Q&A: Dr. Belinda S. Miles, WCC president

| By Matt Beitscher |

[su_heading]A first 100 days to rival Roosevelt, Miles has hit the ground running.[/su_heading]

MB: How have your first three months gone?

DM: It’s been phenomenal learning this college. It’s so complex, there’s so many aspects of the institution. I’ve made it a priority to make it to the spaces that are significant parts of the student journey, relative to getting started, getting enrolled. I’ve actually visited a classroom, so I got to participate with some students and faculty in a learning space, which was just amazing. I’m helping to plan commencement, obviously I’m a part of that, and meeting with our faculty is something that is ongoing. There’s so many and so many departments with the five divisions, it’s going to take some time to get around, but getting to know the space and the people, I think I mentioned that early on that that was a priority for me. There also is an external reality; Westchester Community College sits in a context of a community and a region. I have been very involved in meeting our local legislators and state representatives. We have a state budget that we’ve had to advocate for on behalf of SUNY community colleges. I will be making meeting with local business a priority in the upcoming months, just to look at the relevance of our curriculum to the needs of the area.

MB: What would you say has been your most difficult challenge so far?

DM: Well there’s no shortage of challenges. We were in the midst of preparation from a huge visit from our Middle States accreditation visiting team. Part of my first 90 days, these first three months, was to finalize the self-study. Preparation had begun over a year ago, before my arrival, but just to wrap up that document and ensure that there was clarity and consistency with regard to what we were presenting based on the findings of the various committees that contributed to the document. Also continuing to look at our procedures, we did not wait until Middle States came to visit us to really hone in on some of the continuous quality initiatives that are key to this institution, such as looking at course syllabi and making sure that our assessments are in tune and that we’re looking at effectiveness of our operations. Taking a close look at all of those details of how we run the place and what our outcomes are has been an exciting challenge, not a challenge in a bad way.

MB: Going back a minute, how would you go about meeting with local businesses to amend the curriculum, if you saw the need?

DM: We have advisory committees that are associated with our career and technical education programs, and so its a matter of having a conversation, first of all, looking at the roster of those committees to make sure they’re appropriately refreshed if they need to be, and that we have a good representation of the local business community. And then finding out what kind of vacancies they have that are appropriate for Associate’s degree graduates or students with certificates. Certainly many of the opportunities will require a baccalaureate or higher degree if it’s a higher position, but then we want to make sure our students are in the pipeline to transfer to those four-year universities and those pathways, so they see there’s some career experiences available for them at the end of their educational experience.

MB: Do you think there’s some sort of way we can channel the students into these jobs after they graduate?

DM: That’s the whole point of it. So to look at applied learning opportunities while they’re still with us, many of the career and technical education programs have a practicum component, and you’ll find that, if you’re in nursing, you’ll have to spend time in a clinical setting in order to get the credential. Business and industry can also help us to let us know what kind of state-of-the-art equipment we need to have available on campus for student so that they can get practice while they’re here in our labs and classrooms. It’s a matter of asking them and finding out how we can better fill the needs that are being left vacant.

MB: Going back to Middle States, describe the four days they were here. Was it stressful, nerveracking? Was it a bit of relief?

DM: There was a positive stress and energy. We were very proud to showcase the college, and we have a lot to be very excited about here at WCC. So I think they met with 200 people, so there was a lot of excitement, a lot of energy around. We had a lovely welcome dinner for them to kick off their visit, and then they got busy with their work, but we felt really happy that the sun was shining for the four days, which is something we haven’t seen in a while. There was a good sense of moving forward at this institution. We have so much to offer. We’re committed to our own improvement, and we’re prepared to hear what feedback our national organization has to give us, so that we know we are taking steps in the right direction to really be an excellent, a truly fine institution.

MB: And your reaction, on April 1, April Fools’ Day, all 14 standards were met? Was it a weight off your shoulders?

DM: We still have to make sure that the final report is something that the actual commissioners do approve. It will be the recommendation of the visiting team that we pass. And absolutely, because it’s an ongoing process. As we heard in the summary, we’re not perfect. Everyone strives for that ideal status, so we certainly look for how we can be number one, how we can be the best, how we can certainly demonstrate to our students and to the world that we’re a quality institution. We work hard at meeting those standards, we understand what they are, and we have to make sure, as new people enter our community, as new family members, that we’re bringing everyone on board and passing that knowledge along.

