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Women of Impact 2020

President, Holyoke Community College

The Pandemic Provides a Lens Through Which to View Her Leadership Skills

Christina Royal

Christina Royal

As she talked about the COVID-19 pandemic and her administration’s multi-leveled response to it, Christina Royal related a story that speaks volumes about both the impact of the crisis on every aspect of the higher-education experience at Holyoke Community College (HCC) and her own efforts to lead this institution through it — and beyond it.

It also helps explain why she’s been named a Woman of Impact for 2020.

This story is about a student, one of the many who needed some help with learning virtually from home — help that went beyond providing a laptop and internet connectivity.

“Through our student emergency fund, this student put in a request and said, ‘I’m so grateful for the college to provide a laptop for me … but I don’t have a desk,’” she recalled, adding that there were several people in this household suddenly faced with the challenge of trying to learn and work from home. “And that’s just one example of how we had to think about support at a deeper level, really dive into the individual needs of each of our students to support them during this time, and address the inequities that exist in the communities we serve.”

The college would go on to fund a desk for this individual, she went on, adding that this piece of furniture is symbolic of how the school has indeed expanded its view of student emergency needs during this pandemic — but also in general.

“One of the questions I bring up to employees of the college is, ‘what do we want to look like on the other side of this pandemic?’ Because I don’t want to be a person who just felt like I was trying to weather the storm. I want us to emerge stronger from this.”

Royal arrived on campus roughly five years ago with a mindset to do what was needed to address the many needs of students and help enable them to not only grasp the opportunity for a two-year college education, but to open many other doors as well. As a first-generation, low-income, biracial college student herself, she understands the challenges many of HCC’s students face — from food insecurity to lack of adequate housing and transportation — and she commits many of her waking hours thinking about how to help students overcome such barriers and achieve success, however that might be defined.

Meanwhile, as an administrator, she he has put the emphasis on long-term planning and leading for today, as well as tomorrow. This is evidenced by her push for a new strategic plan for the school — the first in its existence — but also the manner in which she is addressing this pandemic.

Instead of something to be merely survived, although that is certainly important enough, she views it as a learning experience and, in many respects, an opportunity.

“One of the questions I bring up to employees of the college is, ‘what do we want to look like on the other side of this pandemic?’” she explained. “Because I don’t want to be a person who just felt like I was trying to weather the storm. I want us to emerge stronger from this, and the work we have to do is so absolutely critical to this community, and we have an opportunity to continually strengthen ourselves.

Christina Royal meets with students at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute, which opened its doors in 2019.

Christina Royal meets with students at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute, which opened its doors in 2019.

“Just like education is a journey, so is continuous improvement,” she went on, adding that this process can — and must — continue, even in the middle of a global pandemic.

Her commitment to this process, and her ability to effectively keep one eye on the present and the other on the future, certainly makes her a Women of Impact.

 

Course of Action

Royal calls them ‘town meetings.’

These are Zoom sessions that she conducts with various audiences — students, faculty, members of the community — to keep them abreast of new developments and initiatives in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the college in general. She’s staged 19 of them since March, including one just a few weeks ago in which the topic of conversation among faculty and staff was the ongoing accreditation process and the comments offered by the team at the New England Commission of Higher Education.

“I really prioritized this as part of our crisis-management plan — we really had to increase communication at the college,” she told BusinessWest. “When people are feeling isolated in their homes, and they’re uncertain about this thing called COVID, and they’re uncertain about their own health and safety, and they’re concerned about the college, I felt it was really important to come together.

“And while it’s really nice when we can come together in the same room, community is community, and we need to bring people together to feel a sense of community through this,” she said, adding that another initiative she’s implemented is the formation of a volunteer team of students and staff tasked with calling every student enrolled at the school every week “just to check in and see how they’re doing.”

These town meetings and weekly check-ins are just some of the ways Royal is providing both stewardship and forward thinking at a time when every college administrator’s abilities are being sternly tested. And the pandemic provides a lens through which her leadership skills and ability to build partnerships and create collaborative initiatives can be seen.

But first, we need to talk about life before anyone had ever heard the phrase COVID-19.

Royal became just the fourth president in HCC’s history in early 2017 after a stint as provost and vice president of Academic Affairs.

In an interview with BusinessWest soon after taking the helm, she provided some clear evidence of both her empathy for students and commitment to creating ever-stronger ties between the school and the communites it serves.

“I have a phrase that I’ve used often during my career — that ‘it takes a village to raise a student,’” she noted at the time. “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. I look at it as a bi-directional relationship and partnership.”

Since her arrival, there have been a number of significant developments at the school, including a $44 million project to modernize and revitalize an antiquated Campus Center, the so-called ‘heart’ of the college, a new Center for Life Sciences, and the creation of the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute in the Cubit building, which opened its doors to considerable fanfare in early 2019.

Christina Royal leads Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on a tour of HCC

Christina Royal leads Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on a tour of HCC’s new, $44 million Campus Center earlier this year.

Ironically, the new campus center staged its elaborate grand opening just a few weeks before the pandemic shut down college campuses across the Commonwealth. Meanwhile, the Culinary Arts Institute, while still operating on some levels, has seen a dramatic decrease in interest among prospective students as the pandemic has devastated the hospitality industry.

But while those new facilities are in many ways quiet, they form some of the building blocks that will support continued growth for decades to come.

No one can say with any degree of certainly when a sense of ‘normal’ will return to college campuses — HCC has already announced that most all classes will be taught remotely next spring — but Royal, as noted, is working to have her school ready for that day.

“I want us to look at this moment in time as an opportunity, and focus not just on the things that are outside of our control, but the things that we do have the ability to control,” she explained, noting that the questions and comments offered by students during those aforementioned check-ins are certainly helping in this process of continuous improvement and readying for life after COVID-19.

