First 90 Days

When I was in eighth grade, I brought home a report card with all A’s except for a B in Physical Science. My mother was not amused. “How do you explain the B?” she asked accusingly. No mention of the seven A’s from Mrs. Laackman. I was so completely humbled and ashamed that throughout high school, I earned straight As.
I carry that baggage with me today. As a result, I was particularly stung by a recent post on the Harold Lounge in response to my own post on completion. When I started blogging, I made a promise to myself that I would not respond to anonymous or pseudonymous posters, or cartoon posters as I think of them, owing to their frequent use of cartoon characters as avatars. In responding to Realist, I am breaking that vow. Some may call me flexible; others, spineless. No matter. The Realist cartoon character hit a nerve with his assessment of my performance to date: “I give him four out of five gold, err, orange stars for all he’s done so far.” As I read it, a roaring white noise filled my ears, my eyes filled with blood, and as much as I tried to concentrate on the rest of the post, all I could think was, “Four out of five stars? FOUR OUT OF FIVE STARS? What do I have to do to earn that fifth star?”
After I calmed down, I saw this back-handed cartoon compliment as an opportunity for me to assess my performance. The timing seems right – I am almost through my first 90 days here at the College. It is fair, even for an anonymous cartoon, to ask, “What, exactly, have you done for us?”
I focused on two major tasks in my first 90 days at the college. As promised during my interview for the job, I talked to as many faculty, staff and students as I could. For those who have spent the hour with me, they know that I ask the same seven questions of everyone. I ask these questions to help me understand who and what we are. What do people want to change? What do they want to preserve? What do they hope I do? How do we better support student success?
In parallel with these discussions, I dove into the budget process. As one may expect from my background, I believe money is the lifeblood of any organization. This year, we asked departments to articulate their goals and aspirations through the operating plans. We allowed them free rein to envision what they wanted and needed to support student success.
A common thread wove through the discussions and the budget process. Particularly in discussions with faculty, I was told that the best way to ensure student success was to hire more full-time faculty. I did my own research and engaged the Reinvention teams in discussions to understand if more full timers would make a difference. I convinced myself, for a number of reasons, that more full time faculty would help us drive greater student success. Through the budget process, the academic departments asked for budget to hire twenty new and replacement faculty. I listened to the faculty, and they in turn backed up their desire to drive greater student success by asking for budget to hire more faculty.
In the budget process, I was steadfast in my desire to hire these faculty. I made the case. I argued in several meetings for adding these faculty. I was spurred, I admit, by that plaque in our digital multimedia center that honors President DeSombre for hiring 43 full time faculty during her entire tenure. By all accounts, she was a phenomenal president. Here I am, in my first 90 days, proposing to hire 20. Audacity of Hope, indeed. I had no idea if District would support it, but I felt the case had to be made.
Realist said in his post, “. . . the chancellor has made it quite clear that she will have final say in all matters. It’s all going to boil down to dollars and the external forces of accountability, not the direct input of faculty; much less the affected students. That’s wrong. That hurts.”
So what did our Chancellor, who according to the Realist values dollars and external forces of accountability over students, say when I made the final case for twenty new and replacement faculty at a not insignificant increase in our budget in these difficult economic times? When I argued that my faculty had told me that full time faculty matter, and that they believed, and I believe, that more full time faculty will help our students?  Our Chancellor said, “Don, my number one priority is student success. If you are telling me that more full time faculty will drive student success, I fully support your request.” There being no free lunches, she followed with the expectation that I would be accountable for student success at the college. And no, I did not sign up for increasing the graduation rate. I signed up for course success and retention as my measures of accountability.
I don’t know where Realist is getting his take on the Chancellor, but in my meetings with her, she has been consistent, passionate and unwavering in her support for students. In the case of Harold Washington College, she is now backing that up with support for more faculty. Now it is up to us.*
So I ask Realist, and the rest of my readers, what do I have to do to earn that fifth star? In the spirit of continuous improvement, I welcome suggestions on what I, and folks in my administration, can do to make the college better.The over 100 one-on-ones with faculty, staff and students provide a starting point. This summer, I am compiling this feedback and will report back in the fall, in conjunction with our operating plan, our initiatives for FY2012.

