Interview Answers – Part 1

In the previous post I talked about being interviewed for the interim presidency at Laramie County Community College. ToCowboy boot at entrance to Laramie County Community College have an open search process, they chose to live stream the interviews and open forums on the Internet. I promised to post my answers to the questions. Since they’re lengthy, I’ll post the first five here and then the second five within the next few days.

Q1. Laramie County Community College is interested in the quality of their programs.  Give us an example of a time when you became aware of deficiencies in program quality at a college where you were employed and how you fixed the problem.

A1. When I first became an academic dean at Lake Superior College I was responsible for various instructional programs. There were several issues related to one program area when I moved into this position. There were 5 or 6 different degrees available in this program area, but there were very few core curriculum courses. Core curriculum as a baseline for all of the programs made sense, but there was very little of that already in the program designs. Additionally, there were not enough students to go around for each program to survive. Their enrollment had dropped from over 300 program-declared students to less than 100 students right about the time I became the dean.

Some of the program and course offerings were outdated, teaching 10-year-old techniques and skills. Three of the six faculty members provided high quality learning opportunities for students, but three others did not. It was difficult to assign all six faculty members full teaching loads because some of them did not have the skills to teach many of the needed classes.

We undertook a massive redesign project that would consolidate the offerings into no more than three different degree tracks, which were all built upon the same basic core of introductory knowledge classes, and which featured a laddered system of certificates leading to degrees, with two or three stop-out points or program-shift opportunities. Today they have a much more focused program of study that has high quality instruction, utilizes state-of-the-art technology and prepares students for employment in 2011 rather than 1995.

BTW, the enrollment never really bounced back, but the students who are there are more satisfied and are receiving a much better education.

Q2. Organizational executives often delegate broad authority to subordinates.  Suppose you had authorized someone to fix a particular problem, and this person kept reporting progress on getting the problem fixed, but you were unable to determine if the situation was actually improving.  How would you go about assessing progress on the problem?   If it turned out that there was no progress, what would you do then?

A2. Delegating authority to others does not excuse you from responsibility for the successful outcome of the task. Delegating authority brings a focus on you in at least two different ways; how well did the task get completed that you delegated to another, and how wise was your choice of whom the task should be delegated to?

Another question that I would ask is whether the person giving the false progress reports actually believed that progress was being made. I can easily see the scenario where there is an appearance, sort of a false illusion, that progress is being made when it really isn’t. So, I don’t want to immediately assume that the employee was willingly lying to me about the progress.

I have been in this situation a few times in my career, one in particular that I will talk about briefly. Unfortunately, I will be accused of airing dirty laundry about an individual if I give you the details of the situation on a live Internet broadcast. So, I’ll try to give enough details to be informative, but not enough to pinpoint who I’m specifically talking about.

One example was a case where an employee had assured me that a project would be completed prior to the end of the school year. Turns out that the project wasn’t completed on time. When asked why, the employee had ready answers/excuses for how other things, out of his or her control, were creating roadblocks to getting the project completed. This went on throughout the entire next year as well. There was always a new reason why the project couldn’t be completed. Many of those reasons sounded perfectly reasonable so it started to feel like the project just wasn’t going to get done, at least not in our lifetimes.

Although the excuses/reasons sounded plausible, it was difficult to ascertain how legitimate the perceived roadblocks actually were. I started talking about these roadblocks in larger group meetings since many of the excuses had to do with other employees. People weren’t willing to speak up against their fellow employee in the group meetings, but they did seek me out privately to let me know that what I said in the meeting (about the roadblocks) just wasn’t true. Usually it was where something about another individual employee was being held out to be the roadblock. “I can’t get this done until Billy Bob gets that other thing done.” Having open conversations with multiple staff who had knowledge about the project was the only way to get to the truth of the matter. After assigning the project to a different employee, the project was completed within about one month.

Q3. Tell us about a time in your career when a whole department in your organization needed to be restructured.  How did you handle that situation?

A3. Best example is the answer to the first question about redesigning the programs and course curriculum for that unnamed department. For a different example, let me talk about what is happening at Lake Superior College right now and why my own job is being eliminated. This might help you understand my current situation, as well as give you insight into how I would handle a similar situation differently.