“When that day arrives, there will be a much-anticipated return to the classroom,” she noted, adding quickly, however, that the pandemic has proven there is certainly a place for remote learning and that it will be a big part of the equation moving forward.

“Distance learning is here to stay. And even if we have a smaller number of students on one end of the spectrum, wanting to take everything online, we have a lot of opportunity in that middle space of how we blend our in-person courses with hybrid learning.

“What’s so great about this time is that we have faculty members who are experimenting with ways to utilize this technology to more effectively reach their students and enable them to complete the work,” she went on. “And when you think about combining that with the pedagogy of the traditional classroom and their expertise in that setting, I imagine there’s going to be some wonderful opportunities to grow the blended student experience.”

 

Career Milestone

In 2021, HCC will celebrate its 75th anniversary.

At this time, no one, including Royal, can say when and how that milestone will be celebrated. But she does know it will be a time to look back at what’s been achieved, but, more importantly, focus on what will come next and how the school can do more to serve its communities and its students.

That’s what Royal has done since she’s arrived in Holyoke. It’s a mindset that has made her a great leader — at all times, and especially during these times.

And it has also made her one of this year’s Women of Impact.

 

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

Cover Story Education Special Coverage

Writing the Next Chapter

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

At least once, and perhaps twice, Robert Johnson strongly considered removing himself from the mix as a search committee narrowed the field of candidates to succeed Anthony Caprio as president of Western New England University (WNEU) in Springfield.

It was early spring, and the COVID-19 pandemic was presenting every institution of higher learning, including UMass-Dartmouth, which he served as chancellor, with a laundry list of stern — and, in some cases, unprecedented — challenges.

Johnson told BusinessWest that the campus needed his full attention and that it might be time to call a halt to his quest for the WNEU job. But he “hung in there,” as he put it, and for the same reason that he eventually decided to pursue the position after at least twice telling a persistent recruiter that he wasn’t really interested.

“We are at an inflection point in higher education,” said Johnson, who arrived on the campus on Aug. 15, just a few weeks before students arrived for the fall semester. “Western New England has a good balance of the liberal arts and the professional schools, along with the law school, that puts it in a unique position to write the next chapter when it comes to what higher education will look like.

“I think it’s fair to say that, when we think about higher education, the last time we’ve seen the level of transformation that is about to happen was just after World War II, with the GI Bill and the creation of more urban public universities, community colleges, and the list goes on,” he continued, as talked through a mask to emphasize the point that they are to be worn at all times on this campus. “As we think about the world of work and the future, colleges and universities will be educating people for jobs that don’t exist yet, utilizing technologies that haven’t been created to solve problems that have yet to be identified.”

Elaborating, he said today’s young people, and he counts his son and daughter in this constituency, are expected to hold upwards of 17 jobs in five different industries (three of which don’t currently exist) during their career. All this begs a question he asked: “what does an institution of higher learning look like in an environment like this, where the pace of change is unlike anything the world has ever seen?”

The short answer — he would give a longer one later — is that this now-101-year-old institution looks a whole lot like WNEU, which, he said, is relatively small, agile, and able to adapt and be nimble, qualities that will certainly be needed as schools of all sizes move to what Johnson called a “clicks and mortar” — or “mortar and clicks” — model of operation that, as those words suggest, blends remote with in-person learning.

The process of changing to this model is clearly being accelerated by the pandemic that accompanies Johnson’s arrival at WNEU, and that has already turned this fall semester upside down and inside out at a number of schools large and small.

“Western New England has a good balance of the liberal arts and the professional schools, along with the law school, that puts it in a unique position to write the next chapter when it comes to what higher education will look like.”

Indeed, a number of schools that opened their campuses to students have already closed them and reverted to remote learning. Meanwhile, others trying to keep campuses open are encountering huge problems — and bad press: Northeastern University recently sent 11 students packing after they violated rules and staged a gathering in one of the living areas, for example, and the University of Alabama has reported more than 1,200 cases on its campus in Tuscaloosa.

It’s very early in the semester, but Johnson is optimistic, even confident, that his new place of employment can avoid such occurrences.

“The decision to go with in-person learning was essentially made before I got here, and I think it was the right decision,” he explained, noting that students are living on campus and only 16% of the courses are being taught fully online, with the rest in-person or a hybrid model. “We’ve tested more than 2,500 individuals, and we’ve had only three positive cases, all asymptomatic. It’s worked out well so far, but this is only the end of the first week.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, and we take it day to day,” he went on, adding that the school’s smaller size and strict set of protocols, such as testing students upon arrival, may help prevent some of those calamities that have visited other institutions. “We’ve been very judicious, and our small size makes us a bit different. We’re kind of like Cheers, where everybody knows your name; we don’t have tens of thousands of students that we have to manage.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Johnson about everything from the business of education in this unsettled time to the next chapter in higher education, which he intends to help write.

Screen Test

Flashing back to that aforementioned search for Caprio’s successor, Johnson noted that it was certainly different than anything he’s experienced before — and he’s been through a number of these, as we’ll see shortly.

Indeed, this was a search in the era of COVID-19, which meant pretty much everything was done remotely, including the later rounds of interviews, which usually involve large numbers of people sitting around a table.

Robert Johnson says he’s confident

Robert Johnson says he’s confident that WNEU, a smaller, tight-knit school, can avoid some of the problems larger institutions have had when reopening this fall.

“It was all Zoom, and it was … interesting,” he said of the interview process. “You don’t know if you’re truly connecting or not. As a person being interviewed, you have much more self-awareness of not only what you’re saying but how you’re saying it, and your own non-verbal communication, because you can see yourself on the screen.

“You have to make sure your background is right, the lighting is right, you’re wearing the right colors, all that,” he went on. “It’s like being on TV, literally, because the first impression people get is what they see on screen.”

Those on the search panel were nonetheless obviously impressed, both by what they saw and heard, and also the great depth of experience that Johnson brings to this latest stop in a nearly 30-year career in higher education.

