New HCC President Sees Growth Opportunities for Herself and Her Students
Christina Royal recently took the helm at Holyoke Community College. She brings with her a phrase, or saying, that she contrived and uses often as she talks about higher education and her approach to it: “it takes a village to raise a student.”
Before accepting the position of provost and vice president of Academic Affairs at Inver Hills Community College just outside the Twin Cities in Minnesota, Christina Royal first turned down an offer to become president of a school in Texas.
The stated reasons for that somewhat unusual career decision — many who have spent years working in higher education and believe they’re ready to apply for president positions yearn for that opportunity to lead their own school — speak volumes about Royal and her priorities. And also about the next school that would choose her to occupy the corner office: Holyoke Community College.
“I didn’t feel like it was going to be the best fit to get me the college experiences that I needed to prepare me ultimately to step into a college presidency and succeed,” she said in reference to job in the Lone Star State. “I’m a lifelong learner through and through, and when I look at my career to date, I tend to seek out positions where I see opportunities for growth and opportunities where I can make an impact.
“While it’s been helpful to be upwardly mobile in my career trajectory,” she went on, “it’s more important for me to feel that I can make a difference in that role and that I can learn something.”
Which says something about the provost’s job in Minnesota — and she did quite a bit of learning there, as we’ll see later — and also about the job she started on Jan. 9.
I really believe that having partnerships with business and industry and the community is essential for an institution of higher education to thrive.”
Starting with her visit to the campus on Homestead Avenue, she said she felt a “connection” — to the school, its mission, its current efforts to meet it, and the community as a whole. And the subsequent interviews and conversations with a host of constituencies, including students, faculty, and staff, only made the connection stronger.
At HCC, she saw an opportunity to forge an even stronger connection between the school and the community it serves, and thus make both stronger and more vibrant.
“I have a phrase that I’ve used often during my career — that ‘it takes a village to raise a student,’” she noted. “And I really believe that having partnerships with business and industry and the community is essential for an institution of higher education to thrive.
“Likewise, for a community with a community college to thrive, it needs to have a strong community college,” she went on. “I look at it as a bi-directional relationship and partnership.”
Royal arrives at HCC at an intriguing time for that school, community colleges in general, the ones in this state, and the four that serve this region. Indeed, those four institutions were chosen by BusinessWest as one of its Difference Makers for 2017, for their efforts to not only provide convenient, affordable access to higher education, but for becoming huge role players in regional economic-development efforts.
And, as that story goes on to note, the community colleges in this region have increasingly been working in collaboration among themselves and myriad other partners to address a host of workforce issues, including the skills gap plaguing virtually every sector of the economy.
Royal touched on some of these efforts when she talked with BusinessWest just a few days after her arrival — “nothing in this office is mine,” she said of what was in the credenza and on the walls — and noted that they fit right in with those basic criteria she was looking for in a move up the career ladder (and a college presidency) — opportunities to learn and grow professionally, and opportunities to make a difference.
As for community colleges as a whole, they are facing a host of common challenges, including enrollment — high-school graduation classes are getting smaller, and the economy is doing generally well, two factors that certainly don’t help drive individuals to community-college gates — and also financial pressures, and ongoing efforts to improve graduation rates, or ‘success rates,’ as many like to call them, because not all students are seeking a degree.
HCC is confronting these issues just as all schools are, said Royal, while it is also focused on some of its own specific challenges, including a soon-to-commence renovation of its campus center and a host of area workforce-development issues.
For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Royal about why she ultimately took this opportunity to become a college president, why she focused her career on the community-college community, as she called it, and what kind of learning opportunities she’s expecting at HCC.
Facing Stern Tests
Before getting into all that, though, Royal spent some time addressing the question often put to those putting ‘president’ on their business card for the first time — how and when did she know she was ready for that level of responsibility and challenge?
She said she recalls no specific morning when she woke up with that realization, but, rather, that it came with time, the accumulation of experience, the stockpiling of needed confidence … and confirmation from others in the industry that she was, indeed, ready to ascend to the top rung.
“I had a very well-rounded background, both in business and in higher education, that gave me a sense of the issues within higher education and the changing landscape of community colleges,” she told BusinessWest. “Given the number of college presidents that have been in these roles for many years and had started to retire, I was thinking this was a good time to be looking at pursuing one of those jobs.”
As for that accumulation of experience, it has come across the broad spectrum of higher education, starting in the private sector with CompUSA Inc. There, she provided instruction to more than 2,000 students for the Social Security Administration — and a host of other corporate clients — on various software-application programs.
From there, she went to the Beacon Institute for Learning in Florida, where, among other things, she was responsible for curriculum development, implementation, and assessment of technical training and certification programs for more than 20 colleges and universities, including Duke, Notre Dame, and Rutgers.
She then returned to her alma mater, serving from 2001 to 2006 as director of Technology-Assisted Learning in Marist College’s School of Graduate and Continuing Education in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
In early 2006, she would take a job that would eventually inspire a career-path decision. It was executive director of Distance Learning at Cuyahoga Community College (CCC) in Cleveland, a massive school with four campuses, two corporate colleges, a $270 million budget, and roughly 52,000 credit and non-credit students. She would later become assistant vice president of eLearning & Innovation in 2010, a post she would hold until mid-2013.
It was during her tenure at CCC that Royal would first earn her doctorate in education (in 2007, at Capella University’s School of Education) a pre-requisite for most high-level jobs in higher education, especially president, and later achieve that aforementioned confidence and skill set also needed to ascend to those levels.
