DR. JOHN DEMPSEY: An Education: Things I've Learned in My 20 Years at SCC
Twenty years is a long time to be doing any one thing. But as I look at the calendar, I realize that very soon I will have been president at Sandhills for 20 years.
A lot has happened in these past two decades, and today is as good a time as any to reflect a bit on things that have happened and lessons that have been learned.
There are far too many events to count up our successes (and failures!) -- things like the construction of buildings, the growth in our student body, the awards we have won, the bond issues passed, our 2020 vision team, our successes in fund-raising. Those things have happened, of course, but many of them are simply the by-products of our location in a growing, supportive community.
I would like to focus instead on some of the changes behind the numbers -- changes which I believe have led us to our success and which position us for further success in the future.
I'll focus on four important changes and on four lessons I've learned during my 20 years at Sandhills.
Building the Foundation Board: In the early 1990s, Sandhills had a Foundation Board that consisted of 12 trustees and a half-dozen friends who had been with the college from its earliest days. That began to change in the early 1990s, and our board today includes our trustee chair and 30 of the most prominent people in our community.
This sea change in the composition and tone of the Foundation Board has led Sandhills to become, arguably, the most successful fund-raising community college in America. Further, the board members and their friends have made Sandhills the "place to be" in Moore and Hoke Counties. The college has become the cultural center of the community, supporting a wide variety of well-attended concerts, lectures, art exhibits and the like.
Sandhills Community College is high on the radar screen of nearly every prominent person in our community -- a direct result of the work of our Foundation Board and the enthusiastic support of the board members and their friends.
Empowering Faculty and Staff: In 1989, our faculty members were all considered "instructors," and they had very little voice in college affairs outside their classrooms. Today our instructors, associate professors and professors belong to a vibrant Faculty Assembly -- an assembly with considerable influence and input into the governance of the college.
The faculty members run the college's Teaching and Learning Center, they distribute funds for professional development, they make academic policy, and they participate in shared governance to a degree that is atypical for community colleges.
The Faculty Assembly was joined in 2005 by a Staff Council. Together, these two bodies -- and a host of other formal and informal ways of recognizing employee contributions -- make Sandhills the most employee-centered community college in North Carolina.
Hoke County Campus: It wasn't long ago that the Sandhills Hoke County "campus" consisted of a dozen rooms and offices in a run-down building we shared with social service agencies.
Thanks to the generosity of Mary and Wyatt Upchurch and the ever-growing support of the Hoke County Board of Commissioners, Hoke County's campus now boasts two beautiful buildings, another under construction, several mobile units, and plans for a campus-completing fourth building in the not-too-distant future.
Hoke County has become an important center for college activities and an important component of the college's overall operation. SandHoke Early College -- one of the most successful educational experiments I have ever witnessed -- would not exist without our Hoke County Campus. That campus, in turn, would not exist without the vision, leadership, and generosity of the Upchurches and other forward-looking citizens of Hoke County.
Educational Partnerships: In 1989, Sandhills Community College was a stand-alone institution. Except for our place among the 58 colleges of the "Department of Community Colleges," we more or less went our own way.
Today, Sandhills boasts classes and programs from several public and private universities. (It is now possible to get a Master's degree without ever leaving our campus.) More important, the college has vital and active partnerships with the schools of Moore and Hoke County.
More than 500 of our students are now high-schoolers -- getting a "head start' on college work through either our Learn and Earn program (Hoke County) or our First Step program (Moore County). These partnerships have become vital to the college, and invaluable to the students who are enrolled in them. They would not be possible without the high level of cooperation and mutual trust that characterize our relationships with the two school systems in our service area.
I'd like to think I've learned more than four lessons in 20 years, but these four stand out.
Leadership and management aren't the same thing: All organizations have to be managed -- bills need to be paid on time, parking spaces need to be properly assigned, trash needs to be collected. But I have become convinced that successful organizations cannot be run from the top. Successful organizations, and successful colleges, are decentralized, employee-centered, and managed with a light touch.
A college cannot be student-centered unless it is first employee-centered. We spend a lot of time and effort at Sandhills trying to hire the right people. Once we have made those hiring decisions, we assume that all our faculty and staff are mature, self-starting, professional adults.
Experience has shown us that we are almost always right in that assumption. Moreover, experience has shown that the assumption itself is self-fulfilling. If you treat people like professionals, they will act like professionals
Values matter: Several years ago, Sandhills set out to focus on and to articulate our core values. Those values -- integrity, respect, opportunity, and excellence -- are important, and they guide most of our decisions at the college.
Almost as important as the values themselves, however, was the enthusiasm with which people approached the process of their selection. Values matter. They matter a great deal, to a great many people. It is important to talk about values, and to articulate clearly the values that drive the college. An organization with no values will soon have no mission. And an organization with no mission will soon have no future.
Sandhills is a community college: Very little of value could occur at Sandhills Community College if it did not enjoy the widespread support -- moral support and financial support -- of its community.
That support would be hard to earn if the college did not have a productive and positive relationship with local media and with local elected officials, specifically the Moore County Board of Commissioners.
In a world where politics is sometimes nasty and combative, and where media often seek the sensational "bad news" that sells ads and newspapers, Sandhills is incredibly fortunate. That good fortune is not, however, taken for granted -- nor did it happen by accident. The college has worked very hard to maintain a good relationship with the media and with public officials.
In doing so, we have used the two most valuable assets we have at our disposal -- civility and truth. We have a well-earned reputation for telling the truth -- for being straight with the media and being straight with elected officials. Failure to tell the truth to the media, to the public, to elected officials or to the Board of Trustees is a deal-breaker that no college can ever, ever, afford.
The board is the key: The three lessons above are important lessons I have learned. No lesson, though, is more important than this: Good colleges (and good presidents) can't last long without good boards of trustees.
After 20 years at Sandhills, I can say with certainty that I would not be a successful president without an exceptional Board of Trustees. (Indeed, I can say with certainty that I would not have spent 20 years at this college without such a board).
What constitutes an excellent Board of Trustees? There are many attributes, but four stand out.
First is what I just mentioned: honesty. Honesty and integrity are essential to successful boards. Successful boards are straightforward in their expectations and in their assessment of performance. They don't ambush people or play games. They tell the truth, and they tell the same truth regardless of the audience.
Great boards are supportive, but not intrusive. They have interest and passion, but they also have the discipline to let the college conduct its own business -- setting policy but not involving themselves in day-to-day operations.
Successful boards have long-range time horizons. Administrators often look for the easy way to solve today's problems. It is the board's job to take a longer view and to adopt policies that are in the long-term best interests of the college -- even if those policies create short-term heartburn for presidents and other college officials.
Great boards are boards more than they are individuals. Nearly everyone comes to a college trustee board with a strong set of values and a healthy self-image. Good boards, however, are able to blend these views and egos into a single voice -- a voice that concerns itself only with what is best for the college and what is best for the students.
Sandhills Community College is fortunate to have such a Board of Trustees, and it has been my privilege and my joy to work for it for 20 years. Not every decision we have made has been the right one, and not everything we have done has been successful. Together, though, we have worked hard to improve this college and the lives of its faculty, staff and students.
Through our work we have touched -- and improved -- the lives of tens of thousands of people. Being very good, for a long time, is extremely difficult. We have managed to do this at Sandhills, and it has been my honor to work with the board in this endeavor. I look forward with great enthusiasm to continuing this work in the future.
Dr. John Dempsey is the president of Sandhills Community College.
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