Indeed, Johnson notes, with a discernable amount of pride in his voice, that he has worked at just about every type of higher-education facility.

“I worked in every not-for-profit higher-education sector,” he noted. “Public, private, two-year, four-year, private, Catholic, large, medium, and small — this is my seventh institution. And I think that gives me a unique lens as a leader in higher education.”

Prior to his stint at UMass Dartmouth, he served as president of Becker College in Worcester from 2010 to 2017, and has also held positions at Oakland University in Michigan and Sinclair College, the University of Dayton, and Central State University, all in Ohio.

As noted earlier, when Johnson was invited by a recruiter to consider perhaps making WNEU the next line on his résumé, he was at first reluctant to become a candidate.

“The search consultant, who I happen to know, called me two or three times, and I did not bite,” he noted. “But as she told me more, and I learned more about Western New England University, I began to take a look. I knew about the school, but I had never taken a deep dive into the institution, its history, and what it had to offer.”

He subsequently took this deep dive, liked what he saw, and, as he noted, hung in through the lengthy interview process because of the unique opportunity this job — at this moment in time — presented.

Since arriving on campus, he has made a point of meeting as many staff members and faculty as possible, but this, too, is difficult during the COVID-19 era. Indeed, meetings can involve only a few participants, so, therefore, there must be more of them.

“We can’t have any of those big ‘meet the president’ meetings,” he noted. “So I’ve had six, seven, or eight meetings with small groups or facility and staff, and I probably have another 15 or 20 of those scheduled. I’m getting to know people, and they’re getting to know me; I’m doing a lot of listening and learning.”

Overall, it’s a challenging time in many respects, he said, adding quickly that higher education was challenging before COVID, for reasons ranging from demographics — smaller high-school graduating classes, for starters — to economics and the growing need to provide value at a time when many are questioning the high cost of a college education.

“The business model for higher ed was going to change regardless — I think, by 2025, given demographics and a whole host of other things, colleges and universities were going to have to figure out how to do business differently,” he told BusinessWest. “I think COVID, overnight, expedited that.

“The business model for higher ed was going to change regardless — I think, by 2025, given demographics and a whole host of other things, colleges and universities were going to have to figure out how to do business differently. I think COVID, overnight, expedited that.”

“It was a Monday, and seven to nine days later, every college in the country was teaching remotely and working remotely, in ways we never imagined,” he continued. “So the very idea that colleges and universities will go back to 100% of what that old business model was is a non-starter. So the question is, ‘how do we reinvent ourselves?’”

Courses of Action

As he commenced answering that question, he started by addressing a question that is being asked in every corner of the country. While there is certainly a place for remote learning, he noted, and it will be part of the equation for every institution, it cannot fully replace in-person learning.

“Some would say that online learning is the way, and the path, of the future,” he noted. “I would say online learning is a tool in terms of modality, but it is not the essence of education.”

Elaborating, he said that, for many students, and classes of students, the in-person, on-campus model is one that can not only provide a pathway to a career but also help an individual mature, meet people from different backgrounds, and develop important interpersonal skills.

“Some would say that online learning is the way, and the path, of the future. I would say online learning is a tool in terms of modality, but it is not the essence of education.”

“For the student coming from a wealthy family, I think they need socialization, and they need a face-to-face environment,” he explained. “For the first-generation student whose parents did not go to college, I think they need socialization. And for students who come from poor families, they need socialization.

“My point being that online learning is not a panacea,” he continued. Some would argue that, if you have online learning, it would help poor kids go to college. I would say that the poor kids, the first-generation kids, are the very ones who need to be on that college campus, to socialize and meet people different from themselves. And the same is true for those kids coming from the upper middle class and wealthy families — they need that socialization.

“In my humble opinion, face-to-face never goes away,” he went on. “But does that mean that one might be living on campus five years from now, taking five classes a semester, with maybe one or two of them being online or hybrid? Absolutely. I think the new model is going to be click and mortar, or mortar and click.”

Expanding on that point while explaining what such a model can and ultimately must provide to students, he returned to those numbers he mentioned earlier — 17 jobs in five industries, at least a few of which don’t exist in 2020. Johnson told BusinessWest that a college education will likely only prepare a student for perhaps of the first of these jobs. Beyond that, though, it can provide critical thinking skills and other qualities needed to take on the next 16.

“That very first job that a student gets out of college — they’ve been trained for that. But that fifth job … they have not been trained for that,” he said. “And I think the role of the academy in the 21st century, the new model, is all about giving students and graduates what I call the agile mindset, which is knowledge and the power of learning — giving students essential human skills that cannot be replicated by robots and gives them the mindset to continually add value throughout their professional careers.

“We’re educating people to get that first job, and to create every job after that,” he continued. “We’re making sure that every person who graduates from college is resilient and has social and emotional intelligence and has an entrepreneurial outlook, which is not about being an entrepreneur; it’s about value creation and having those essential human skills. What that means, fundamentally, is that no algorithm will ever put them out of a job.”

To get his point across, he relayed a conversation he had with some students enrolled in a nursing program. “They said, ‘this doesn’t apply to us,’ and I said, ‘yes, it does, because there are robots in Japan that are turning patients over in hospitals. So if you think technology does not impact what you do, you’re mistaken.’”

Summing it all up, he said that, moving forward, and more than ever before, a college education must make the student resilient, something he does not believe can be accomplished solely through online learning.

“How do I put the engineer and the artist together, give them a real-world problem, and say, ‘have at it, go solve it?’” he asked. “They have to be face to face, hands-on. We can come up with alternate reality, virtual reality, and all the technology you want, but at some point, people have to sit down and look each other in the eye.”

Bottom Line

Returning to the subject of the pandemic and the ongoing fall semester, Johnson reiterated his cautious optimism about getting to the finish line without any major incidents, and said simply, “get me to Thanksgiving with everyone still on campus.” That’s when students will be heading for a lengthy break after a semester that started early (late August) and, to steal a line from Bill Belichick, featured no days off — classes were even in session on Labor Day.

