Study in Determination

Recently appointed Holyoke Community College President William Messner is a firm believer in the community college mission of inclusion, not exclusion. But that assignment is becoming increasingly challenging at a time when the commitment to public higher education is waning.

William Messner says it wasn’t that long ago when community colleges were considered schools of last resort.

"If you couldn’t get in anywhere else, or if you didn’t know what to do with yourself, you went to a school like this," said Messner, who recently succeeded long-time Holyoke Community College President David Bartley. He noted that times have changed, however, and today the schools are often a first choice for people looking to enter some fields, and an attractive alternative for individuals and families suffering from sticker-shock when considering private institutions.

But community colleges must still serve those who don’t have the grades or wherewithal to attend most other schools, he explained, and they must also cater to those who need some time to figure out what they want to do professionally. And this is one of the many challenges facing community colleges in this day and age.

"We’re not a selective institution and we shouldn’t be — we’re a community college," he explained. "You can’t be closing the door on half the community and effectively carry out your mission. But being an open-door institution means you’re bringing in students at all levels of the preparedness spectrum, and you’re expected to deal with all those students at all those levels.

"That’s an incredible challenge," he continued. "And it’s made even moreso by the fact that the state has disinvested in the public higher education system over the past several years."

Messner, who has a deep background in public higher education, comes to HCC from the University of Wisconsin Colleges, where he served as chancellor and was responsible for the management of a 13-campus institution that served as the transfer arm of the university system.

He desired to return to a campus setting, however — he was former president of SUNY Orange in Middletown, N.Y. and held other administrative posts at individual schools — and chose HCC, which is at an intriguing time in its 58-year history.

The school remains in an expansion mode — in terms of both enrollment and campus infrastructure — and is currently building an $18 million business center that will bear the name of Yankee Candle founder Michael Kittredge.

As construction of the center continues, Messner is focusing his efforts on making it a true community resource, not a classroom building.

"One of my priorities is to more effectively connect the college to the community … we’ve done a good job of that historically, but much more needs to be done," he said. "And the best example is the business center. Our challenge is to make it a center for the community and not physical structure.

"It should be a manifestation of a programmatic outreach on the part of the college to better serve the needs of the community," he said. "We’re calling it a business center, and while in some respects that’s accurate, it’s a center not just for businesses, but for individuals, groups, and organizations that are about the business of the region."

While he is focused on his new school, Messner said he is also looking at collaborations with other area institutions, especially Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) and Greenfield Community College (GCC), in an effort to maximize the region’s public higher education resources.

The goal, he said, is not to squander any of those facilities’ resources by unnecessarily duplicating programs, especially when two of the schools, HCC and STCC, are only a few miles apart.

BusinessWest wraps up its series of stories on new college presidents in the Pioneer Valley with a wide-ranging discussion with Messner, who has dedicated much of his career to community colleges and fully understands their value to the cities and towns they serve

Grade Expectations

Since arriving in Holyoke, Messner has been "getting around," as he put it, in an effort to gain a full appreciation of the school, the city of Holyoke, the Pioneer Valley, and region’s higher education infrastructure.

He ran down a recent day’s calendar of events to illustrate the variety in his travels.

"I started off at a chamber breakfast, and ate lunch at a homeless shelter in downtown Holyoke," he said. "That night, I was at the 25th anniversary celebration for the Holyoke Mall, followed by an event at Heritage State Park — a poetry reading and the unveiling of a mural that 3- and 4-year-olds had created."

The next day, Messner spent the bulk of his morning at a program dedicated to improvement of workforce-development initiatives in the region. "These are the sorts of things a community college and its president should be involved in," he said. "That’s how we extend ourselves beyond our walls and into the community."

Messner told BusinessWest he enjoys handling the day-to-day challenges at a school, and also being actively involved in the community — elements that were missing from his duties as chancellor at the University of Wisconsin Colleges.

Prior to his work there, he served as vice provost of the State University of New York (SUNY) in Systems Administration. That assignment followed a 10-year stint as president of SUNY Orange, formerly Orange County Community College. There, he led development of a diversity program for the college resulting in a tripling of minority student enrollment and faculty hiring, completed the school’s first capital campaign, and established a marketing office and campaign that resulted in record student enrollments for two consecutive years.

Messner transitioned into college administration after a five-year run as a history instructor at Keystone College in La Plume, Pa. He later served that school as dean of the college and later a vice president before moving to SUNY Orange, where he served as vice president of Academic Affairs before becoming president.

At HCC, he said there are a number of items on his preliminary to-do list — which he described as a work in progress — and that many of them reflect challenges he confronted in New York and Wisconsin. He told BusinessWest that while enrollment at HCC is up, the number of what he called ’new’ students, those starting their college education rather than continuing it, has been fairly stagnant, and he plans to address that concern.

Part of the solution may be continued work to convey the message that HCC is truly a regional school. "I think we still struggle with that in some ways — some people think we’re just an institution for Holyoke," he explained. "We’re not; we attract students from across the region, including many from Springfield."

Another priority for Messner and all state and community college presidents in the Commonwealth is rebuilding the faculty and staff in the wake of cutbacks and early retirement. Like other schools, HCC has been forced to make greater use of adjunct faculty and part-time staff, who simply don’t have the same commitment to the school or its students as their full-time counterparts.

