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Ahead of retirement, Cuyahoga Community College president says he hopes to be remembered for gaining consensus

Change is on the horizon for Cuyahoga Community College.

Current president Alex Johnson will retire from the college later this month.

The higher education veteran’s career includes stints as president of the Community College of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania and chancellor of Delgado Community College in New Orleans. He also spent 10 years as president of Tri-C’s Metropolitan Campus.

Johnson held leadership positions at the national level, too, including with such organizations as the American Association of Community Colleges and Achieving the Dream. He’s the author of two books and winner of a variety of awards.

As the college gets ready for its first presidential leadership change in almost a decade, Johnson talked with Crain’s Cleveland Business on Wednesday, June 1. The interview below has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: During your time as president, is there anything you wanted to do that you didn’t get a chance to start or perhaps complete?

A: A lot. I think the thing that I did not complete fully, and no president will, quite honestly in the foreseeable future, not even Dr. Baston (Johnson’s recently named successor at the college), is this push to get more students in our community educated, particularly in higher numbers, to be able to take on jobs that provide a family-sustaining wage.

The idea of promoting student excellence and success is something that you always strive to do better. It’s a journey. There are just stops along the way that kind of help you become more committed, to recognize what you’ve been able to do and build upon that. But that’s an area where there is never, ever an end. I believe that Dr. Michael Baston will bring in that same mindset.

Q: You mentioned your successor, Michael Baston. I’m curious — have you given him any advice yet?

A: I have not given him any advice. He is a seasoned veteran that has been a president for a number of years and the chief academic officer as well.

I believe very, very strongly that he understands the power and the value of community colleges first and foremost and then how that applies to an institution of the level and notoriety of Tri-C.

He understands the importance of increasing the student experience, advancing a student experience. He knows the importance of community outreach and engagement. He understands the importance of positioning Tri-C as a driver of the economy. He also understands the importance of what we’ve done, not only at a local level but at a national level as well.

So I have not given him any advice, but in my conversations with him, I think he recognized the importance of building up on a great foundation that has been established by my colleagues.

Q: OK, so if you were to give him — or let’s even just broaden it out to anyone taking on a new leadership role at a community college — some advice, what would it be?

A: My advice would be to engage the college community more broadly in decision-making and deliberation. Build a guiding coalition that helps you really ascertain where the institution is now and where it needs to go. That’s very important.

The other piece is building a network external to the organization, stakeholders who really appreciate the power and the value, but will also push you to create opportunities. I’m talking about business leaders, economic development leaders, individuals who have traditionally had an important association with the college.

And then the last piece after all of that is to figure out a way to balance that hard work with your personal endeavors in order to create a more viable quality-of-life experience for both you and your loved ones. That’s something I have not been able to do.

Q: I think that’s good advice for everyone. Segueing a bit, enrollment struggles have plagued community colleges, including Tri-C, over the past few years. If you could wave a magic wand, what would you change to help thwart those problems?

A: There are certain things you can accomplish through certificates and short-term training programs that lead to a foundation for your continued education, but at the same time, provide you with the viable opportunity to take on meaningful employment. What we tend to do is offer up the associate’s degree as the only thing that you can achieve. We offer that up as what you have to go to college for when there are other opportunities.

The other piece is to recognize that in addition to support for education, individuals need support for personal needs, wraparound services that help them overcome housing insecurity, food insecurity or provide support for transportation and other personal needs like child care, are truly critical. You do that in collaboration. You don’t do that alone. You do it with other organizations that have a history of connecting to individuals and providing support in a way that you’re not capable of doing.

Make sure you communicate with individuals at a meaningful level. Focus on individual communication as opposed to something where you’re attempting to market your programs and services to the masses. We’ve got to really change our mindset in that regard.

The other piece is to engage in the community in ways that higher education does not normally do. We’ve instituted access centers, job hubs, and other mechanisms that allow individuals to benefit from Tri-C and earn credentials in settings located in their particular neighborhoods.

All of what I talked about are essential to really, really improving your access and enrollment as we move forward.

Q: What do you want to be remembered for at Tri-C? What do you want your legacy to be?

A: For me, thinking about (one’s) legacy is kind of self-promoting or pretentious. I don’t really talk about it like that.

I do hope that people both at the institution and my successor recognize that we did some good things together, not individually. There’s nothing virtuous about what I do, because there’s nothing that we could have accomplished if it weren’t in collaboration with individuals both inside the institution and out.

So if there’s a legacy — and I put that in quotes — that I’d like to be remembered for, it’s my effort to gain broad consensus on things that are both beneficial to the institution and community. That’s what I would hope for.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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