But while he wants to get to Thanksgiving, Johnson is, of course, looking much further down the road, to the future of higher education, which is, in some important respects, already here.

He believes WNEU represents that future, and that’s why he “hung in there” during that search process.

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

Education

‘This Is Our Moment’

Sandra Doran

While the pandemic presents a number of challenges, Sandra Doran says, it might also create opportunities for Bay Path University.

Sandra Doran says her family has long been attracted to careers in education and the law.

One great-grandfather traveled from New York to Colorado and set up the first one-room schoolhouse in that state, she noted, while her grandfather was superintendent of a school district in New York City, and her mother was a music teacher. And her other great-grandfather was a bankruptcy lawyer, kept especially busy during the Great Depression.

So it’s logical she would take one of those career paths. Actually, she took both.

Indeed, after serving as chief legal officer for Shaw’s supermarkets, she later served as vice president, general counsel, and chief of staff at Lesley University in Cambridge. And it was that position that eventually inspired a full shift to higher education — although she always calls on her legal background — and put her on a path to … Bay Path University and its president’s office.

“At Lesley, I came to realize that higher education was my passion, and my calling,” said Doran, who’s been handed the attractive, but perhaps also daunting, assignment of succeeding Carol Leary and building on the strong foundation she built during a 25-year tenure that saw the college become a university and expand in every way imaginable.

She arrives at Bay Path at a critical juncture, when several powerful forces are colliding — stern challenges in higher education that started emerging years ago; the COVID-19 pandemic, which is exacerbating those challenges and creating new ones; a financial crisis; and a nationwide focus on racial justice.

“This is a historical leadership opportunity for all of us — how we lead through the months and years ahead is really going to define what kind of community we are, how resilient we are, and now adaptive and nimble we are.”

This collision of crises, as Doran called them, presents a real test — actually, several of them — but also opportunities for the school, and higher education in general.

“This is a historical leadership opportunity for all of us — how we lead through the months and years ahead is really going to define what kind of community we are, how resilient we are, and now adaptive and nimble we are,” said Doran, adding that she believes Bay Path is well-positioned to be a leader during this time of crisis, introspection, and profound change, and that she is looking forward to the challenge of helping it play that role.

As she talked with BusinessWest at a small table positioned on the lawn behind the college’s administration building, Deepwood Hall — a nod to social distancing and keeping safe during the pandemic — Doran talked about the college’s plans for reopening this fall. It will embrace what many are calling a hybrid model blending online and in-person classes, with far more of the former. The plan, overall, is to “de-densify the campus,” as she put it, with a limited number of students living on campus, all in single rooms.

But mostly, she talked about this convergence of crises and how, rather than be a roadblock or even a speed bump, it could serve to accelerate the process of Bay Path’s emergence as a leader not simply in remote learning — only she doesn’t call it that; she prefers ‘technology-assisted learning’ — but in guiding students to fulfillment of their goals and ultimate success in the workplace. And also accelerating the process of creating systemic change in how higher education carries out its mission.

For the school, this opportunity to further cement its reputation as a pioneer and frontrunner in remote learning has been confirmed by the large number of colleges and universities calling to seek assistance as they establish or build their own programs (more on that later).

And for higher education, the pandemic presents a unique if not entirely welcome (at some schools) opportunity to rethink and perhaps reinvent many aspects of a college education and put more (and much-needed) emphasis on cost, access, and pathways to success in the workplace, and less on the on-campus experience (more on that later as well).

For all of this, Bay Path is well-positioned, if not uniquely positioned, to grasp these opportunities.

“This is our moment at Bay Path,” she said with noticeable energy in her voice, “because we’ve always been that place where students come to further their career ideals, and we’re going to continue to provide that opportunity.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Doran about what she ultimately called “an exciting moment in time,” and all the reasons that make it so.

School of Thought

When asked what appealed to her about Bay Path and its presidency, Doran said, in essence, that there was little, if anything, that didn’t appeal to her.

Indeed, she said the once-struggling two-year college that was resurrected and then taken to dizzying new heights during Leary’s tenure represents an opportunity that brings together her collective passions and many of the initiatives that have marked the latter stages of her career.

These include women’s education, technology and technology-assisted learning, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

Sandra Doran, seen here with a student

Sandra Doran, seen here with a student on Feb. 27, the day she was introduced to the campus community, embraces the challenge of building on the foundation built by her predecessor, Carol Leary.

“This opportunity is a perfect fit and really the culmination of all my professional work,” she explained. “I’ve had the opportunity to lead a women’s college, so I understand the value of a women’s education. But another part of my background involves adaptive learning and the power of online education to really bring out the best of everyone in terms of mastering the subject matter and ensuring that everyone has a voice. I’ve also led a software company and been an entrepreneur. This opportunity brings all that together, and that’s why it’s a perfect fit.”

A quick recap of her career to date will explain why she said that.

We start at Shaw’s, where Doran, in addition to her work as general counsel, oversaw the company’s portfolio of mergers and acquisitions, which included the acquisition of Star Market Inc.

Later, at Lesley, which she also served as general counsel, she came to that realization that higher education was a passion, one that led her to pursue and then garner the role of president of American College of Education, an online doctoral institution serving more than 3,500 students.

From there, while serving as an entrepreneur in residence at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., she served as the CEO of Castle Point Learning Systems, a Stevens Institute-supported educational technology startup that had developed an instructional framework for calculus, enabling students and teachers to develop a more robust foundation for higher-level mathematics.

Concurrently, she took a position as National Policy director for the New England Board of Higher Education, where, among other responsibilities, she created and implemented an innovative initiative for multi-state collaboration to increase educational attainment and access for students through online, hybrid, and distance education.

