Q and A with CCA's president, Dr. Betsy Oudenhoven

By Lee Rasizer, CCA Director of Media/Public Relations

What stands out to you now that you’ve been in the President’s chair for about a year-and-a-half?
“I was lucky coming into this position that I already knew the college and its people, so I had a pretty good handle on the community. I also knew where my learning curve would be in the position. I have a lot to learn about the fiscal side of the institution, and I’m continuing to learn more about the academic side and the complexities and challenges across the college.
“But one of the things that was probably the greatest learning curve for me was my introduction to legislative issues last spring. I had never had much to do with legislators. And we are lucky in Aurora that we have a really accessible group that’s interested in what we do. But the big political picture and the level of politics that comes with being a state-funded institution was an eye-opener for me. And, going to the Capitol for meetings or, on one occasion, to testify, that was really outside of the box for me. The bills and implications for us, and, at times, the need to weigh in on things based on positions the  (community college) system was taking was surprising and challenging.
“But I would say that across the time I’ve been here … my focus has been on being the best internal president I can be – to get to know faculty and staff better; to have opportunities for communication across the college; to get to student events. I always did that as vice president of Student Affairs, but I prioritized that as president.
“Over the last year-and-a-half, there was an initial honeymoon period and then you come to know what you didn’t know and it gets more complicated. And there are hard issues and hard decisions. These are not easy jobs, but they are wonderful jobs.”

Is there a certain day that you can recall saying to yourself, well, the honeymoon’s over now …
“I can’t remember a specific event, but I do remember thinking to myself, ‘O-K …’ [laughs] But what’s great about doing this job at this particular place is that it’s mostly just a great job. I believe so fully in what we do.
“I have a lot of experience in higher education. This is my fourth community college. And CCA is just special. I’ve valued every place I’ve worked, but the students here are just remarkable and they’re focused in a way that students aren’t always necessarily. … Higher education has so many things that can sidetrack folks, and in the absence of a lot of extras here – we don’t have athletics, housing, Greek life – our students are here to get an education, and I have always valued community college students, both for the diversity they bring and that idea of grit and perseverance, desire and courage. … And I believe what we do is potentially life changing.
“Going into classes in the fall was the single-best thing I’ve done since I’ve been here. And I went, in part, because I do a lot of things that have nothing to do with our core function of teaching and learning. I hope everything I do somehow supports that, but I don’t get to see it happen very much. So when I asked the faculty if I could come visit, I got numerous invitations, and my intent was to see hands-on what was happening in our classrooms and let the faculty know I support their efforts, want to get to know them, value what they’re doing, and see them in their world.
“But what I also got to see was our students – hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. I went to 44 classes. I loved the level of engagement, effort, care, and risk-taking that I saw. It was just affirming for me, because I have a lot of pride in this college and what community colleges do in the world – the opportunities we provide and impact we have. And seeing how we do it was just great.
“Students don’t get lost here. The faculty knows their names. They use their names and engage them. Watching diverse groups of students in our classrooms work together on a project and having discussions across all those differences, and to help, talk and mentor each other, it was just an impressive experience. And it affirmed that at this particular institution that we have a lot to be proud of. I can say that with a conviction now that I probably couldn’t have a semester ago.”

What did you learn about CCA’s faculty within that process?
“I had a great undergraduate education, but it was pretty much a professor coming in and delivering the lecture, we would supposedly absorb the knowledge, and off we would go. Our faculty works so hard. It’s not just about disciplinary knowledge, which they clearly have. But they also work to challenge students and get them thinking. The flipped classrooms were fascinating. All the different tools our faculty uses and all the ways they change up their instruction, from game-based learning to different uses of technology; nobody is just walking into class and winging it.
“And what was clear to me was that they keep the classes fresh, stay current on pedagogy, teaching techniques and their knowledge. They’re courageous in turning over these classes, at times, to their students, to let them take the lead. At the same time, they have to manage the class. So the juggling of the disciplinary knowledge, technology, and managing of classroom behavior and constructing learning experiences that are valuable was impressive. …
“And what they model for their students, which I really value, was a sense of, ‘I care about you, but I’m going to set the bar high and help you while giving you ample opportunities to help yourself.’ ”

In an overarching sense, what is CCA doing well and what represent necessary areas of concentration moving forward?
“Clearly, based on what I just said I think we do instruction well. And I know from my years working with them that we have a great support staff. So once students are here, I think we do a great job. Our challenge is getting them here. That’s still much of my focus, and something we’ll talk a lot about in the spring. I just don’t believe our enrollment is where it should be or could be. With Aurora growing and our high schools bursting at the seams, it baffles me. We may need to make some bold moves and do some things real differently and/or continue talking about the need for another location. Our Marketing folks are doing a great job working with Outreach and Recruitment. Some of the collaborations around this are much better. We have an Enrollment Task Force. We have an Advising Task Force. But I think we’ve got to get them in the door.
“That said, no matter how wonderful a student’s experience is once in the door, we’ve got to keep them here and get them to completion. And the things that we may need to do in order to do that may need to be bigger than what we’ve tried so far.”

