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HCC Celebrates 60 Years — and a Tradition of Perseverance and Innovation
David Bartley

David Bartley, past president of HCC, poses with a caricature of himself, drawn as part of the college’s 60th anniversary celebration.

David Bartley, former president of Holyoke Community College, said the institution’s 60th anniversary, marked this year, has caused him to remember HCC’s past and look to its future, as well as the changes higher education has seen across the country.

“We used to run colleges with chalk and talk,” he said. “Today, there’s $100,000 worth of equipment in a classroom that has to be continuously updated, and that’s not ever going to change.”

It has indeed been a good month for reflection for both Bartley and HCC’s current president, William Messner, who took his post three years ago. The duo represents two-thirds of HCC’s history of leadership; its first president, George Frost, served from 1947 to 1975, then Bartley held that position until 2003.

“It’s a little daunting to be one of only three presidents,” said Messner, “but what I take away from this 60th anniversary is the overwhelming positivity surrounding the institution. Every individual I’ve talked to recently cites the college’s significant effect on their life, and so it is my job to take that legacy to the next level.”

From the Ground Up

Even with only three presidents in six decades, the college has indeed had a colorful run. It was founded in 1946 as Holyoke Graduate School, and in 1947 changed its name to Holyoke Junior College following state-level legislation that permitted municipal higher education programs to do so.

Frost was the college’s only full-time employee for six years, before Ellen Lynch was appointed his secretary. They shared an office in what was once the cloakroom of the old Holyoke High School building. Additional full-time employees — two full-time professors — were not hired for another five years, in 1958.

Frost called students personally with end-of-semester grades and announcements, and the school funded faculty salaries and operating expenses with tuition payments only — which were $6 per credit for Holyoke residents and $7 for non-residents.

In 1961, Holyoke Junior College moved from its temporary home in Holyoke High School to the former Elmwood Elementary School on South Street, where it remained for six years. In 1965, the institution joined the state community college system and changed its name to Holyoke Community College. Four years later, the college moved again to the Holyoke High School building, which by that time had been turned over to HCC following the construction of a new high school.

Less than four months later, however, disaster struck — the building went up in flames (the cause was thought to be a faulty ventilation fan in the attic), leaving nothing but a brick shell. Operations were returned quickly to the Elmwood Elementary School, and students missed only one day of classes. But a new threat soon surfaced.

With the newly opened Springfield Technical College (now STCC) only a few miles away, the Mass. Board of Regional Community Colleges backed a move to relocate HCC’s students to STC and forego building a new home for the former.

Remembering the fire and the precipice on which it placed HCC, Bartley quoted John F. Kennedy.

“Victory has 100 fathers, and defeat has none,” he said. “The fire in 1968 had a lot of people saying we only needed one college in this section of the Valley, and we did a lot of work to point out why we needed two. Now, there are two very successful community colleges in the area, and we believe we had our victory.”

Out of the Frying Pan…

Indeed, a group of Holyoke-based civic leaders, educators, and business owners formed the Friends of Holyoke Community College and lobbied to save HCC. Holyoke’s mayor at the time, William Taupier, and the president of the state senate, Sen. Maurice Donahue, a friend of Frost’s, were among those who supported the cause, and in 1969, a temporary building on the site of the fire had been erected.

Plans for a new campus were unveiled, and the current campus on Homestead Ave. was opened in 1974.

Frost retired soon after his so-called “final task” was completed, and Bartley took the helm, beginning his nearly three-decade-long career as HCC’s president. His first act at the post was to appoint his predecessor as founding director of the alumni association.

All of these stories, and countless others, were on Bartley’s mind this month, when the college celebrated formally with a number of community, civic, and business leaders from across the region.

“I was delighted that we were able to talk about the past, but the real key is the future,” said Bartley. “I think some of the challenges of yesterday are still there — the college has to keep abreast of developing curricula nationwide, and make sure courses are relevant to the industries of today.”

During his tenure, Bartley watched the advent of computer technology take a front-row seat in higher education. He said the adoption of modern modes of telecommunication went relatively smoothly at HCC, but it also marked a cultural shift on college campuses across the country that brought with it some new hurdles to clear.

“People understood it was necessary, or else the students would change and evolve faster than the curriculum,” he said. “We expanded the electronics offerings dramatically, while staying true to the basics.