Her career then took another intriguing turn when she was appointed president of Salem Academy and College in North Carolina, the country’s oldest women’s college, founded in 1772. There, she put the school on firm financial footing, developed a strategic plan, and initiated several new programs, including an entrepreneurial makerspace in downtown Winston-Salem where students could work directly with the city’s innovation ecosystem.

As noted earlier, while education has become her career, she calls on her background in law on an almost daily basis, and finds that the two professions coexist effectively.

“One of the great roles of lawyers is to educate,” she explained. “It’s to educate clients, to educate themselves, to mediate, to bring people together, to critically analyze the data and synthesize the data, and communicate. Lawyers are problem solvers, except for the high-profile ones, which are litigators; most lawyers are solving problems.”

When a search firm called last year to gauge her interest in the Bay Path position, she responded enthusiastically, and for the reasons — and passions — mentioned earlier.

“I was familiar with the pioneering aspects of Bay Path — it was one of the first institutions to immerse themselves in the online education experience and understand what that could provide for our students,” she explained, adding, again, that she viewed this opportunity as the culmination of all the career work that had come before it.

Many schools don’t have an online presence at all, and so imagine their consternation when faced with this pandemic. It’s interesting that other liberal-arts colleges are reaching out to us and looking to us as being able to provide that kind of education.”

Since arriving on campus late last month, Doran, while working with staff on the reopening plan, has also been trying to meet with local leaders and the campus community alike — in COVID-mandated ways, especially phone calls and Zoom meetings.

It’s not the same as meeting people in person, but it’s been effective in that she’s getting to know and better understand the community the school serves. And this work continues with an initiative she calls “Let’s Come Together: Virtual Conversations with President Doran.”

“I’m eager to get to know my colleagues, and they’re eager to get to know me,” she said. “So these are conversations we’re conducting virtually, almost one a day — so faculty and staff have an opportunity to sit and talk and learn about each other. It’s a great opportunity for me to learn about our staff and faculty and what excites them about Bay Path, and, frankly, to learn about areas of strength and areas we need to improve.”

Course of Action

Doran was introduced to the Bay Path community on Feb. 27, just before the school sent its students home for the semester and essentially closed the campus. By the time of that announcement, it was already becoming clear that the approaching pandemic could alter the calendar and impact lives — but no one could really have predicted just how profoundly the landscape would change or how schools would be challenged by the virus.

As the story on page 17 reveals, schools have been spending the past several weeks carefully putting together reopening plans for the fall that incorporate a host of different strategies.

For Bay Path, the assignment, while not easy by any stretch, was made less complicated by what could be called the school’s head start when it came to online programs. Its first fully online graduate program was the MS in Nonprofit Management & Philanthropy, launched in 2007, followed by other online graduate programs for men and women and the fully online bachelor’s-degree program offered by the American Women’s College.

Bay Path’s plan, blueprinted with the help of a 75-member task force, calls for essentially cutting the number of students living on campus by half — down to roughly 200 — and conducting most courses, except those with some lab component, online. It’s a plan the school feels comfortable with because so many of its students were already learning remotely.

“It’s an environment where we’re making decisions with imperfect information — our environment is changing on a weekly basis, if not on a daily basis,” Doran noted. “So we’re going to be ready to pivot if we need to, but we feel strongly that we’ve got the right plan in place.”

This head start with remote learning has certainly caught the attention of others in academia, she added, noting those phone calls and e-mails seeking Bay Path’s assistance with online programming and inquiring about potential partnership opportunities.

“We’ve had several schools reach out to us to ask if they can enroll their students in our courses or think about ways we can partner,” she told BusinessWest, noting that inquiries are coming from institutions across the country. “Many schools don’t have an online presence at all, and so imagine their consternation when faced with this pandemic. It’s interesting that other liberal-arts colleges are reaching out to us and looking to us as being able to provide that kind of education.

“They want to learn from what we’ve learned,” she went on. “So it’s exciting to be in that position of being able to share what we know, what we’ve learned about how to provide the best opportunities for students.”

And these phone calls represent just one of the opportunities, a strange word to use in this climate, to arise from the pandemic, said Doran, adding that she chooses to look upon them in that light.

“We have an opportunity to rethink how we meet the needs of students whose ideals and thoughts around higher education are changing in the midst of everything that we’re dealing with,” she said. “So, just as the pandemic is impacting every single person in terms of how they think about their own career and their own lives, our students are doing the same thing.”

Elaborating, she noted that fewer than 20% of those attending college today are having what would be called a traditional college experience, meaning a four-year school and living on campus.

“The other 80% attend a very different — and have a very different — college experience,” she went on. “And one’s not better than the other, but I think there’s a new reality that higher education is embracing that’s focusing on the academic part of the experience, the part of the experience that enables students to have productive careers and move forward with their life goals and their life dreams.

“And that’s what Bay Path has always been — our mission is rooted in this idea that we want to provide career paths,” she continued, noting, again, that the school is well-positioned to embrace this new reality, as she called it, and this is reflected in enrollment numbers for the fall, which are quite solid at a time when many schools are struggling.

“We have — and this is another strength of Bay Path — a very diverse set of students,” she said. “We have students who are only online students, so they were never contemplating coming to campus, so we feel secure in those enrollments; we have graduate students, many of whom are online, so we feel secure in those enrollments; and our undergraduate enrollment is up for this fall in terms of deposits and commitments. We’re feeling very confident, and we’ve had a good response to our plan.”

Overall, the school is on solid financial ground, Doran said, and in a good position to withstand the challenges created by the pandemic.

“The finances around higher education are always challenging,” she explained. “The pandemic has certainly raised another level of gauze around all this, because it’s hard to see through and see what the next steps are. But we have a number of task forces looking at the long-term aspects, and, overall, we see some opportunities.”

Bottom Line

Looking ahead … well, Doran acknowledged it’s difficult to look very far ahead in the era of COVID-19.

