-credit courses. He says one of his main jobs is to make sure those students have a clear path to whatever their goal is, whether it is a job or more school.
“Community colleges,” Pittman said in a recent interview, “have so many choices and so many different programs for students to enroll in, that sometimes it’s easy for them to lose their way.
“We have to get focused on providing direct pathways and get focused on the student completion agenda which Missouri desperately needs, which St. Louis desperately needs.”
Here is what Pittman had to say on other topics. The interview is edited for length and clarity.
On being closer to students
“The thing that I very much am looking forward to, and have already experienced, is working directly with students, working with faculty. I’m already engaging in the community and want to do everything I can to make sure what we do at St. Louis Community College is benefitting the St. Louis area. This is a densely populated area. There is tremendous need here for educational programs, workforce development, helpings students prepare for transfer credit. All of those things around the educational opportunities and workforce development are certainly what we're interested in and what I'll be focused on in the future.”
On how the college can help north county
“I had the opportunity to go up to the Urban League's groundbreaking ceremony for their empowerment center. I heard the CEO of the Urban League talk and saw some of the individuals that have been participating already with that center, even though it's not built yet, and just seeing the powerful movement up in Ferguson in regards to making that community stronger.
“We really are the solution, the educational solution, in so many ways, to help prepare individuals, given our open access mission. That's why it's so critical that every program that we offer, and every course that we offer, is aligned with a workforce or with further education. Sometimes those things work together, sometimes they're independent of one another, depending on what the student's educational objectives are. But I see that particular campus (Florissant Valley) really aligned to that community in regards to the opportunities we can provide those people that live there.
On the changing role of community colleges
“Community colleges have been focused in the past on access, primarily on access. And in a lot of ways that's how our funding came about. Our funding from states is based on seat count, or has been. It's moving away from that and toward a performance-based situation, where they're looking at students that are completing, that are graduating, that are being placed in jobs, and I would predict even probably will be looking at the types of jobs that students will go into in the future. If you look at us nationally, we enroll almost half of the undergraduate students nationally, about 10 million students a year. We've got to focus on both access and success.”
On expanding opportunities for students
“Many of the students who come to us tell us that they want to transfer to a four-year institution once they complete their work at St. Louis Community College. So we have to make sure that those opportunities are in place, that when students transfer, they don't lose any credits. We provide a tremendous value at around $101 a credit hour for students, so that's a big part of the access piece, keeping college affordable for people that live in St. Louis.
“Another area that we are really already ramping up is our relationship with our K-12 partners -- reaching out to high schools, making them aware of the community college option available in this area, and expanding opportunities like dual credit or advanced placement classes for students that get them prepared and ready to come to St. Louis Community College once they finish high school. It gives them the opportunity to simultaneously earn high school and college credit while they're still in high school, which gives them a jump start once they begin college and spares the parents the expense.”
On online classes
“At Ivy Tech, we had about 80,000 students enrolled in online education. Most of those students did not take online education exclusively, but they would typically pick up a class or two via online. That helped with the access piece. Even though they were driving to campus maybe for one or two classes, their life schedule or their work schedule wouldn't allow them to come to take as many credit hours as they want. So we need to provide that access to students in a variety of ways, and distance education is one way to do that.”
On the college’s buildings
“Our facilities were built back in the 1960s. There's a lot of opportunity for improvements, and we're already thinking about ways that we can approach that. Our students deserve the best possible facilities they can get, the best possible technology and equipment that they can get. So that's going to be very high on my priority list going forward --to identify the resources, the partnerships we can have to make that possible for the future.”
On his leadership style
“My staff's observations at this point would probably say he's quiet, and he listens a lot. But coming in, I'm just kind of like a sponge, soaking in everything. To be effective as an organization, you have to listen to the individuals that work within the institution. We have great faculty and staff. Many of them have been with the college for over 20 years. They have just a wealth of information in regards to the direction in which we should be heading, and the things that we should be doing. It helps me understand the institutional culture and what motivates those people. We all need to be singing from the same hymnal.”
On listening to students
“I made the request to the staff before I got here that the first group I'd like to meet with is students. And they pulled together a meeting very quickly of our student government leaders. There were probably about 25. We met on the Meramec campus. I only had to ask a couple of questions and just stand back and listen to all of their ideas -- just incredibly bright students, wanting to make a difference in St. Louis. Certainly wanting to make a difference in their own lives in regards to jobs and careers and better income and all those things. But I was impressed by them in regards to what they wanted to do to step up and help this community and be a part of it. So that was really an incredible moment for me and I can't even express in words the motivation that's given me to do the best job that I can while I'm here.”
On efforts of adjunct faculty to unionize
“It's their right to do that. We have had adjunct faculty that came forward at the last couple of board meetings and have expressed their interest to organize. So we are in the process of developing board policy for that that will be on a future agenda and that will provide adjunct faculty the opportunity to move forward and organize if that's what they desire to do. That's really ultimately their decision, but we're going to create the means for them to do so.”
On why everybody should go to college
“Everyone needs to go to college. I know a lot of people may disagree with that statement, and there may be people that think, well, college isn't for everyone. I think of my experience with my own children. Yes, they all went to college. My oldest son in particular wasn't really big on school, but we continued to work with him. He began to see the opportunities in front of him without going to college versus going to college. And he finally enrolled. He graduated. We're very proud of him, and now he is teaching in college. So we laugh at him when we see him now. He's a perfect example of someone who wasn't really all that interested in school in general. Now, he is so committed to his profession and higher education that he's teaching as a part-time adjunct faculty member at a university in Indiana.”
On the controversy that led to his predecessor's departure
"We have completely reorganized our public safety department. Our campuses are very safe. We have an incredible executive director of public safety that has brought great planning and efforts and staff to our police force and to our campus security efforts. We are on top of things on a daily basis in regards to whatever incidents may happen. We communicate that rapidly to internal and external stakeholders to make sure we're creating a safe environment for all involved. So that's something that our board of trustees has placed a great deal of emphasis on prior to my arrival here and certainly since I've been here."
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