Monday, December 14, 2009

Discussion about "Good to Great" in Professor Thornton's leadership class.

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Last Thursday, December 10, Professor Paul Thornton invited me to speak to his leadership class about “Good to Great”, a book by Jim Collins ( I had used this work as a guide to improve performance at STCC with administrators asked to read and discuss it. Like so many of our students, those in this class were articulate, bright and focused. I know that they have a great future in front of them. They questioned everything I said adding examples from their own experience.

Professor Thornton’s students were interested in how a college like STCC could use the lessons of Good to Great. They agreed that hiring the excellent people – what Collins calls getting the right people on the bus in the right seats – was important. Furthermore, we talked about the need for discipline, a key principle of Good to Great was applicable to any organization. We spent time discussing what Collins in a companion monograph calls executive vs. legislative leadership. Collins argues, I think correctly, that in a for-profit business the CEO and top management exercise executive power that enables them to make a decision and make sure it is carried out. In a non-profit such as a college because of the diffusion of authority among faculty and other stakeholders, administrators must consult and build support for new initiatives. This makes the change process more difficult but also potentially more meaningful in social sector institutions.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Holiday E-Card from Springfield Technical Community College

At Springfield Technical Community College we are always seeking ways to use technology to improve our effectiveness. Exploiting electronic media, the college designed a holiday greeting that, in a photo essay, celebrates the year of 2009.

Our staff and faculty took the pictures, built out the software and designed the presentation. Total cost to the college: $29.00 for the music which we had to purchase.

I think you will enjoy this look at STCC by going to:

Happy Holidays from the students, faculty, staff, alumni,Trustees and friends of STCC!

Monday, December 7, 2009


Last week I served on a National Science Foundation peer review panel for community college proposals involving Advanced Technology Education (ATE). Twenty-two panels convened for a three days in Arlington, Virginia assisted by NSF staff.

At a plenary session ending the meeting, panel leaders discussed ways to improve submissions. Here are the key points mentioned to which anyone writing an NSF grant, especially from community colleges, should attend:

1) Generally, planning grants are necessary (and usually sufficient) for development of a fundable ATE center proposal.

2) Proposals should include and emphasize metrics and objectives on student outcomes- program graduation data, job placement, enrollment, retention, under-represented students served.

3) Investigators should contact existing centers that relate to the field before submitting a proposal and that connection should be documented in the proposal.

4) Authors should conduct a data review to learn about the research on proposed activities.

5) An evaluation plan should link to objectives and provide a measure of accountability.

6) For a regional center that aims to increase the production of technical workers, the investigators should have data about workforce demand locally, not just nationally.

7) For continuation grants, include an evaluation report to document progress.

8) Focus on student learning outcomes, not just workforce needs. Try to find answers to the questions: What are students learning; how do we know?

9) Describe what success would look like. How would we know if project success is achieved?

10) Focus on soft skills, not just technology.

To find out more about NSF opportunities in undergraduate education, visit the website

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Students at STCC's Admission Office

Aligning High School and College Mathematics

At STCC like other community colleges, the majority of incoming students place into developmental mathematics. This means that they have to take preparatory courses – algebra or arithmetic – before beginning college level mathematics.

Looking at this issue, Steven Davis of the Davis Foundation and former owner of Lenox Saw commented recently that this is rework since students should have acquired those mathematics skills in High School. And to address this problem will require cooperation between high schools and colleges. Although traditionally, there has been a gap between these two segments of education, there are signs of new cooperation. An important example has taken place at Seminole State College of Florida, a community college near Orlando, where area high schools have worked with the college to improve mathematics preparation. As reported by Bill Maxwell in the St. Petersburg Times,

“The main problem was obvious: Florida was requiring high school students to take only three years of math. Most did not take math in 12th grade. The chairman offered the principals a special 12th-grade course he would bring to their campuses to reduce the number of students needing remediation when they entered the college.