“My college president at the time said, ‘this is not for the faint of heart, but if you’re interested in this, then I’m going to send you to an executive-leader program focused on the job and the role of the president,’” she recalled. “She went on, ‘if you’re still interested when you come, let’s talk.’”
She went, was interested when she came back, and the two did talk, she went on, adding that she considered herself ready for a presidency when there were “few surprises in the job,” and she had acquired a set of experiences that made her ready. She would cross that threshold at her next career stop — Inver Hills.
And it was also while in Cleveland, she said, that she began to focus on that aforementioned community-college community as her career ambition.
That mindset was only solidified at Inver Hills (which she chose over that Texas school), where she led a number of academic and workforce-development initiatives, including the South of the River Education Center, a workforce partnership with a host of other schools and economic-development-related agencies.
I had a very well-rounded background, both in business and in higher education, that gave me a sense of the issues within higher education and the changing landscape of community colleges.”
She told BusinessWest she has been looking at a number of president positions over the past several months, but made HCC the her main focus for a host a reasons, including geography (her family is still in the Albany area), but especially those aforementioned opportunities to grow professionally and make a difference — at the school and within the community it serves.
Since arriving on the campus during its winter intercession — students were not due back until late in January — Royal said she has taken advantage of that quiet time to meet with several of the constituencies she’ll be working with and beside.
These included staff and, later, faculty, as well as Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, several state legislators, the school’s foundation, the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, and the other area community college presidents (through a photo shoot for the Difference Makers program).
She and Springfield Technical Community College President John Cook have already talked more than a few times, continuing a dialogue — and pattern of collaboration — forged by their respective predecessors, Bill Messner at HCC and Ira Rubenzahl at STCC, who retired within a few weeks of each other last summer. (You can read more about those collaborative efforts in the story on page A4).
Royal has also become acquainted with many of HCC’s current initiatives, and there are many of them, including:
• A $43.5 million renovation of the school’s campus center. The two-year project will change the look, feel, and orientation of the campus, and give it what administrators are calling “a new front door.”;
• The Mass. Casino Careers Training Institute, a joint effort among all the state’s community colleges to train people for careers at gambling facilities, including the $950 million MGM Springfield now taking shape in that city’s South End;
• The Cubit Building. That’s the name given to an old mill in downtown Holyoke that takes that shape. HCC will be moving its culinary-arts program into the first two floors of that structure, thus making it the anchor tenant in a building that will also feature market-rate housing and is touted as one of the keys to revitalization of the city’s Innovation District;
• TWO (Training & Workforce Options), a collaborative effort with STCC to provide training programs to help business sectors and individual companies close recognized skills gaps; and
• The school’s designation as an Hispanic Serving Institution, a federal designation from the U.S. Department of Education. Schools earn it when they have an enrollment of undergraduate full-time-equivalent students that is at least 25% Hispanic, a threshold HCC has reached. If it maintains that number for a year, it will be eligible to apply for certain grants that can be used to assist that specific constituency, Royal said.
As might be expected, Royal said one of her first priorities for the school will be to undertake development of a new strategic plan, which would be the first in decades, in her estimation.
She doesn’t expect that a new plan will yield many surprises in terms of recognized priorities, growth opportunities, and a specific strategic direction (although one never knows), but instead will provide needed affirmation of a host of agenda items.
These include the broad issues of access, enrollment, and how to grow it given the current, and lingering, challenges, and developing programs to improve students’ chances for success — whether they’re seeking a certificate, a two-year degree, or a pathway to a four-year degree.
And with that, we turn to what Royal wrote to the search committee that would choose HCC’s next president as she expressed her interest in the position.
“I have been intentional in my career about serving the community-college mission,” she said. “Growing up as a first-generation, low-income, biracial college student, I understand the community-college student and the challenges they face. Student success is most effectively achieved when an institution understands the unique support needs of students in two-year colleges.”
To further emphasize ‘unique,’ she would go on to discuss — with the search committee in that letter, and then, several months later, with BusinessWest — an initiative called the Mobile Food Pantry at Inver Hills.
As that name suggests, this program, created in partnership with a Minnesota-area nonprofit called Open Door, which has a mission to end local hunger, allows Inver Hills’ students in need of food support to receive healthy food on a bus that travels directly to the college.
And there were, and are, plenty of students in need, said Royal, adding that 60% of Inver Hills’ students were classified as low-income.
Whether HCC needs a mobile food pantry or something like it remains to be seen, said Royal, adding that it is merely one example of the ways community colleges can and should work to address the many obstacles standing in the way of students’ success.
“The reason programs like Food Pantry are important is that you cannot educate a hungry student,” said Royal in a firm, direct voice. “We do have students who are struggling, their food insecure, their housing insecure, there are transportation problems … these issues are real, and they impact their quality of focus as they try to concentrate on their studies and improve the quality of their life and the lives of their children.
“We have to look at how we’re able to address, or partner with someone who can address, some of these social-service issues that come with some of the students we serve,” she went on. “So I’ll be looking at community partnerships to address some of these issues.”
Food for Thought
As Royal noted, it takes a village to raise a student.
She is now in a leadership position within that village, and is intent on using that power and responsibility to make success less of a goal and more of a reality.
And, while doing so, she’ll be focused on creating more and different learning experiences — not only for the students, but for her as well.
That’s why she came to HCC, after all.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]