MB: Taking the Middle States recommendations into consideration, what do you feel needs the most improvement on this campus?

DM: Looking at their feedback, we heard a good amount about how we support our adjunct faculty, and how they are connected to their departments and are working in an engaged fashion with our full-timers and with students. That’s an ongoing challenge because they’re here to teach their courses and they leave, so looking at professional development opportunities to integrate our adjunct is a priority. Looking at the ways that we assess learning and document, in a consistent fashion, that our learning objectives are being met, and that’s just a matter of constantly reviewing the curriculum and looking at the way we evaluate learning through testing to ensure that we accomplish what we set out to do. So we have those standards in place, but routinely assessing and providing feedback to instructors to make sure that’s happening is very important in terms of academic quality. Looking at the way we engage with the community through our continuing education programs and making sure we are providing consistent information to them about what our programming is. How are offerings are extended to the community is key. I have already met with some of my cabinet members regarding having an enrollment management summit, so that we can look at our offerings and how we are presenting all of the courses that are available in our credit and non-credit catalogues to the public. We are here to meet all of their learning and training needs, and if we’re missing something, we need to take a look to retool.

MB: Going to the SGA elections for a moment, approximately 600 people voted for president total, and for the other positions, about 400 students voted. Taking that into consideration, how do you feel about the lack of participation in the elections by the voters and candidates?

DM: It’s an interesting question because it certainly speaks to participation in a democratic process, and it’s something I’d want all of our students to value. It could raise the question, are they aware of the opportunity? Did they know the voting periods? Some really operational and technical factors can be involved. Was there enough excitement around issues that matter to students? Those could be factors that impact student participation and engagement. Community college students are commuters. In most institutions there are some residentials that come to campus for class and leave. Many have activities they’re engaged in in other parts of their life, so they may feel their needs are being met by the courses they’re taking. That’s a dynamic that, through marketing and outreach, maybe social media, finding ways to meet people where they are.

MB: Do you know of any way to increase student participation in these elections?

DM: I don’t know how much you use social media as an outreach vehicle, that you’re even able to connect with folks in that way, but I think that surveying is very powerful. Most folks have a cell phone, and so if there’s a way to connect with them that way, you might not have every number, but I do know that students look at Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of connecting.

MB: How has Dr. Bradford been, stepping into Joanne Russell’s role as VP and dean of academic affairs?

DM: She’s doing a great job, she has really extended herself quite remarkably within just a couple of weeks. She had conducted a listening tour with faculty, so she was able to hear some of their interests and concerns and she even had a portion where she asked what they would like on a wish list. There was so much commitment to having quality spaces, that our facilities were well maintained, and that faculty have an opportunity to continue to learn as they’re fostering learning. I really admire the way she has reached out to faculty in a direct manner. She has worked very closely with the associate deans, getting the portfolios and materials gathered for the Middle States visit, but she’s also having some important conversation with regards to some of the structures of our academic divisions and looking to see how we go about better meeting the needs of students that are looking to get their transfer degrees or how our workforce program is meeting the needs of local industry. She’s asking some good questions, she’s connecting with the SUNY Albany office, on behalf of academic affairs, in meaningful ways. I think she’s taken on quite a bit, and she is a very active interim. She is very committed to high quality in all of our curricula.

MB: Has she expressed interest in staying permanently?

DM: We’ve not discussed that, and the position has not yet been posted. It will be posted, so if she wishes to express interest in the opportunity, she can make that decision at that time.

MB: Will you have a permanent dean by the Fall 2015 semester?

DM: My primary focus is that we have continuity for our operations, so I’m looking at the formal report of Middle States. We’ll see what the marketplace looks like when the posting goes out. When the right person emerges for the role, based on the work we need to do, we’ll fill it.

MB:To discuss briefly, the general education requirements changes that the college is going through, to align with SUNY’s GenEds. How difficult will it be to align ourselves with SUNY and get students to get involved in it? Does your administration lean one way or the other on the issue of students changing their plan to align with SUNY or staying on their current path?

DM: I want students to complete a credential with us, that’s something I value very highly. I do believe in the value of the Associate’s degree. The quickest path to completion that gives them requisite knowledge and skillset and credits that they need to take that next step, finish and go into the workforce or a four-year university. I support the quickest path to that, I wouldn’t want them to duplicate any courses, so if the new pathway means doing that, then I’d want them to stay where they are. Some are closer to completion then they realize, but with a shorter pathway to completion, many others may be closer than they realize. I think the degree audits are going to be very important for students to figure out their best plan.