Only one school, Oviedo High, initially accepted the challenge. Seminole State College provided the course content and mentoring, and Oviedo's teachers taught the course.

Within a few years, Oviedo High reduced its remediation rate from 70 percent to 10 percent. A team of SSC and Seminole County public schools administrators began meeting once a month for breakfast at a local Denny's to collaborate and replicate the Oviedo program in all Seminole high schools.”

(Go to for the full article.)

This example is encouraging; we are trying to institute a similar program here at STCC.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Twenty months into the most serious downturn since World War II, the economic mavens have agreed on a name: the Great Recession of 2008. Whatever it is called, this economic has put community colleges in a vise: enrollment is up sharply just as state support declines. Moreover, the community college role of linking students to jobs is undermined as employment dries up in industry after industry. What are the prospects for employment?

Erica Groshen, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, outlined the labor market prospects in a presentation on September 16. According to Groshen, there is a dramatic increase in long-term unemployment per the chart from her presentation below:

Moreover, unemployment varies by demographic group with men, teenagers, minorities and the less educated the hardest hit:

Finally, Groshen documents that male-dominated industries have lost the most jobs with government, education and health the only areas to gain employment since the recession.

What will be the affects, then, of the Great Recession of 2008 on community colleges?

First, the downturn has exacerbated the funding shortfall for community colleges. Already, some colleges are turning away students as classes fill and others are reducing services to students. As is usual in economic declines, the poor and working-class – in this case community college students – are most affected by cuts in public college funding. Colleges will struggle for some time in trying to serve more students with less governmental support.

Second, high and persistent unemployment brings into question the value of particular college programs. Colleges will have to examine program offerings to ensure that education leads to the prospect of decent paying jobs. Colleges will want to align offerings to support local economic development efforts. In this regard, the value of dialogue over economic planning with state and local officials will increase.

Finally, the most important affect of the Great Recession of 2008 will be to convince Americans that college is a pre-condition for a decent paying job. The community college role will be permanently enhanced as more and more Americans view them as the portal for obtaining a college credential.

Monday, October 26, 2009


STCC is built around a large green that contains numerous deciduous trees. Shown above is a portion of the green with sugar maples in their fall splendor.


Preliminary fall enrollment figures from the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education show large enrollment increases – led by community colleges - at the Commonwealth’s public higher education institutions. Community college students now make up over half of all public higher education enrollments as the chart below shows:

Fall 2009 Estimate

Change from
Fall 2008

Percent Change

Community Colleges




State Colleges












Where are the students who are flooding into community colleges coming from? An analysis shows that transfers have increased at all segments, but especially among community colleges:

Fall 2009 Estimate

Change from Fall 2008

Percent Change

Community Colleges




State Colleges




State University








Large transfers into community colleges are counter-intuitive as one would expect students to transfer from them into baccalaureate institutions. This seems to indicate that students are choosing community colleges after trying other alternatives.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Examing John Brown

Friday, October 16th was the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s attack on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry. To mark this event and explore John Brown’s legacy, STCC organized a symposium on October 17th entitled the Sword of the Lord and of Gideon: John Brown and the Coming of the Civil War.

Dinah Mayo-Bobee, Professor of African-American History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, discussed the controversial Pottawatomie Affair carried out by Brown and his followers in Kansas. David S. Reynolds, author of the best-selling biography, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, described the ways that John Brown has been viewed by historians. John Gately, Professor of English at STCC showed off his impressive collection of documents and artifacts from the abolitionist movement.

According to STCC Dean Arlene Rodriguez (pictured right), John Brown lived in Springfield from1847 to 1851. The years Brown spent in Springfield are seen by scholars as pivotal to his deepening involvement in the abolitionist movement. In November, 1847, Brown met slavery’s most renowned critic, Frederick Douglass, who interrupted a speaking tour to meet him in Springfield. It was in Springfield in 1851 Brown founded a black self-defense organization – the first in the nation - called the League of Gileadites.

