Starting a new college presidency during the pandemic

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Given the number of issues involved, transitions from one executive role to another are tricky at any time, but this spring, I made a job change that was truly unique to our current historical context: moving to a new presidency amidst a global pandemic.

From 2015 to 2020, I was Sylvania Campus president at Portland Community College (PCC). In early March 2020, I accepted a position as the next president of Linn-Benton Community College (LBCC) in Albany, Oregon, to begin in late June. About a week after the board announced me as the next LBCC president, the college (like most across the U.S. and the world) began unexpectedly moving to remote operations due to COVID-19. As a result, the passing of the leadership baton from my predecessor, Greg Hamann, had to happen virtually.

This excerpt comes from an article in the current edition of the Community College Journal, which is published bimonthly by the American Association of Community Colleges.

Though I’m starting my new job under circumstances none of us could have ever expected, there is nothing like the lens of a crisis to bring some important issues into greater focus. Here are a few of the things that have been on my mind during this time.

Importance of networking

Now, more than ever, the COVID crisis has required me to stay in close contact with my connections across our state and throughout my network of community college presidents nationwide. As a member of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) board of directors, I have been fortunate to take part in weekly web meetings with AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus and the AACC board, as well as the Association of Community College Trustees board and its CEO, Noah Brown. These exchanges have been extremely valuable, covering topics such as reopening plans, enrollment, insurance, liability and more.

Closer to home, I also have been a part of valuable meetings of the Oregon Community College Association, led by Cam Preus. We have been in meetings with our governor, our business officers, state and federal legislators and more.

In both groups, the key ingredients have been authenticity, flexibility and concern for our students and communities.

Inequities, front and center

Moving to fully online instruction due to the pandemic has amplified existing equity issues in our communities nationwide, and that is true for both Portland and Albany. In Portland, many students were disadvantaged by not having sufficient technology hardware, and in rural areas surrounding Albany, there are many who do not have broadband access.

Oregon’s painful racial legacy also has left profound income and education gaps between ethnic groups, and African-Americans have been particularly disadvantaged for many decades. Community college leaders are focusing anew and with greater urgency on equity efforts; Linn-Benton recently delivered a great session on Race, Society and Athletics, which is available to the public.

As I moved into the LBCC president’s office, I was keenly focused on how the college can become even more active in breaking down barriers so that our students have access to the education they need, with which they can better position themselves, their families and our communities throughout this crisis and beyond.

Nurturing partnerships

Community colleges are known for our creative and innovative partnerships, but now we are having to forge and nurture them in an online setting.

During the transition process, then-President Hamann took the time to arrange numerous “meet-and-greet” sessions with external partners using the Zoom platform. While not as personal as a handshake or cup of coffee, these sessions allowed him to give a friendly introduction to me, and to show our partner organizations that they were highly valued, having both a current and a future president in attendance online.

After we reopen, I will follow up in person to keep these relationships at the center of our work in the community.

Read the full CC Journal article.

About the Author

Lisa Avery
is president of Linn-Benton Community College in Oregon.