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‘The competition now is for opportunity’: an interview with Cuyahoga Community College’s new president

Cuyahoga Community College

Cuyahoga Community College’s new president Michael Baston wants you to know he’s a “perennial partner.”

“What that means is I look for meaningful ways to partner that ultimately allow all of us to win,” he told Crain’s Cleveland Business.

Baston, who succeeded Alex Johnson to become the college’s new leader on July 1, said he’s looking forward to working with the business community to help move Cleveland forward.

Before arriving in Northeast Ohio, Baston was most recently the president of Rockland Community College in New York. Learn more about him in this wide-ranging Q&A below. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Welcome to Cleveland! It’s been a few weeks into your new job. How are things going?

Things couldn’t be better. I have thoroughly enjoyed the warmth of the reception not only at the campuses, but also in the community, so I’m thrilled and overjoyed.

Let’s talk a little bit about you. You’ve spent decades in higher education, but you also worked as a lawyer and a pastor. How did — or maybe, how do — those roles shape you as a college leader?

I’m very blessed to have had a career that has allowed me to always believe in the power of the possible for people, to always be in a position to help people understand a path, that they could design their destiny, that they could sort of move forward in their lives.

So whether it was an attorney representing educational corporations, religious institutions and nonprofit organizations, or in the ministry, trying to help people to really connect to a belief in the future and the power of the possible, all of those sorts of experiences have well prepared me for my work in education as a teacher, as a leader, as someone who believes that education can truly transform lives.

I remember hearing similar points you made during a Tri-C town hall when you were one of three final presidential candidates. Another thing I remember from that event was when you detailed the so-called “secret shopper” trip you and your wife made to the area. Can you briefly describe that as well as what you learned?

We dressed up as parents who were going to enroll our daughter in the college in the fall. It enabled us to go to every campus to speak to students, to faculty, to staff. I wanted to see how people would treat us. Would they be warm? Would they share what their true feelings were about the college, not knowing me as a candidate?

What I found almost everywhere I went was this true sense of the employees feeling they’re very valued and happy, to the students feeling like they have great professors and great opportunities to build their personal relationships with other students.

We were able to really talk to people in the local restaurants about Tri-C. Almost every person said either they went there, they had a child that went there, a nephew, an auntie, an uncle, a cousin, (or they know) someone that works there.

Everyone all over the county and its four corners said they had a meaningful, positive, tangible connection to the institution. What that did for me and my wife is it made us confident that this was a place that would embrace us, would embrace our vision, and would ultimately be a place where we can be a part of the community.

Did you learn anything that the college could or should improve upon from those conversations?

I met a person at the Cracker Barrel who graduated from the college many years ago with a photography degree. At that time, that was a wonderful thing to have because he wanted to be an entrepreneur, but with the advent of smartphone technology and the fact that you can do portrait mode on your cellphone, it had an impact on his ability to continue to have a viable economic future. He came back to make sure that he could get into cybersecurity, an emerging field.

I want more people who are adult learners, who need to upskill or to reskill, to recognize that we can be the same partner we were with you and your initial steps many years ago right now. That is going to be something that I would like to see enhanced and improved.

Of course, we have those students who have been impacted by disconnected learning during the pandemic. For younger folks, how are we going to think deeply about supporting them as they transition into the next stage of educational development?

So we, as the college, are going to have to think about what does additional support mean for those students who are now going to be coming from K-12 who had a different educational experience than those in 2019. How are we going to make sure that these students are supported?

Speaking of the pandemic, one of the biggest issues that two year public colleges, including Tri-C, have faced during this time is declining enrollments. How do you hope to turn that trend around?

One thing we have to recognize is that some of the competition is for students, or where the students are, are not other institutions. The competition now is for opportunity. You have a lot of our students, (or) potential students, who are now gig economy persons. They are doing DoorDash and Uber Eats. They’re doing all of these alternative forms to rise in America. Those are the students that would normally be coming to a community college. Those are the ones that maybe have economic fragility, but academic promise, but are making a decision to pursue more economic means.

So we’ve got to be able to now make a value proposition to those folks who would have come to us but now going that route to know that you can do both. We’ve got to begin to say to that gig worker, “Listen, we know that you want to be entrepreneurial, we know that you want to rise in the ways that you think will work. We can help you.”

How do you plan to do that?

Well, think about it. We need to make the relationships with Uber Eats and DoorDash and say, “Hey, if you’re operating in these gig economy opportunities, maybe we have to give you an educational discount so that you can come and we can partner with you.”

Maybe we have to look at the way in which you want to be educated and actually propose to you a schedule or a modality that’s going to work in alignment with your entrepreneurial aims.

Maybe our academic programs have to emphasize the skills that students can get so that they can be more competitive in a changing marketplace. So, it requires the educational institution to actually go after a population that we normally didn’t see as an opportunity, but now must realize (is) our greatest hope.

You mentioned potentially connecting with places like Uber Eats or DoorDash. How do you plan to connect with other businesses here in Northeast Ohio?

From my point of view, the business community is essential to our work. As you know, Tri-C’s always been a leader in workforce development. But I’d like us to transition more into workforce innovation.

When I talk about workforce innovation, it is really co-designing curriculum opportunities with business and industry partners so that we can meet and achieve opportunities for the in-demand opportunities that actually exist.

You’re going to see me very, very eager and active in working with businesses and industry to understand how we better strengthen our relationship. I think we do an amazing job with a lot of the workforce work that we have done. As we move forward, we have to think about how we look at our curriculum, how we actually are able to showcase the skills that students acquire through our curriculum, how we allow our students to have the kind of work-based learning opportunities that give them a competitive advantage.

So, that means in working with business and industry, what are the “earn and learn” opportunities? We do lots of apprenticeships here, but what are going to be meaningful “earn and learn” opportunities that actually give our students a leg up and give our employers the opportunity to get the workforce they need given the talent shortages in Northeast Ohio and around the country?

As we wind down here, can you share one thing you really want Clevelanders to know about you as the college begins a new chapter with you at the helm?

I’d like them to know that I am the perennial partner. What that means is I look for meaningful ways to partner that ultimately allow all of us to win.

The partnerships that we develop have to show mission alignment, vision alignment and opportunities where everyone can move forward, because we all have a stake in helping Cleveland become even stronger. We all have a stake in making sure all of our citizens rise. We all have a stake in making sure the economic viability of our community is stable.

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

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