Friday, October 16th was the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s attack on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry. To mark this event and explore John Brown’s legacy, STCC organized a symposium on October 17th entitled the Sword of the Lord and of Gideon: John Brown and the Coming of the Civil War.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Greening of STCC

Photovoltaic panels on the roof of Building 20 making electricity as the sun shines

Jeff Bigelow, tradesman and Dave Hill, head of the heating/cooling plant, know the value of the college’s new solar trash compactors. These units scattered around campus serve as places to deposit trash and they use solar power to compact the contents. The result – trash is collected much less frequently and it trash takes up less space.

The college has made progress to reducing greenhouse gases while improving efficiency in a variety of other ways:

  • An 85 kilowatt photovoltaic array has been installed on the roof of building twenty. These photovoltaic cells convert solar energy directly into electricity without burning any fuel.

  • Geothermal heating and cooling is part of the renovation of building 11. Two deep wells will deliver 52 Fahrenheit degree water that will cool the building in the summer. During the winter, that same 52 degree water will be heated to provide heating. The circulating water will make the building seem to be in a constant 52 degree environment. When it’s warm, let in some of the cool water; when it’s cold outside, raise the temperature of the building from 52 degrees to 70 degrees.

  • The college is planning a new heating and cooling plant that will also produce electricity. Called co-generation, the facility generates steam that runs electric generators; the heat produced is also used to heat (or cool) the campus. Another feature of this novel project is the fuel – either wood chips or natural gas. Hardwood chips are available in western Massachusetts as a byproduct of lumber harvesting and furniture manufacture. Not only is wood less expensive than oil, but the money to purchase it stays in the local economy. AND wood in a modern heating/cooling plant burns cleaner than oil because it gives off no sulfur or nitrogen gases.

Many faculty and staff are excited about making sustainability a core principal of the college. Faculty members are discussing ways to incorporate energy conservation into courses and programs of study. The college is offering training courses on photovoltaic installation and building retrofitting to reduce energy. To lead these efforts STCC has established a Green Energy Council involving faculty, training staff and college facilities personnel.

STCC has seen the future and it is green.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Speeding Graduation for Community College Students

Much has been in the news about US college graduation rates. In his February State of the Union Speech, President Obama announced the goal that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

A recently published book, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities by William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos & Michael S. McPherson lays out a detailed analysis of the stagnation of the US college graduation rate (the first chapter can be accessed at

Finally a new report by the DEMOS Foundation – Work Less, Study More and Succeed – looks at financial factors that affect graduation by community college students. The reports conclusions are not surprising:

Research clearly indicates that full-time enrollment and part-time employment of less than 15 hours per week provides the optimal situation for young students to concentrate on their studies and finish their degree.” (URL: for the full report)

Unfortunately, State and federal financial aid has not kept up with college costs and the cost of living for our students. STCC students struggle to juggle studies, jobs and family responsibilities. The majority of our students work more than 15 hours a week – in fact, many are working a full-time.

We applaud our students who succeed such as the nursing class of 2009 shown above. But more of our students would graduate if state and national funding reflected President Obama’s goal.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lyudmila Gritskevich, STCC Work-study Student


Along with student grants and loans, the federal government provides U.S. colleges and universities with work-study funds – money to support financial aid eligible students to work either on or off campus.

At STCC Lyudmila Gritskevich (pictured above) is a work-study student in our English as a Second Language Office where her Russian language skills are valuable in greeting Russian-speaking students and assisting them in filling out college forms. Originally from Belarus, she has been taking classes at STCC since 2004, starting in English as a Second Language, earning a certificate in clerical office assistant this past May, and studying medical office assistant program.

Like other students, Lyudmila’s work-study has given her valuable work experience, increased her engagement on campus, and elevated her self-esteem. Although I know of no studies linking college-work study and student success, I believe that it does.