Her immediate goals are to continue building on the foundation that Leary has built and develop new growth opportunities for a school that has come a long way in the past quarter-century.

And rather than somehow slow or stifle those efforts, this convergence of crises that greeted her upon her arrival may, as she said, actually serve to accelerate that process.

As she noted, “this is our moment.”

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

Features

Warning Signs on the Horizon

John Regan says the state should do what many business owners are doing with a possible recession looming — refrain from taking on too much at once.

John Regan says Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) recently surveyed a cross-section of its members regarding the economy, the direction they believe it will take, and the steps they are themselves taking as a result.

Roughly 75% of those surveyed anticipate an economic contraction before the end of 2020, and a sampling of the gathered remarks hints strongly at an undercurrent of caution, if not outright concern:

• “Scaling back on hiring plans; slowing down certain capital expense/equipment purchases until we get a clearer picture of what the next six months will bring.”

• “Concentrating on expense reduction … evaluating closely the need to replace positions.”

• “Diversifying our service options.”

• “We have temporarily eliminated overtime, which was formerly unlimited.”

Slicing through all that, Regan said AIM’s members are looking at the conditions, gauging how they will effect things short-term and long-term, and, by and large, deciding not to take on too much until the picture becomes much clearer.

And, as the organization’s new president and CEO — he took the helm in May — he is essentially advising the state to do the same.

“A possible takeaway from the survey for state policymakers as they begin considering billions of dollars in new spending is this could be a difficult time ahead for the state economy,” Regan told BusinessWest. “Businesses are assuming a defensive posture, and significant tax increases — beyond the $1 billion for the new paid family and medical leave system — even for worthwhile causes, could harm the overall economy, most especially the manufacturing sector.

“This might not be the time to really go all in on lots of different tax proposals,” he went on, listing everything from new spending initiatives to the so-called ‘millionaires’ tax,’ a step he believes will pose dire consequences for the Commonwealth. “Legislators should do what our members who answered the questions are doing — delaying their ambitious agenda and letting the things they’ve already done take their course and put some away for a rainy day.”

Passing on members’ concerns about the economy and urging caution when it comes to business-related legislation are two of the many lines on the job description for AIM’s president, said Regan, who moved to the corner office after a dozen years as AIM’s executive vice president of Government Affairs and almost two decades with the agency in that realm.

Another line on that job description involves presiding over annual ceremonies such as the one staged earlier this month at Wistariahurst in Holyoke, at which three area companies — MGM Springfield, American Saw, and Peerless Precision — were presented with Next Century and Sustainability awards for their efforts in creating the next era of economic opportunity for state residents.

A few hours before that ceremony, Regan sat down to talk with BusinessWest about a variety of topics, including his appointment, the state of AIM and its 3,500 members, and even his thoughts on how to achieve more balance between east and west in the Commonwealth.

“Businesses are assuming a defensive posture, and significant tax increases — beyond the $1 billion for the new paid family and medical leave system — even for worthwhile causes, could harm the overall economy, most especially the manufacturing sector.”

But the condition of the economy and the results of that aforementioned survey soon dominated the conversation.

Regan noted that, overall, the state’s economy continues to expand, albeit at a slower pace than earlier in the year. Meanwhile, AIM’s Business Confidence Index, generally a reliable barometer of economic conditions, remains in optimistic territory (58.9), although it has lost nearly four points over the past 12 months. Unemployment remains low (2.9%), and private employers created nearly 7,000 jobs between August 2018 and August 2019.

Still, there are some ominous warning signs of a recession, and a number of businesses are already starting to feel the effects of tariffs and other federal and state measures, said Regan, adding that these businesses are starting to play defense — and the state should do the same.

Background — Check

If Regan seems to know his way around the State House — in every sense of that phrase — it’s because he does.

Indeed, before coming to AIM, before serving as vice president of Operations for MassDevelopment and leading its efforts to repurpose Fort Devens, before directing the Massachusetts Office of Business Development (MOBD) for five years, and even before serving as chief of staff to the mayor of Marlboro, he worked in the State House, first as a researcher on the Joint Committee on Banks and Banking, and then as a special assistant to the House Ways and Means Committee.

“I started out on the constituent side, and quickly moved to the policy side,” he said of his work with the Legislature. And, on many respects, he has remained on the policy side ever since.

When asked how he went from working for the state to becoming an advocate for its business community, Regan said there’s a story there. It involves the former Lunt Silversmith (an AIM member) in Greenfield, he recalled, adding that, as director of MOBD, he was asked to help convince the state Highway Department to put up signs that would direct motorists to the company’s new showroom facility. Long story short, he played a big role in getting the signs up.

“AIM was so impressed that state government actually got something done that they asked if I would consider joining the agency and its Government Affairs Department,” he recalled. “At the time, I wasn’t really looking, but I knew AIM from my days at the State House — it was a well-respected group and well-regarded in the building — and I thought this was a good opportunity for me.

“I never wanted to be a lobbyist in that sense that you’re out chasing clients to represent individually,” he went on. “The opportunity to come to AIM represented a chance to use my relationships in the building, but not lobbying for individual clients; at a 3,500-member organization, you’re working on policy, not just individual company issues.”

And over the years, he has advocated for members on issues ranging from unemployment-insurance reform to non-compete agreements; from pay-equity law changes to paid family and medical leave.

Since taking over as president and CEO, Regan said he spent much of the first several weeks focusing largely on internal matters, including membership, marketing, finances, technology, and hiring his successor in Government Affairs — Brooke Thomson, formerly with AT&T.

“I wanted to make sure I understood the parts of AIM I never really had to worry about as head of Government Affairs,” he noted. “And part of what the board charged me with was coming up with an operational plan for the balance of 2019 through 2021.

“It’s not a strategic plan,” he went on, “but just making we’re able to explain what we thought we could do and should do, and get that on paper and in front of the board.”

