11/18/2013 03:23 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

It's a Matter of Trust

Several years ago, I was invited to a political fundraiser for an important state political leader who declared that the state's schools were deplorable and desperately needed restructuring. I was amazed at his blunt attack but more by the hearty affirmation of the audience. He clearly touched a nerve. As an educator, this was a rude awakening. The following years have seen the state's leadership reduce funding and adopt legislation with far reaching implications for both secondary and post-secondary education. This movement has spread across the nation. Seeking to understand the root of the dissatisfaction, I've concluded that we educators have lost the public's trust.

From a personal perspective, a college administrator recently informed me that he was sending his "kiddo" to our college this fall. He meant his "pride and joy," as his eyes were moist and smile broad. This was a strong endorsement and spoke generally of the expectation every parent has for his or her child. This faith in us prompts me to speak often about our "Moral Imperative" for all of us to do our best to develop high performance academic organizations. School and college employees aren't merely holding jobs, we're stewards of the future of our nation.

Unfortunately, the power of that expectation is often subsumed by our personal and work related issues; the day-to-day challenges and internal politics that distract us from the proper focus on our students and their families' expectations of us.

Too often in academia, our professional conversations focus on internal trust reflecting primary interest in our work environment. Yet, for students and especially their parents, spouses and children, the decision to invest in a particular college is about external trust. The open door, affordable community college may provide a student the only choice; trust is thus especially crucial.

Post-secondary education has always been highly respected. For generations, a degree represented the assured passage to a successful career and life. But educators have faltered, for the model that has dominated our thinking for generations -- that students, not the college, carry the responsibility to learn -- is no longer appropriate or successful. We have always claimed that our focus has been on the student. Our academic support offerings and host of student activities proved, at least to ourselves, that our intentions have been true. Twenty years ago, a faculty colleague gave me an anonymously written statement that I've since carried in my wallet as a testament. It reads:


... are the most important people at our college.
... are not interruptions of our work;
they are the purpose for it.

... do us a favor when they come in;
we aren't doing them a favor by waiting on them.

... are the reason for our existence;
they are not outsiders.

... are not just revenues or FTEs;
they are human beings with feelings like our own.

... deserve the most courteous attention we can give them.
They are the lifeblood of this and every college,
they pay our salaries,
without them we would have to close our college.

This we should never forget.

How can one not love the sentiment or not have been inspired by the faculty, staff and administrators who selflessly and profoundly impact individual students. But there are many who contend that we are falling short. Day by day, the student-centered principle is superseded by the necessary focus on enrollments, operations, budgets, bonds and the complex interactions among employees -- on running "The Business." From this perspective, I can appreciate why there has been concern within academia about referring to higher education as a business, and our students as customers: fear that our focus will center on operations rather than students. But that has happened anyway and our failure to focus on both has created a high cost, inefficient and often irrelevant system for thousands of students. Public higher education must operate as a business and it is time to accept the responsibility to lead our colleges effectively, efficiently, and relevantly. Acknowledging this requires us to operate like every successful business: to focus on our customers, internal and external. A faculty colleague suggested recently that ours is like the doctor/patient relationship. This has merit as both physician and educator save lives. Both require a business organization and must appeal to customers/patients/students. Sadly, only within the past few years have we truly begun acting as though our students are our priority and primarily because of the influence of outside stakeholders and increased competition. Legislators enacting performance criteria for funding, Governors and even the president calling for increased graduation rates at much lower cost, employers frustrated by the absence of skilled graduates, families doubting the high cost value of a degree and technologies changing the way students learn. These entities don't trust us to do this work ourselves.

Superior to all these forces has been the adoption of a fundamental principle of customer focus: the emerging attention on data, not just what is required to be collected and submitted for state reporting and the federal data system, IPEDS, but in-depth operational-based investigations of our multiple student cohorts and programs for the purpose of improving every student's success. This has forced educators to replace our love of academic debate with self-assessment and actions based on the underlying truths of student performance that the data reveal. We have actually been discussing many of today's emerging "revolutionary" innovations for over 50 years but without the proof of the data, the ideas were always suspect. Finally, the data has validated that problems exist and we are now empowered to fix them!

Community colleges especially must create solutions that focus on our customers' and regain our stakeholders' trust. This requires transition to high performance organizations rather than attempt to sustain the mini-university model after which we have been modeled. We've branded community colleges as rapidly responsive and stakeholder focused. Yet, the imperatives of "the way we've always done things" continue to restrict our responsiveness and push costs higher. Our levels of student dropouts and lack of effective student-focused systems too often result in students floundering. We then lose the student's trust and that of their families, employers and the taxpayers who support us. Trust must be earned and educators at all levels must appreciate our collective responsibility to rise above our internal political issues and focus all our efforts on student success.