Pushing Jello Across a Shag Rug
Isn’t that a great image?
At the second on-site convening of the fourth cohort of Aspen Presidential Fellows, we heard from current and former community college presidents who offered their wisdom on a variety of subjects. One of those presidents used the jello metaphor to describe a difficult choice – as in, “it’s like pushing jello across a shag rug. You’re not sure if you want to eat it once you’re done.”
I expect we’ve all found ourselves in such difficult situations, but I also expect we haven’t ever found ourselves thinking about jello and shag rugs. So enjoy the notion and the visual image.
I Am Not Your Pimp
Yes, a former community college president told a story that ended with that line. It seems that when she was president, one of her Board members propositioned a friend of hers at a hotel bar. When her friend refused, the Board member threatened to get her (the president) fired if the friend didn’t reconsider.
The story was told in the context of illustrating a president’s role in Board management – and it certainly illustrated the range of challenges in that presidential role. What did this college president do when it happened? She passed the information along to her Board chair for action. (The Board member was eventually removed.) And she thought to herself – “I am not your pimp.”
Be a Boundary Crosser
To lead in a higher education setting, we were advised, you must be a boundary crosser. You must learn the language of your partners, particularly your external partners such as local business leaders, area school superintendents, non-profit CEOs, and university presidents.
Another speaker made the observation that in many of those boundary-crossing settings, the common language is skills. One of the things we do at ACC is help our students develop necessary employability skills, and those skills can be translated from curriculum to students to employers. In other words, our boundary-crossing can move beyond jargon and insular language and instead become a discussion of skills development and economic mobility for our students. After all, 99% of our students are in workforce programs, aren’t they? They are all seeking economic stability and mobility and a good life for themselves and their families. And they’ve come to us for help with those goals.
Look for the Brown M&Ms
Another story we heard concerned the rock band Van Halen and brown M&Ms. Apparently for many years Van Halen’s contract with concert organizers included a requirement that a bowl of M&Ms be available in the backstage area before every concert, but with all the brown M&Ms removed. If there were brown M&Ms, the promoter would forfeit the full price of the show, according to the provisions of the contract. Seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?
It turns out that if members of the band saw brown M&Ms backstage, they knew that the promoter had not read the contract closely. And thus they knew they would have to check every detail of their lighting, staging, and sound requirements prior to the concert. The brown M&Ms told them something important about how to prepare for every concert.
We should all look for brown M&Ms in our work here at ACC – the brown M&Ms are the small things that can disrupt the student experience or discourage a student or make it harder for a student to move forward. The more we pay attention to details, the more we can help our students find, navigate, and complete their chosen pathway.
The Poor Door
Have you heard this term? I had not. It’s apparently a 21st century phrase, and it describes housing developments that have separate entrances for market-rate tenants and affordable-housing tenants. This segregation may also extend to gyms, pools, parking spaces, or elevators.
Community colleges are known as the people’s colleges. But do we sometimes unwittingly have a “poor door”? Do we focus so much on our open doors that we forget to think about how to help students once they come through the door? That’s the premise of guided pathways, essentially – to reinvent our systems and processes so that we’re more than a poor door to limited opportunities. We should expect the best of all our students. We should recognize that some of our students are homeless, or hungry, or working three jobs. We should make sure that our single door serves all students without regard to their economic or familial or linguistic or educational challenges. We don’t ever want to have a “poor door” at ACC.
As we move into 2020, I wish you a new year free of yucky jello and unnoticed but important details.
I wish you a new year full of common ground, common language, and collaboration.
I wish you a new year full of equal expectations and equitable outcomes for all, with no poor doors in sight.
Here’s to a happy, merry, joyful 2020 for us all.