Reading the Tea Leaves

These days, though, he’s more focused on the Commonwealth’s businesses, the uncertain state of the economy, and policy matters, such as helping to secure a three-month delay in the start of payroll deductions to fund the program.

Returning to that recent survey of members, Regan said it is quite revealing and clearly depicts both the concern felt by business owners and their commitment to act responsibly, and defensively, in such a climate.

“They’re doing the things you might expect,” he noted. “They’re saving money versus investing it, and they’re only doing capital projects that have a very swift return on investment. They’re looking for additional, profitable product lines that might allow them to weather the storm. But mostly, they’re thinking ahead and being ready.”

And this is the mindset Regan believes both the federal and state governments should embrace given both the current conditions and the possibility, if not likelihood, of a recession in 2020.

“Uncertainty around trade, in particular, grows by the day. It seems like every day you wake up and there’s another round of tariffs. One of our longest members is Ocean Spray cranberries, and they’re getting killed by tariffs.”

With the former, Regan noted that tariffs and the trade war are already taking a steep toll — on manufacturing but also other sectors of the economy, including agriculture — and the threat of more such actions loom large over the state and the region.

“Uncertainty around trade, in particular, grows by the day,” he said. “It seems like every day you wake up and there’s another round of tariffs. One of our longest members is Ocean Spray cranberries, and they’re getting killed by tariffs.”

As for the State House, Regan said lawmakers there should consider the current economic conditions and the threat of recession as they ponder additional mandates and taxes, including what is known officially as the Fair Share Amendment, but has been dubbed the millionaires’ tax.

That name conjures up thoughts of rich people sitting on a beach, he told BusinessWest, but the reality is that most of those who would be impacted by this measure, which would impose a 4% income-tax surcharge on annual income beyond $1 million, are business owners, as in the small to medium-sized business owners who dominate the state’s economy and especially the Western Mass. economy.

And recent research, including an in-depth report by Bloomberg News, shows that individuals hit with such taxes often leave for safer havens, taking their income with them, he noted.

“Bloomberg found that Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey face the largest financial drains from the 5 million Americans who move from one state to another each year,” AIM wrote in a recent blog post, citing other states that had passed taxes on high earners. “Connecticut lost the equivalent of 1.6% of its adjusted gross income, according to Bloomberg, because the people who moved out of the Nutmeg State had incomes that were 26% more, on average, than those people who moved in.”

Regan agreed, and said these numbers paint a grim picture and present a competitive disadvantage for the Commonwealth, one the Legislature should consider as it moves closer to joining other states in enacting such measures.

“I love it when elected officials roll out statistics that show ‘30 states do this’ or ‘20 states do that,’” he said. “We can tell them we have a whole list of states that have tried the wealth-tax approach, and it’s bombed, and they say, ‘well, that’s different.’

“How is it different?” he went on. “How are we not going to experience the same things that they’ve experienced?”

Bottom Line

Returning to that survey of AIM members, a few of the business owners polled expressed confidence about riding out what appears to be a storm on the horizon.

“We think we’ll be immune from the contraction,” wrote one, while another said, “our industry is counter-cyclical; when the economy contracts, our industry usually receives a boost.”

Those sentiments don’t apply to most businesses, certainly, and Regan knows that. And that’s why AIM’s new president and CEO is working hard to convince lawmakers to do what his members are doing — what’s best for business and what’s best for long-term economic health.

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

Education

Pressing On

President-Elect Ed Wingenbach spoke at his first public press conference on Thursday, July 18 regarding the future of Hampshire College and the role he hopes to play in its success.

When asked whether he thought Hampshire College could not only maintain its accreditation but forge a long-term future, Ed Wingenbach, the recently named president of the beleaguered institution, didn’t hesitate in his response and spoke with a voice brimming with confidence.

“Yes; do you need me to say more?” he replied as the question was posed at a press conference to announce his appointment on July 18.

“I’m not at all worried about our ability to pull it off,” he went on, adding that, although he believes Hampshire College will overcome these obstacles, that certainly doesn’t mean it will be easy. “There’s a lot of hard work to be done over the next two months, six months, three years, but it’s the work that Hampshire College should always be doing.”

His confidence, he said, results from what he called “extraordinary and dedicated students, staff, faculty, alumni, and community members who all have the will to get the job done.”

Wingenbach will be the eighth president of the Amherst-based institution has appointed. An accomplished administrator, faculty leader, scholar, and proponent of liberal-arts education, he has served for the past six months as acting president of Ripon College in Wisconsin, a liberal-arts college where he has been vice president and dean of faculty and a professor of Politics and Government since 2015. Previously, he served for 15 years as an administrator and faculty leader at the University of Redlands in California.

“I’m coming to Hampshire College today and hopefully for a very long time because I think that it is the essential college in higher education,” he said at his welcoming press conference. “There is no place that has been more important to the success of the American college and university system over the last 50 years than Hampshire College.”

Hampshire’s board of trustees voted unanimously for Wingenbach’s appointment on July 12 after a formal recommendation from the presidential search committee chaired by trustee Ellen Sturgis and comprising faculty, students, staff, trustees, and alumni.

The board’s goal was to name a new president this summer to help guide the college in securing its operations, planning for its future, and preparing for the coming academic year, assignments that come as the school is literally fighting for its survival.

Indeed, the school recently received a letter from the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) stating that, absent evidence of substantial progress on a number of matters, ranging from hiring a new president to developing plans for achieving ambitious goals for fundraising and rebuilding enrollment, “the commission will, at its November 2019 meeting, take an action to place the college on probation or withdraw its accreditation.”

“I’m coming to Hampshire College today and hopefully for a very long time because I think that it is the essential college in higher education. There is no place that has been more important to the success of the American college and university system over the last 50 years than Hampshire College.”

This rather stern warning comes after roughly a year of turmoil and regional and national headlines concerning the college, thrusting it into the forefront of mounting problems for smaller, independent colleges dependent largely on high-school graduates at a time when graduating classes are getting smaller and projected to get smaller still.