Now for my modest proposal: double the federal funding of college work-study funding. The federal work-study allocation is $980 Million - a very small fraction of federal outlays. For comparison, this amount is about the cost to the US taxpayers of three days of the Iraqi War.

Students have in the past supported themselves with outside employment while attending college. But the scarcity of jobs has dried up such opportunities. Meanwhile, our colleges, particularly community colleges, are flooded with new students seeking education and skills for jobs of the future. Helping them now with more work-study funds would increase student success while helping transition the country through this period of high unemployment. Lyudmila and millions like her would benefit.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

STCC Allied Health Students


Accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), STCC is now starting our ten year accreditation review. This process requires the college to create a narrative of our present state, appraise our strengths and challenges and explain where, as an organization, we are headed. In short, describe, appraise, and project.

Since we had a positive experience using the techniques and philosophy of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) to produce a new strategic plan, we decided to use AI in accreditation. The AI approach aligns well with the accreditation process. Listed below is the way I envision the correspondence:

1) AI begins with an affirmative topic which would correspond to the subjects in the various NEASC standards.

2) AI then moves to discovery which would correspond to creating a narrative about that topic based on analysis and information.

3) AI moves on next to dream and design which in accreditation would correspond to appraising the college against the accreditation standard.

4) AI ends with destiny – what will be – which corresponds to the projecting the future of the college in the accreditation report.

On September 1st and 2nd we begin our accreditation with a summit for all working on the self-study. Throughout the year the committees in charge of the each of the eleven standards will meet, deliberate and begin writing. I expect that AI will infuse our work and enable us to produce a much more relevant analysis of the state of the college.

Monday, August 24, 2009


The image above was produced after the first part of the STCC planning process. The area of each word represents the frequency that it was used. The top 100 words are listed. One can observe that students occurred most frequently followed by respect, accountability and community.


The title of this blog – Celebrating What’s Right with Public Higher Education – was inspired by my experience with Appreciative Inquiry. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a method that can be used to improve organizations. In simple terms, AI directs us to increase the good stuff. This means that we focus on what is working in our organizations building to generate sustainable positive change. (If you want to know more about AI, go to the AI Commons hosted by Case-Western Reserve University at

This spring we used AI principles and techniques to draft a new Strategic Plan for STCC. In my twenty years as a college president and chief academic officer, I have been involved in numerous planning efforts both at three colleges and at several non-profits organizations. In the past these efforts were less than satisfactory. The process consumed significant organizational time but the value added was low. Moreover, in the non-profit sector, as Jim Collins points out CEOs have Legislative but not Executive leadership. Change occurs at a college when individuals are convinced, not compelled.

The strategic planning process must take that salient fact into account.

Using AI made this planning process different. Many voices inside and external to the college were heard both through the interviews and planning process. Participants enjoyed the AI inspired exercises and the planning process moved quickly and efficiently.Significantly, the AI process liberated creativity, enthusiasm and energy at the college. At the end, we felt better about ourselves and our organization. To get more information about our process and the use of AI go to

Monday, August 3, 2009

Teaching Mathematics

It’s been 18 years since I taught mathematics, so I jumped at the opportunity to guest lecture in an STCC algebra class. Professor Brewer told me that the topic was multiplying two binomials. This is akin to multiplying two two-digit numbers (such as 43 times 57) but here one doesn’t know the digits.

I had a great time as may be seen from the picture. There is something magical when a class goes well and students are absorbed in learning.

While the mathematics is the same, other things have changed since I last taught. Professor Brewer’s class is using software to do and record their homework. In this way the instructor can track the level of activity for each student and each student’s progress.

This technology addresses what I consider one of the biggest problems in mathematics instruction – making sure students are practicing. Learning mathematics is like learning to play an instrument. No matter how many times you see someone else do it, you won’t learn without your own diligent practice. It’s like the old witticism: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? The answer is practice, practice, practice.