MB: So it’s a case by case basis?

DM: Pretty much, there’s a process called batch auditing, so we can use technology to see who’s on which track, and target outreach to those populations.

MB: Moving to the impending vacancy of the dean of student affairs, what are you looking for in the job?

DM: I think the Middle States feedback helped us to think about a very comprehensive type of role. This will essentially be a vice president of student success at this institution. Student success doesn’t lie with any one individual, but they will have responsibility for a comprehensive enrollment management process, as well as a variety of student success initiatives that are designed to keep students enrolled, to give them a good experience when they start with us, and to give them focus on finishing their studies so they can move on to the next stage in their life. There is life beyond WCC, so we want students to be well-prepared for that. So this person will have to be a leader of leaders, because they’ll be leading the various departments that help students get started, the department of admissions, the registrar, the director of financial aid. They’re also going to be leading folks who are involved in various initiatives and activities that take place to keep students engaged, such as the student involvement office, or other types of retention activities. They’re going to have to track the performance of students going through from inquiry to entry to their coursework, making sure they’re enrolled. They need to collaborate across units. They need to work with academic affairs, because keeping students means we have the courses they’re looking for to get to their degree. They need to work closely with finance and business to look at the enrollment as it relates to finance. They have to be a collaborator, and understand student development theory within an institution.

MB: Is there something new you want to see from that division?

DM: The enrollment management emphasis, throughout the full spectrum of the student journey, is a newer focus. Traditionally, community colleges focus student affairs on the earlier part of a student’s journey, because our structure is set for admissions offices, registrar’s office. If it were a marathon, we’ve got the first 5-10 miles heavily loaded, but to look differently at some of the roles. How do we help students with 45 or 50 credits complete their studies? As we’ve changed standards, how do we let students know where they are in the process? This individual will have a much more comprehensive view of the entire student journey. Also looking at the student success initiatives, the kind of programs that are keeping students in school, they’re going to be at the table with academic counterparts, with faculty members, talking about engaged learning and advanced teaching methodologies as a way to keep students engaged.

MB: So they really have to have their hand in everything and be dynamic, because, in the end, it’s all about the students, right?

DM: It’s all about the students. All of this structure and system is really designed to create experiences for students that are going to help them excel and succeed in this environment.

MB: What has been your most gratifying experience thus far?

DM: It’s sincerely the welcome I’ve received. It’s just very heartening and very validating to be a part of an environment, it’s absolutely the right place at the right time for me and the institution. We have a lot of good work ahead of us, a lot of hard work, that’s ongoing because we always want to be improving. People have embraced that, the conversations I have when we’re sitting around the table, working on an initiative or project, where I’m getting to know folks, and hear about their passion and commitment for the college, that’s so gratifying to me. Even when I talk to folks in the community, they say, “We love Westchester Community College, how can we support you?” It’s certainly not about me, but sustaining the institution, that we can continue to offer and fulfill this mission for the community and the students.

MB: Have you met any students that have stood out to you, in particular?

DM: Well, I’ve been very impressed with the students I’ve met on an individual basis. I’ve met our performing arts students, I’ve met students that are committed to STEM work. The other day, I spent time in the classroom with our Davis Scholars. They were really on the ball with their service learning projects, and it was so impressive. I’ve met scholarship students who were so humble and generous when they were thanking donors who would come to hear about how their commitments were making a difference. Our current student government president, Tom Cobb, is just a really sharp fellow, very, very impressive. As a matter of fact, he’s going to help me engage some of the administrative leadership in a professional development session. I know he leads the incoming senators on training in emotionally intelligent leadership, and so he’s offered to come and offer a segment of that program with some of the college leaders, which is just extraordinary. I’m very proud of our students, I’m so pleased that I’ve been able to meet as many of them as I have, and one of the most gratifying moments is when I’m walking across campus and we just run into each other and they’re delightful. I get to hear about where they come from, what they’re experiencing here, and most importantly their hope and dreams, what they’re expecting as a result of their education from WCC. Wow, that makes my heart swell, and I know we’re here for the right reasons and we’ve got to continue to make this the best place it can be because people are counting on us to transform their lives.