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Six Critical Themes Every College Leader Should Be Thinking About

Top of Mind Themes that College Leaders Should Be Thinking About

Dr. James Catanzaro, a college president for nearly 40 years, recently shared with Ocelot six critical “top of mind” themes for college leaders. The interviews can be accessed here. Here are the themes we gleaned from his comments:

1. Focus on Student Engagement and Success

It is important that college leaders place emphasis on student engagement and student success. They are inextricably linked. Engagement may start with support functions – such as enrollment, registrar, financial aid, and academic advising – but engagement is also an important part of the academic and classroom experiences. Faculty play a key role too. Increasingly, technologies can assist staff and faculty to reach students, especially those in the “back row” and students who may be struggling.

2. Make Investments in New Technologies

In order for colleges to scale up and support hybrid learning and support, it is imperative that they invest in new technologies. Examples abound. For example, to truly make courses more engaging so that they connect with “back row” students, consider the use of live audio and video clips of students and faculty, pre-recorded videos, third-party role plays, digital simulations, and gaming. All of these and more can also be the grabbers that should make for better online learning. And they are available these days through technology!

Recruitment, instruction, student support services, operations, planning, messaging, even individual student security and well-being, all come down to effective engagement. And, engagement requires technology.

3. Support “Continuous Student Engagement”

It is the engaged student who will stay enrolled. It’s the engaged student who will talk to other potential students and help the institution with recruitment. It’s the engaged student who will persist to graduation. It’s the engaged student who will be ready for the workforce. And engagement costs. It requires skilled support staff, a pedagogically-gifted faculty, and lots of technology. The pay-off is not just for students and the institution, it’s for the local community, the state, and our country.

To engage students in the classroom, consider breaking the class into teams. This requires all students to work purposely together. In this scheme, every week the leader of the team changes, so that over the term every student gets opportunities to take on the leadership challenge. The result: students experience camaraderie, learn from each other, and discover their own special talents, and produce better results! Yes, it takes faculty prowess; and it also takes institutional prowess. Here’s where technology can come to the rescue. Students themselves usually have the technical capability to make teams work. Most students have apps galore – on their smartphones, iPads, etc. Why not use some of the myriad of these no- or low-cost apps to enable students to become fully engaged members of a learning team?

4. Stay Close to Your Students Throughout the Educational Journey

Consider a weekly student focus group. Use the opportunity to ask students: “Will you describe the various lives that you have? You know, your family life, your social life, your work life, if you’re a part-time employee in place—that kind of thing?”

Students often view that they have two separate lives while in college. One, going to class, being on the campus. And the second one, is preparing for class. And yet, the two are really one in the same.

The focus groups will give you some real insight into supporting students from orientation on and essentially have continuous orientation–not orientation at the end of the summer before fall, but continuous orientation–so that we can tend to school students in the selection of courses and the amount of time they were going to spend and how they budgeted their time to realize, “No, those two are one. They’re not two separate lives.”

5. Fully Invest in Scenario Planning, not just Strategic Planning

Across higher education, we’ve focused on strategic planning. Strategic plans, no matter how carefully drawn, are based on what we’ve experienced, what trends are telling us and what we ideally would like to be — rather than what future disruptions might require. We can see this from our Covid-19 experiences. Strategic plans typically don’t take into account future turbulence, so we don’t search out the uncertainties that are out there. And we commonly develop a single strategic plan, not a number of scenarios. Plan like we’re a military unit facing an array of battles we may have to win. These each require scenario planning – specific tactics, equipment, personnel, depending on the possible challenge.

6. Take Chances

Think beyond being a part of a bureaucracy. In the bureaucracy, everything has to be accounted for – and that can thwart innovation. Senior leaders want to be entrepreneurial leaders, yet, they face a lot of internal processes that can slow them down. One way to work through these challenges is through pilot programs that are small and test out new ideas. If the test goes well, it’s easier to build support to go bigger, as there is evidence to support the idea of doing more of what has shown to be effective.


About Dr. James Catanzaro
Dr. James Catanzaro is a long-standing leader in higher education having served as president of four community colleges in four states for nearly four decades including as President of Chattanooga State Community College for nearly a quarter century.

During those years and for a decade before, Jim taught at least one course per semester – for many years, on-ground, then also online, even hybrid.

Since retiring six years ago, he has served as Executive Director of the Higher Education Research and Development Institute, South, known by the acronym HERDI, South, and as a consultant to several firms in the higher education marketplace. In these roles, Jim regularly speaks with scores of community college leaders about the challenges facing community colleges today.

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