In recent months, Hampshire announced it will not admit a full class for this fall — in fact, only about 15 students are expected to be in what will be known as the class of 2019. There have also been layoffs, the resignations of President Miriam Nelson and several board members, and departures among the current student body.

 

Grade Expectations

Despite this steady drumbeat of bad news, in recent writings to the Hampshire community, interim President Ken Rosenthal, one of Hampshire’s founders, has been using a decidedly optimistic tone. Last month, he wrote that the school was fully committed to enrolling a full class for 2020, was making progress with an aggressive bid to raise $20 million by June 2020 and an estimated $100 million over the next five years, and was filling several key positions, including president.

Ken Rosenthal

While acknowledging this optimistic tone and focus on the future at a time when many had — and perhaps still have — grave doubts that Hampshire has a future, Rosenthal told BusinessWest, “that certainly doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.”

Wingenbach agrees, but he has a plan.

“I am confident that we can overcome those challenges by reinvigorating the mission to innovate and lead higher education,” he said. “By becoming distinctive again, and inventing, again, new ways to think about undergraduate education, and implementing them and doing them well, we’ll restore the rightful distinctiveness of Hampshire College.”

However, both his and Rosenthal’s sentiments about the task ahead certainly not being easy were echoed by Barbara Brittingham, president of NECHE, who said Hampshire faces what she called a “heavy lift,” given both the challenges facing all colleges reliant upon high-school graduates, and the relatively young age of Hampshire’s alumni.

Wingenbach told media, professors, students, and trustees that Hampshire College is a laboratory to how to make higher education better, and the hard work that will happen over the coming months and years will set the college up for success.

Indeed, like Rosenthal, she said Hampshire is challenged to raise money and thus grow its endowment because its oldest alums are barely 70 — and probably still living and thus not bequeathing money to the college — and most alums are at an age when they are paying for their children’s college, saving for retirement, or putting their money to other uses.

Thus, the school will have to look well beyond its alumni base for support, she said. And it will also have to attract more students, a task made more difficult by recent headlines and words and phrases such as ‘probation’ and ‘possible loss of accreditation.’

“Colleges rely a lot on donations from alumni, but they often get donations from friends, people who admire the mission,” said Brittingham, adding that Hampshire will need considerable help from such friends moving forward.

This, said Wingenbach, is part of the plan. In order to reinvigorate Hampshire College, reaching out to not only alumni, but also those who are interested in Hampshire’s mission, is crucial.

“We have all kinds of resources beyond this campus to make sure that our students have access to everything they need to be successful,” he said.

 

Course of Action

The college has certainly used those resources so far. Wingenbach praised Hampshire for raising more than $9 million since February of this year, adding that this is an impressive accomplishment with the challenges they’ve faced.
But the college will need to continue to raise money at this rate in order to make ends meet.

Because Hampshire will be a much smaller school this fall — it just graduated 295 students and will bring in only 15 freshmen in September — the resulting loss of tuition and fees will result in a huge budget deficit. The projected number is $20 million, said Rosenthal, but it may be smaller depending on just how many students return to the campus this fall; the school is budgeting for 600.

“We set out two months ago to raise that $20 million by June 30, 2020, and we’re a little ahead of schedule,” said Rosenthal, adding that this schedule called for having $7 million in cash in hand by August, another $7 million by the end of December, and the final $6 million by the end of the current fiscal year, ending next June 30.

Moving forward, and, again, thinking optimistically, as the college moves closer to what Rosenthal called ‘normal size,” meaning 1,200 to 1,400 students, the budget deficits will grow smaller. Still, he projects that roughly $60 million will be needed over the next five years. When necessary capital improvements are added, the number rises to $100 million.

As Brittingham noted — as Rosenthal did himself, only with different language — this is indeed a heavy lift for a college this size.

Wingenbach says the cost structure of the college must undergo a serious adjustment in order to accomplish this ambitious goal.

“As we’re currently constituted, we spend too much money, and we don’t raise enough. That’s a fundamental reality of almost all small colleges in the entire country; we’re no different. But we have to face that reality as well,” he said. “As we’re thinking about experimentation and innovation and new ideas, we have to think about that framework within a reasonable understanding of what our budget and resources will look like two and four years from now, and live within that framework.”

This, Wingenbach said, may include an increase in tuition.

“We have to be thinking really carefully about what our likely students are willing to pay for this kind of an education,” he said, adding that the average Hampshire student graduates with about $24,000 in debt, an extraordinarily low figure for a four-year education. “I think it’s likely that tuition goes up, but I don’t think it’s likely that it goes up a lot in any given year.”

 

Critical Crossroads

Whether all or any of this — from the early progress on fundraising to Hampshire’s relevance in a changing world — will have any impact on students’ decisions on whether to return to the campus, or on NECHE’s upcoming decision on accreditation, remain to be seen. And they will both go a long way toward determining the college’s future.

“I think we have a really good story to tell that I think is compelling to people,” Wingenbach said, adding that another critical part of reinventing the school is going to be reminding people why the school is so important in the first place.

“One of the big advantages Hampshire has is that the value of an education here is easy to articulate,” he went on. “Colleges struggle to attract students who can pay a slightly higher rate if they have no argument as to why you should do that. Hampshire has a great argument for why you should do that.”

Reminding not only those within the community, but also those inside Hampshire College, of all this is a critical step in maintaining the energy Wingenbach says is crucial to get the school back on top. This includes recognizing the hard times in order to get to the good.

“There has been a lot of trauma here,” he said. “This has been a very hard six months to a year. Part of engaging people is recognizing that, both within the college community and with the public. It doesn’t change the fact that this has been a really hard year, and people have struggled. We recognize that and say, ‘now we’re going to continue to struggle, but we’re going to do something productive about it.’”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]