“The college has always been current, but challenges revolve around funding new programs, and that’s not going to get any cheaper as time goes on,” he added. “Education is a slow and labor-intensive industry, and because its core product is the imparting of knowledge, it will always be that way.”

Messner agreed, noting that he, too, has seen some of those pervasive challenges shaping decisions at HCC, as well as a host of new concerns.

“Fifty percent of the work day is spent on resource development,” he said. “It’s no secret that competition for state dollars is becoming more acute, and we have to fill the gap some way.”

The college recently completed the Gift of Opportunity campaign to help close that gap, raising $5.2 million — $1.2 million beyond its goal. In addition, a number of programs are in place to capitalize on HCC’s existing strengths and address burgeoning challenges.

“We’ve been doing several things over the past few years to ensure that the quality of programming, and the education the institution has been known for, stays solidly in place,” said Messner. “We’ve needed to build the number of full-time faculty since that number eroded, primarily through attrition, between 2001 and 2003, when the state was suffering economically.”

He said that cutting back on faculty during tight financial times is a good short-term economic strategy, but has an adverse effect in the long term. Currently, the faculty has been boosted to represent the same numbers as in 2001, and as enrollment grows, further additions are planned.

“We’re filling about a dozen spots now,” he said, noting that lowering faculty-to-student ratios is just one part of a larger move to improve operations across the campus. “Another thing we’re doing a better job of is assessing how we are doing in general. We’re looking specifically at how new students are treated — we’ve been involved in a nationwide program called Foundations of Excellence, for instance, which provides support to institutions in assessing the freshman experience.”
Those initiatives are just two examples of an ongoing objective at HCC: to stay available to the community at large.

“The demographics in this area are changing dramatically,” said Messner. “Many individuals are coming to the region with a lack of education, or a lack of a tradition of education, both of which are intrinsic to a strong workforce. As the population has changed, we have needed to change our approach in terms of reaching out to these groups that are part of the community.”

Messner said a wide array of initiatives have been put into place to recruit students and enhance their college experience, ranging from an outreach program geared toward the Latino population to college programs for high school students, to introduce them to the campus and allow them to experience higher education early on.

“We’re also working with students who haven’t come through the high school pipeline and instead took the GED, and are looking for the next step,” he said. “We’re using the GED as a new pathway into HCC, and that’s an example of one strategy to make higher education more accessible.”

These initiatives, in turn, have two divergent goals: the provision of quality education for a diverse community, and the creation of a steady stream of both individuals and resources aimed at workforce development in the region.

One of the most notable developments in that regard was the $18 million Kittredge Workforce Development Center, which opened in 2006. The 55,000-square-foot, five-story building is home to the school’s Business Division and HCC’s Community Services Department, which offers many of the programs Messner spoke of, including GED preparation and testing and summer youth programs.

The center also hosts a number of economic-development and workforce-development-related agencies. These include HCC’s Center for Business and Professional Development, which offers a wide range of workforce-development services designed to assess employee skills, identify knowledge gaps, and conduct training to remediate deficiencies; WISER, home to the country’s leading database for international trade statistics, which relocated to HCC from UMass in 2005; and the Western Mass. office of the Mass. Export Center, will offers market research, export training, and international business development resources.

The center also features 4,000 square feet of conference/meeting spaces equipped with high-speed and wireless Internet, videoconferencing, and state-of-the-art lighting and projection. Messner said the center is an excellent example of new technology and modes of thinking taking HCC’s long-held strength in community, career, and resource development to a new, more relevant level.

“Workforce development has been a strength for 60 years,” he said, “and with the new business building, we can expand into a variety of programs that we didn’t have 20 years ago, and there will be even more opportunity for the students to move forward. Workforce development offerings have increased by 20%, and we’re just gearing up.”

Those programs, said Messner, are just one aspect of bringing a long-held mission at HCC forward into fast-changing times. Concurrently, both he and Bartley hope that some strengths at the college stay largely the same, serving as a foundation for further growth in the future.

Blaze of Glory

“I, for one, am appalled by lecture halls holding 500 people,” said Bartley. “No learning takes place, and that’s not what a community college does. It’s certainly not something I ever hope to see at HCC.”

Looking back on 60 years and looking ahead to the next 60, Bartley mused that today’s dynamic, computer-based presentations in the classroom and the cutting-edge technology of the Kittredge Center are developments that were necessary to bring HCC current in a fast-changing world.

But a little chalk-talk can still take an institution a long way — out of the fire, and into the fight.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]