National Advisory Board

National Advisory Board

CHAIR

William Law
Former President
St. Petersburg College (FL)

A Conversation With Dr. Law

William Law, former president of St. Petersburg College (FL) and new Center National Advisory Board Chair, recently shared the following in a conversation with Center Executive Director Evelyn Waiwaiole.

Bill Law and Evelyn Waiwaiole

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Will you tell us about your background?

I started my community college career as Vice President for Institutional Planning at St. Petersburg Junior College (FL) in January of 1981. In that role, I had the good fortune to be part of the impact of the microcomputer revolution on the classroom experience and the student learning process. I watched the evolution of classroom teaching, textbooks, out-of-class learning, and faculty professional development as the technology became faster, easier to use, and more ubiquitous in college learning.

In late spring of 1988, I was selected as president of Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Illinois, where I replaced the founding president who had served for more than 20 years. By this time, accreditation agencies had begun to move beyond “input” metrics to the range of performance metrics, data, and information that had not been previously collected, organized, and displayed. At the same time, the focus of accreditation had shifted to include an institutional self-assessment plan by which the college had to document the means it employed to collect, share, and develop plans to address the impacts of its activities, rather than the comparative rank of input the amount of resources put into each program.

After four years in Illinois, I was selected to be the founding president of Montgomery College (now Lonestar Montgomery) in suburban Houston. I had the freedom to design the facilities at the new college and to organize the academic and student support programs. The single most impactful learning trend at the time was the creation of learning centers on each campus where students could go when not in class to access more powerful and focused electronic learning, while at the same time be given immediate access to learning support and tutors to assist them in their study efforts.

At Montgomery College, we had our first experience with the use of CCSSE—the Community College Survey of Student Engagement. Indeed, Montgomery College served as a pilot site to field test the survey instrument and to refine its administration process. In 2002, I returned to Tallahassee (I had gotten my graduate degrees from Florida State University) to become the president of Tallahassee Community College (TCC). At TCC, not a great deal of work had been done in the movement toward assessing student learning for all students. The college had a great deal of data on student demographics, but very little data beyond anecdotes of the effectiveness of teaching and the impact on students. (I might add that the anecdotal information was impressive—TCC students went on to the university system and did quite well!) By now, the higher education industry was in full disruption trying to balance the impacts of evolved accreditation, greater diversity, higher public accountability, and stunning changes in the use of technology both in and out of classes. The challenges to convey and sort out all of the interactions of these observable trends caused a great deal of anxiety for the classroom instructors and all who were responsible for supporting students on a day-to-day basis.

My final professional step came in June of 2010 when I was selected as the president of St. Petersburg College, among the very first community colleges in America to add baccalaureate education to a long history of associate and certificate programs. Assessing the progress of students as they moved through the institution became a paramount challenge for the college. Trying to identify documentable patterns of success/failure, managing the ever-tightening financial aid support, and—most importantly—maintaining and expanding the faculty’s control in the classroom setting proved high order challenges to academic leaders and to college trustees.

How did the institutions you led use Center data?

My graduate school background was in the field of Institutional Research, so I had a natural affinity for clear, concise, and reliable data. Before committing to pilot and use the CCSSE survey, I reviewed each of the questions contained in the form to be certain that the responses would be useful, understandable, and supportable from other research. I knew that we would have in-depth discussions about why an item was included in the survey, how the responses would be portrayed, and what differences in student learning responses would imply, both individually and collectively. The CCSSE survey questions were meticulously researched from other student performance studies and were clearly able to withstand any contentions of bias, reliability, or accuracy. This seemed vital if we were to have faculty support the use of the survey and if we were going to use the results to advise budget decisions and college policy.

At three institutions I led, the process was quite similar. Faculty leadership were engaged with assessing how best to assemble factual, reliable data on student progress through the institution. We asked faculty to examine the scope and nature of the CCSSE survey and to determine if the results could give strong guidance to strengthening areas where students seemed to be having the most difficult times. Prior to the administration of the survey, I would write a letter to each of the faculty who were being asked to give up a class period to allow for the administration of the survey. I would emphasize to them that the CCSSE survey was the only commitment I would seek that took away from their classroom time; the need to better understand how our students made progress through the institution was paramount. To their collective credit, no faculty ever complained or declined to participate!

At all levels, and at all times, we had a complete commitment to transparency in sharing the results of the survey with all members of the college. In fairness, these three institutions (Montgomery College, Tallahassee Community College, and St. Petersburg College) were strong performers in student achievement, a fact that mitigated the sense that the CCSSE survey would be used for manipulative or heavy-handed purposes.

Annual survey results would be distributed as soon as they were received, and leadership discussions—both formal and informal—would ensue on what we perceived the data was “telling us.” The results would be summarized and presented at a monthly meeting of the college’s board with early recommendations of how the results could be included in the next round of institutional planning and budgets. Addressing the findings of the CCSSE survey became the primary (non-legislative) driver of budget decisions.

What benefits do you see for colleges utilizing Center data for institutional improvement?

The commitment of an institution to use CCSSE survey data as a key element in institutional planning and budgeting provides an institution with “more lift, less drag.” The results are unassailable—proven research-based questions, tightly structured administration, and hundreds of other similar institutions in the findings. Individual faculty and counselors are not identified or singled out as particularly strong or particularly weak. The nature of the survey questions provides impetus to early strategies that can be adopted by faculty—individually and collectively—to address and strengthen the experience of students as they enter, proceed through, and exit the institution.

CCSSE also provides a means for a college to compare its results with other similar colleges of their own choosing. Participating colleges are not “rank ordered” to determine who is the best (or the worst!). Colleges can prioritize their internal energies to address areas of need or to change the experiences of students as evidenced in the survey results. Programs and services do not feel singled out, but rather feel supported in the ongoing challenges to improve the student experience.

The most common response to the survey results is one of “I thought that was the case.” Most of the CCSSE findings are not a surprise to the institutional participants. The presentation of the findings does, however, impel strong discussion about how to address the evidenced needs. Rarely do the results fall to only one department or program. One of the biggest benefits of using CCSSE is that the student support professionals find common ground with the instructional faculty in their mutual efforts to guide students to successful completion of their programs.

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