For the record, in my first 90 days, I have listened to concerns, accepted criticism, solved problems, and tried to respond to suggestions from the discussions. I have, with the help of our faculty and my executive council, in particular John and Andy, assembled a budget that supports twenty new and replacement faculty. I have tried to be present with faculty, visible to students, engaged with issues, and a stalwart steward for this great institution. I view the new faculty hires as my down payment to our students, to our current faculty, and to our future successes.

A four-star president is not good enough for Harold Washington College. So many people told me in our one-on-ones that they want to preserve our reputation for excellence, our commitment to students. You should not have to settle for a four-star president at a five-star college. I welcome your suggestions.

And please, please, please, don’t tell my mother about the four stars. 
______________________
*As I write this, our budget is not yet approved. In the coming days, the budget needs to go out for public comment, and the Board will vote in July.

2 thoughts on “First 90 Days

  1. Interesting read, Don. Quite an amazing writer. As a former Editor of my high school and college newspapers, my brief stint in writing television news and my hobby of writing musical pieces for the piano, I have a fond appreciation for the impact of writing to convey thoughts & feelings. Changing themes just a bit… I think it is often difficult for individuals who are not engrossed in the day-to-day tasks associated with leadership to truly understand how small steps in the beginning will have a long-term and meaningful impact in the end. While the tactical components of change, (money, metrics, accountability, additional faculty, budgets etc) are vitally important, as a leader, your presence on campus, your involvement in greeting students on the first day of class and the 1:1 outreach you did with over 100 faculty, staff and students is not only commendable, but also, indicative of your dedication to this organization and is equally as important as the tactical component because it incorporates the human side into the world of business. It also demonstrates your belief in the importance of people as part of an organization, and ultimately, as we collectively embark on this journey to reach change within CCC, it is absolutely necessary and I am confident that it will prove to be beneficial. Sometimes I view CCC as a small close-knit town that is on the cusp of tremendous expansion and naturally, some residents of the town will be open to change and willing to lead it while others will resist, and even more will be afraid but curious. We are experiencing this every day, watching great changes occur right before our eyes and inevitably, as an organization we will continue to experience great achievements and face even greater challenges. I think what you have done thus far as a leader provides a level of comfort and confidence as we move forward and to quote Henry Kissinger, “The task of a leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.”While I can totally relate to your sentiments in the frustration of wanting to obtain the 5th star in the spirit of self-improvement, I think for many of us, you’ve exceeded 5 stars already.

  2. Realist is a bully; what did your mother say about how to handle bullies? I think Realist thinks you are doing a very good job, so far! Stars, bars, exclamation points, thumbs up/thumbs down, straight As, they are just symbols to show ratings. Your mother bullied you into straight As; what did she say after you achieved that? Status quo – Don achieves straight As. She got what she wanted; will Realist get what Realist wants?Ultimately, your performance as president of Harold Washington College is determined by the board of trustees, the chancellor, the faculty, the staff, the students and hopefully not the press! But, your performance will be determined by you! We all have baggage (Realist, you, me, everyone); put it in its appropriate place and let it ride along with your journey as Don (the president, the dad, the husband, the man). One day your plaque will hang in the multimedia center and there will be a short inscription summarizing your tenure as president. It’s too soon to write that inscription, or think about what it will say. DeSombre hired the faculty over a period of several years. She use to say the College is its faculty. She also said if you want someone to like you go get a dog. Wozniak use to say he wanted no email wars and he wanted completed transactions. They both put students first as you are stating is your mantra.The success of your leadership to take Harold Washington College to the next level(s) is going to be determined by the skill sets you bring to the College, hiring the right mix of talented people to assist you to get to that next level, your grit, your tenacity, your vision, learning from your attempts at change that work and don’t work. Change is always needed at an institution; status quo is not. Harold Washington College, the City Colleges of Chicago, the City of Chicago, all need change to grow, to prosper, to serve its people (students, faculty, and staff). Getting people and other resources to accomplish those changes that will ultimately lead to the next levels of performance for all of us. That is the exciting challenge that we, Realist, you and I face! I say, “Bring it on!”

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