STCC has a great mathematics department dedicated to help all students learn. This was clear from the way Professor Brewer structured her class and the way she engaged students. Her department is leading efforts - part of the college’s Achieving the Dream initiative - to improve student success in mathematics.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Monday, July 6, 2009


STCC hosted this weekend, July 4th and 5th, the 3rd annual Hoop City Jazz Festival. The music was great, the weather fine, the crowds enthusiastic and the campus green lush. Kudos go to John Osborne, the festival organizer. With support this festival has a chance to grow and become one of the leading summer events in New England. (photo shows Curtis and Adrienne Smith at Festival)

The festival took place at the former Springfield Armory grounds, once the center of small arms development and production for the U.S. Army.

The closing of the Armory in 1968 by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, heralded the beginning of a rapid decline in metal manufacturing in Springfield and all of Western Massachusetts. While manufacturing continues to be an important industry locally, it has never regained its former prominence. Like older manufacturing communities, the City of Springfield is faced with the challenge of creating a new economy to provide decent paying jobs and taxes for City services. And the City needs to rethink its image and its direction.

All of this brings me back to the Hoop City Jazz festival. No other city can lay claim to having been the place where basketball was invented (in 1891 by James Naismith) nor does any other city host the Basketball Hall of Fame. Why not recast Springfield as Hoop City USA? With the growth of basketball internationally, this is a moniker that would be recognized around the world.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Value of a College Degree

Having my teeth cleaned on Thursday, I asked the dental hygienist, a pleasant and very competent individual, where she received her education. She responded, “STCC and I love my job.” I was not surprised as our college has a great dental hygiene program providing graduates to dental offices in Western Massachusetts, Central Connecticut and beyond. Being a dental hygienist was cited recently by as one the top associate degree careers with an annual salary of $64,749.

(for further information see )

Because of the stress on family finances, the economic value of a college degree has been a topic in the news. Typical of this debate was an article in the June 30 New York Times op ed blog where Liz Pulliam Weston, a personal finance columnist for MSN Money advises that ”students borrow no more for their educations, in total, than they expect to make the first year out of school.”

By this criterion, an associate degree is a good investment with full-time student costs including books and transportation less than $5000 per year - $2500 with grants - according to the US News and World Report. Massachusetts Community College costs are than the national average, but still much less than four year colleges.

The economic meltdown may result in a fundamental realignment of American higher education. A college degree is one of the most expensive purchases that most Americans make. Consumers – students and their parents – will choose colleges based on the return on what they have to pay. Colleges will be judged not just on reputation and amenities, but on a cost- benefit analysis. A key question that consumers will ask is, “How much will this college degree cost and to what kind of job and career will it lead?”

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Natural History of Springfield Technical Community College

Unique among colleges in the United States, STCC is located on the former Springfield Armory - a national historic site that is also a national monument. Our 55 acre campus that we share with the National Park Service is constructed around a large green filled a surprising amount of wild-life. Of particular interest to students and visitors are the raptors, two of which are shown here. These birds seem to enjoy the quiet of the campus as well as the opportunity to feast on some of our many squirrels.

The college also has a large collection of beautiful trees including the following species: maidenhair (gingo biloba), American Elm, White Mulberry, Black Walnut, Sugar Maple, Horse Chestnut, European Beech, Pin Oak, Silver Maple, Northern Red Oak, Eastern Red Cedar, Bradford Pear, Dawn Redwood, Japanese Zelkova, Sargent Crabapple, Sourwood, River Birch, Paper Birch, and Scarlet Oak. This is not complete although such a list does exist thanks to a recent survey by the Olmstead Center for Landscape Preservation.

Raptors on campus

A Barred Owl in the Dawn Redwood on the
campus green (Sharon Conte photograph).