The college (LSC)  is going through a major reorganization. I’ve been employed at the college for 15 years; first as a faculty member and then as an administrator starting in 2001. The president that hired me as an administrator retired during the past year and on July 1 a new president started at the college. The new president is a very nice guy, has over 20 years of experience as a college president, and has a very different idea about how a college should be structured, especially at the administrative levels.

Wave one of the restructuring had my name on it. Myself, along with three other vice presidents, were informed that our positions were being eliminated. As an employee-at-will, I’ve always known that this could happen, and now I’m experiencing what happens when the will is gone. One of the vice presidents might still have some sort of position available to him at the college, but the other three of us are gone after our three months transition time (by contract) has expired. To use the well-worn analogy of seats on the bus, the current president wanted to have what he considered to be the right seats on the bus (the positions in the right place on the org chart), and would deal later with whether the right people were sitting in those seats.

If I had been in his position, I too would have been looking at some restructuring. However, I would have approached it differently. I believe that it is very difficult to recruit, hire, and keep really good people/employees. My priority would be to keep my best talent, even if it means finding a different role at the college for them as long as they were capable of filling those other roles. In other words, I would have spent more time finding out which of my bus passengers had the best skill sets and could help move the college forward, and then I would have made sure that they had a seat on the bus.

One of the other senior administrators made the following statement (not necessarily word-for-word) after the news came down: “It seems odd that three of the brightest bulbs in the room are being extinguished.” That’s the piece that I would have done differently if I was determining how to restructure the administration of the college.

Q4. What is your idea of the proper relationship between a college president and a board of trustees?

A4. The Board of Trustees hires and fires and hopefully inspires the president. Board members are elected by the residents of the county to represent their interests – to be accountable to the taxpayers.

The president works for the board – not the other way around. Since the president works for the board, and since the board works for the people, then the president works for the people as well.

Board members can’t be expected to deal with the day-to-day workings of the college. That’s the responsibility of the college president and the other administrators who have been delegated the authority to work within their areas of assignment. If the college is not operating efficiently, effectively, and ethically – then the president and other administrators must be held accountable. Held accountable by the board.

The board sets the overall tone by creating strategic directions and college priorities – then the president is expected to implement the board’s strategic direction, work on those priorities, and move the college forward. It should be a pretty clean (simple) relationship, as long as personalities don’t get in the way.

Q5. Tell us about a time that you had to improve the image of the college where you worked. What actions did you take and what was the result?

The only college where I’ve been in a position to have much impact on improving the image of the college was at Lake Superior College. LSC is located in the border cities area of Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin, also known as the Twin Ports. There are three universities, a career college, and two two-year colleges within a 15 minute drive of one another. There’s another community college just 20 miles down the Interstate. We didn’t have too much of a concern with improving the image of the college, we had more of a problem of even being recognized as one of the players in the higher education market (just having an image at all was the key for several years). Aside from buying advertisements, it was sometimes tough for us to even get the college name mentioned in the paper. You don’t seem to have that problem here at LCCC.

The image of the college in the Duluth/Superior community has slowly become more and more positive over the years. As the college has grown, and as the importance of the technical (career) programs and the liberal arts (transfer) programs has become more recognized within the community, the college has experienced a similar increase in its image as a serious contributor to the surrounding community.

One of my areas of direct responsibility at LSC was management of the e-Campus. Online learning makes up about 28% of the total enrollment at the college, but it provides 33% of the tuition revenue. Our first online class was back in the ‘97-98 school year. By 2000 it was growing rather rapidly and then I was selected in 2001 by the college president to be the administrator in charge of online learning; first as a Dean and later as a Vice President. We worked very hard to improve the image of online learning in general and the LSC e-Campus in particular. I’m proud to say that LSC students taking online courses have expressed significantly higher satisfaction with the reputation of the college than have the students taking on-campus courses at the college. Lots of people don’t want to hear that stated, but it’s a fact and there are data to prove it.

End of part one. So there you have it, warts and all. This is not intended to be a word-for-word transcript from what I said (you can see that on the video archive), but it is intended to give the gist of what I had to say for each question.