For Steve Robinson, taking the job of president at Lansing Community College is a story of coming home. He attended MSU, where he had a student job at WKAR, and he taught at LCC. He was most recently president of Owens Community College in Ohio. Now that he’s been back for a couple of weeks, WKAR’s Scott Pohl talked with Robinson about the challenges ahead.
SCOTT POHL: Here's my first question: you have an obvious passion for community colleges. You were already a president of a community college. Why did you want to come back to this one, besides the allure of moving back home, I suppose. Why this job?
STEVE ROBINSON: Lansing Community College is widely regarded as one of the best community colleges in the country, so not only was it the place that I got my start, it just has so many wonderful attributes, starting with the great people. We have phenomenal faculty here. We have excellent facilities, but we've been an innovator for a long time. In fact, the history of Lansing Community College is that we became a community college before there was even a community college law in Michigan. The folks who founded LCC in the late 50s were visionaries and were way ahead of the curve of this great American institution. So, yes, I was president at another really fine community college, and I and I loved it there, but this wasn't just an opportunity to come home. It was an opportunity to lead an organization that is really thought of nationally as one of the preeminent community colleges.
PANDEMIC: A "RESOURCE CHALLENGE" FOR LCC
POHL: Aside from how to handle the pandemic, what might you say is the biggest challenge facing you now at LCC?
ROBINSON: You know that our mitigation efforts to get the public health situation under control have put severe pressures on state sales tax and our state appropriations. That's a very real disruptor for all of the economy, and particularly public higher ed, so resource challenges require sacrifices, they require difficult choices. One of the great things about the teams here at LCC is we do have a lot of experience with sound financial management, we've got great communication on campus, and those, in my experience, are the important tools that you need to move through a financial crisis.
I've led through a financial crisis in the past, and the most important thing to do is remember what your mission is as an organization. When there are limited or finite resources, allocating those resources to mission and then communicating about those decisions is what will pull an organization through a challenge like that. LCC president Steve Robinson
POHL: Part of your work life experience includes spending time as a union president, a faculty union president. I wonder if you think the faculty at LCC should feel like they have an ally in the president's office, and conversely, should taxpayers maybe be going, oh, he's going to be super generous with the faculty. We might have a problem here. How do you think people should react to that?
ROBINSON: It is an issue, and to those questions, let me take them in reverse. If I'm a taxpayer, I might have a concern that someone who had a labor background would not be a good steward of the public resources. If you looked at my record as an administrator, and my career's been about 50-50…I was 15 years as a faculty member, 10 of those as a labor leader, and then in a couple of years I will have been a manager or an administrator for the same amount of time. I have, I think, done a great job of balancing the interests of the employer and the collective bargaining employees. For me, in public higher ed and community colleges in particular, the formula for that is to always come back to the student and the student experience, so that's been helpful.
Looking at my record, I am always making decisions based on what's best for students, what's best for the organization, and there's nothing in my background that would make folks think that I am always going to be an advocate for one labor organization over the collective interests of the whole college. LCC president Steve Robinson
The only other thing I would say about that is my experience in labor relations is, the best labor leaders take what we call a mutual gains or interest based bargaining approach to collective bargaining. In order to effectively do that, you really have to balance the college employer interests and the employee organized employee group interests. I actually remember and worked with some of the labor leaders here at LCC when I was in Michigan. My interactions with them have been great. And my understanding, two weeks in, is that we really have made some gains in those interest based strategies, where we're coming together.
ATTRACTING AND RETAINING STUDENTS
POHL: What are you seeing in terms of enrollment for the fall? How can you attract students under these current circumstances How can you retain students right now?
ROBINSON: Attracting students is really important, but especially important during a pandemic, when some of our greatest assets are not really available to students. Right now we have gorgeous facilities, gorgeous campuses, and they will be important into the future, but our learning is primarily taking place online right now. One of the benefits of that is our faculty and our staff who support remote learning. They were prepared for this. We have great capacity to deliver high quality instruction online, and so to the issue of attraction, I would say to students who might have been attending in person classes elsewhere, have a fresh look at LCC, right here. We've got great capacity and great teaching.
One of the most important enrollment managers, different strategies for a community college, is working on retention, because community college students are retained at a lower rate than them in other sectors of higher ed. We just need to do a better job of making sure that our students persist from semester to semester, and our efforts to do that are challenged because we are remote. What we know works is things like intrusive advising and more face to face with counselors and advisors, and that's difficult to do during a pandemic, but we have to find a way to do it.
This pandemic has had a downward pressure on enrollment. We are budgeted for about 20% decline year over year from fall to fall. There's some writing in the last week or so that community colleges might expect to see a little bit of a spike in late August, when traditional university students wake up and say, wow, all my classes are online. Why don't I go to the local community college? So, we're prepared for that, but this is impacting everybody, and it has it has decreased enrollment. LCC president Steve Robinson
THE FUTURE OF WLNZ
POHL: One of the recent budgetary decisions at the college that got a lot of attention was the announcement that there would be less funding, perhaps even zero funding, for the campus radio station. We covered that story at the time it was in the news. What's your personal vision for the future of the radio station?
ROBINSON: Well, the future of WLNZ is something I'm keenly interested in working as a community problem. In fact, I was having a conversation about when some of the data and the information that I need to start working that issue will be ready. It's something that I really want to approach from a partnership standpoint. Here, my second week, I don't have a specific vision because I want to do a lot of listening. I want to listen to our folks who run the station, I want to listen to our students, our community that uses the station, and I don't yet have a good analysis of the station's business model and then the community perspectives about it. That's going to change rapidly because radio matters to me. I am a consumer of radio and I'm passionate about radio. I did student radio when I was a student, so I'm very interested in learning where we are. I want to work with community groups.
One thing I do know, though, is that the difficult decisions that were made before I came about the radio station, those factors that drove that decision really haven't changed. The resource situation is dire for that, and so we will needing to look at creative solutions going forward.