A redtail Hawk on a fire-escape of Building 16
Picture courtesy of Ted Wright

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Community Colleges as a Path to Social Mobility

This entry is about social mobility, the ability of Americans to climb the social and economic ladder. I have used statistics to illustrate the key points because this topic is about numbers – how much Americans earn and the changes in how much they earn. But the basic point that I want to make is that for individuals, a college is essential for a decent paying job and for most Americans of modest means, community colleges are the entry point for higher education.

From Horatio Alger to Barack Obama the opportunity and expectation of doing better economically than one’s parents is a foundation of our society. However, recent data shows that the ability of the average American to improve his or her lot has lessened over previous generations. The trend in America is less mobility and more income inequality. According to the May 14, 2009 New York Times article by David Leonhardt, the United States no longer has greater income mobility than many European countries. We now have roughly the same mobility as Britain but Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark surpass us. What this means is that in those latter countries families on average climb out of poverty faster than in the United States.

Additionally, income inequality even before the current recession has increased dramatically: for example the US Congressional Budget Office found that the real after-tax income of the wealthiest Americans – those in the top 1 per cent – rose by 176 per cent from 1979 to 2004. Meanwhile those in the poorest 20 percent of the population saw their income go up just 9 per cent in that same 25 year period.

One tried and true way to increase social mobility is through education. And today, that means college as most decent paying jobs require at least some post-secondary education.

In our economy, the value of a high school education has stagnated while that of a college education has grown. The figure that is most often cited is the disparity between a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree. According to the US census, in 2006 Adults age 18 and older with a bachelor’s degree earned an average of $51,554 in 2004, while those with a high school diploma earned $28,645.

The point of entry for most Americans of modest means is public colleges and especially the community colleges. In Massachusetts, for example, last fall 79,000 undergraduates attended the University of Massachusetts and the state colleges and an additional 79,000 at the Commonwealth’s fifteen community colleges. These figures show that in the Commonwealth, community colleges serve half of all undergraduates. But as might be expected those who are first generation in college and ethnic minorities use community colleges as their point of entry: in Massachusetts 62% of all ethnic minority students start at our community colleges.

So, affordable and high quality education is essential for individuals and for our society and public higher education is more important than ever. This is another important reason to celebrate public higher education.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Introduction to What's Right with Public Higher Education

My name is Ira Rubenzahl and I am President of Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) in Springfield, Massachusetts. STCC serving over 6000 credit students each semester is one of fifteen public community colleges in Massachusetts. Although technical is in our name we have, over the years, added new programs in engineering transfer, computer science, business, nursing, health and liberal arts. In fact, liberal arts which leads to transfer to a baccalaureate degree institution is now our largest major.
(For more about STCC, please visit our website at

As the title indicates, the purpose of this blog is celebrate what is right about our college, public higher education in Massachusetts and public higher education nationally. In this era of instant news that highlights all the tragedies of the world, it’s especially important to remind ourselves of what is working in our society. And public higher education is working by giving opportunity for undergraduate education in Massachusetts to one hundred eighty thousand credit students (180,000), by educating our citizens for the jobs of the future, and for providing access to those of modest means including the growing Latino and African-American population. Moreover, public higher education does all this effectively squeezing out efficiencies from limited state support.

To put a face on public higher education, let me introduce you to Madeline Lopez, 27, a single parent of eight-year-old Destiny. She just graduated from Springfield Technical Community College in Liberal Arts Transfer, and next fall will be entering Mount Holyoke College. Madeline will be studying pre-med, on track to become a doctor, and is a strong role model for her daughter.

Madeline is representative of her fellow community college students. They are varied in age, ethnic background, and country of origin. Often, as Madeline, they are coming from a low-income situation, and are the first generation in their family to go to college. They often work full time, as Madeline does, and may be supporting a family.

Madeline is grateful for the support and encouragement of her teachers and counselors at STCC. This was her second try at college, and she not only got back on course educationally, she achieved a perfect 4.0 average for her final two semesters.

Madeline says, “Education is number one –- it’s the key to everything.” And that’s what she’s teaching Destiny.