"At some of the schools I’ve worked at, adjuncts were some of our best instructors," he explained. "But what they don’t do, and what you can’t expect them to do, is everything outside the classroom that we expect and have delivered by full-time faculty.

"You also don’t get the continuity in terms of programming from semester to semester that you get from full-time faculty, nor the development of the curriculum that you get from full-time faculty," he continued. "You’re constantly in a mode of getting these adjuncts up to snuff, only to have them walk out the door the following semester or the following year," he continued. "We’re in the process of setting priorities for the school, priorities that will drive the budget. And I’ll be surprised if a commitment to improving the numbers of full-time faculty and staff is not at the top of that priority list."

A Stern Test

Meanwhile, another stated goal is to expand the school’s presence in the city of Holyoke — from both a cultural and economic perspective — and form additional partnerships with the city’s large Hispanic community.

"There’s a perception on the part of some that even though it’s only two miles from the center of Holyoke to our campus, those two miles loom large in some people’s minds relative to their willingness to avail themselves of our services," he said, adding that, conversely, some believe the college is too far from from the city’s center to have any real economic impact. "If you’re a Latino businessman in the center of Holyoke, do you perceive the community college as a resource to be taken advantage of, or do you perceive it to be a cluster of buildings out there on the perifery of town that has little if any relationship to what you’re about on a daily basis?"

To ease these perception problems, many have suggested that the school create a physical presence in the city’s downtown. Messner understands that sentiment, and told BusinessWest there may be some opportunities for the school to be visible and to have that presence, but not necessarily with a satellite campus.

"I believe the college needs to increase its presence in the downtown area of Holyoke, but I am dubious that this would involve a campus in the traditional sense that people use that word," he said. "I have used the term ’educational incubator,’ rather than campus, to describe the type of physical entity with which the college might be involved."

A downtown center could be used for a variety of programs, including adult basic education, high school equivalency test preparation, English as a Second Language (ESL) courses, and others. It would thus become an asset for both the city and the school.

Messner said that such an incubator might involve several institutions offering a variety of programming that would help local residents further their educational goals and subsequently connect to the broader array of programming offered by those educational facilities on their campuses.

One venue for such a facility could be an intermodal transportation center that would be created in a now-abandoned four-story fire station on Maple Street. A number of uses are being considered for the facility, including transportation, retail, and hospitality, said Messner, adding that one of the floors could be used to create classrooms and other learning facilities.

"Since I’ve arrived here, I’ve been impressed with Holyoke in terms of the vibrancy and the spirit of ’we can advance’ — we just need to do it together," he said. "I’m pleased that the college is part of that, but just one part. No group can do it themselves; we really need to do it together."

The Kittredge Center will play a role in this process, he said, adding that he is seeking input from institutions as diverse as the Springfield Urban League and Holyoke Medical Center to gain direction on the center’s function in the Pioneer Valley.

"Having dialogue with groups like that is critical before we decide which programs to pursue and what the overall business plan for the center will be," he said.

Aggressive Course

Like other public school presidents BusinessWest has profiled this fall, Messner has noticed a weakening in the commitment that has been made to public higher education.

At the University of Wisconsin, he said, a budget that was $1 billion a few years ago, has but cut by 25%. "That’s happening across the country," he explained. "Spending on public higher education has been reduced in 49 of the 50 states."

Economics have played a big part in this phenomenon, he said, but there are other factors at play, including a lack of recognition — on a national and regional level — of the importance of public higher education, and the profound impact on communities when a college education is put out of the reach of even small segments of the population.

"What makes public higher education particularly susceptible to the knife is the perception that we have an alternative source of revenue that the highway department or the correctional department doesn’t have — it’s called students and student tuition," he explained. "The state believes it can simply cut its support and pass on its share to the students in the form of higher tuition; every state has done it.

"The only problem is, when you raise tuition, especially in communities like Holyoke and Springfield, where we’re drawing on people at all levels of income, you’re going to price some students out of the market," he continued. "And many states — Wisconsin is one of them — have seen dramatic declines in the numbers of students of color and those who are low-income."

HCC strives to keep tuition as low as possible, he said, but it also committed to quality education, and therein lies a catch-22.

While working to strengthen the commitment to public higher education and thus ensure that community colleges can continue their practice of inclusion, Messner said he will help promote the regional approach taken to economic development and education in the Pioneer Valley.

He said he is encouraged by the new, recently unveiled Plan for Progress, which takes a decidedly regional philosophy and lists as one of its priorities a more-effective leveraging of its 14 colleges and universities.

He said it is unusual to have community colleges as close together geographically as HCC and STCC, a situation he believes poses both challenges and opportunities. He said he has had discussion with new STCC President Ira Rubenzahl and his counterpart at GCC, Robert Pura, about what he called a "regional strategy" that will also involve Westfield State College and UMass.

"The needs in this area are so acute in terms of education, human resource development, workforce development, or whatever label you want," he said. "No single institution can handle all that alone. The challenge is to effectively leverage the resources of our schools and not squander them, not duplicate, and not needlessly compete."

Final Exam

As he surveys the public higher education landscape, Messner can clearly see the progress that community colleges have made in the past few decades — in terms of public perception and the role they play in educating all elements of society.

The task at hand, he said, is to staunchly defend the ground that’s been gained and to make additional progress.

"Community colleges don’t face the same uphill battle they did when I started with them … we’re no longer considered the school of last resort," he said. "We’re more viable now, but we have some new challenges. v

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]