You’ve spoken to the college in general terms about the bold initiatives espoused in a November conference, Complete College America, that you attended. Are the ideas that you heard there potential bold solutions and innovations that can differentiate CCA?
“Some of what I’d like to talk to the college about in the spring is, ‘What kind of institutional initiatives, innovations or changes in policies and procedures can we make to drive change?’ What the folks at this conference were talking about was putting things in place that make a difference at scale. We know that our Student Success Center does great work and shows results with cohorts of students. But its serving about 400 and we have thousands of students that need the same kind of attention. What do we do as an institution to help impact every student that comes in to give them a great shot at completion?
“One of the things we’ve done in higher education is focus too much on course selection. So, if we say to a student, ‘You’ve assessed into this English and Math course’ – and I did this working in advising for years – that’s how we got them started. But if that student doesn’t have an end goal or a clear idea of why they’re here, they’re probably not going to be successful. And we have been fairly complacent about saying to students, ‘You need to have a goal,’ because we have to start with the big picture. Our first question should be, ‘Why are you here? What are you hoping to accomplish?’
“What they were saying at this conference is that you can’t have undecided students. You have to help structure this for them so they know where they’re headed and how to get there. So you start with the big decisions and work your way back. Courses aren’t discreet courses, they’re attached to something, and there’s a path.
“They talked a lot about moving students through more quickly and how time is the enemy. We do have students that attend full-time. They were saying, ‘Can you get them done in two years? Can you help them make it happen through financial support or messaging?’ And if they’re part-time, can we put them on a path that says, ‘If you take six hours each semester, this is what it’s going to look like.’ It’s intervening with students and getting away from AGS (Associate of General Studies), which is a default degree that doesn’t apply to career and technical education or the workforce and doesn’t transfer well.
“They were saying, ‘Our obligation is to structure the experience for our students in a way that will get them to the finish line.’ It works in Nursing. It works in Diesel. It works in a lot of programs. More and more career and technical programs provide a structure that Liberal Arts students are probably desperate for. How do we take a degree with designation and structure that so it’s more clear?”

Do you think those ideas would be difficult to implement or is the structure in place for potential change?
“The key is going to be Student Affairs and Academic Affairs working together. Just as an example, we’re doing the Developmental Education redesign, and Colorado absolutely is moving in the right direction. We’re moving in the right direction. There are some institutions out there doing completely co-requisite Developmental Ed. So every student goes into college level and if they need a co-rec or additional support, then they’re provided that. That’s not something that you can do on just one side of the institution. Whatever wraparound our students need, we have to do that together. This is absolutely under our control.
“Now, if we were looking at more radical ideas, some of these came up at this meeting, including stopping assessment testing [laughs]. That’s a shocking idea for a lot of people. But I think that will be an interesting conversation. I think it will be an interesting conversation for us.
“But what CCA is doing well is that we’re having success in our English co-rec. We’re doing a better job expanding our tutoring services and providing support. We really do have to look at how we’re delivering advising. But I have great faith that if any college can innovate, and innovate really boldly at an institutional level, we can do it.”

The Colorado Department of Higher Education recently implemented a results-based funding model. How do you see that impacting CCA, and are we set up to accomplish what we need to in order to be competitive within that revised structure?
“We have to figure out ways to do better – to retain students, to help them complete – and again, the DevEd redesign is a step in the right direction. But in my view, there are things we can be doing that we’re not doing yet. I’m not concerned about the performance metrics. We’ve seen all our metrics go up. We’re having great success with transfer. How do you do that more broadly? How do you do the things you know work? And that’s the challenge we have.
"The thing that I have to be sure the college community understands, though, is that when we talk about student success, that does not mean we lower standards. That does not mean we don’t continue to concentrate on quality.
“The conversation is not around getting students through at all costs. We have an obligation to our students and partners to do the very best job that we can. If we’re passing a student on to a four-year institution that hasn’t gotten a strong foundation here, then we’re doing that student a disservice and shooting ourselves in the foot, because the four-years are going to say they’re not getting a quality education at the community colleges. If we send a student from a career and technical program into the workforce and that employer doesn’t get a student with the skills they need – including the soft skills – we’re not doing anybody a service.
“So this question of student success isn’t, ‘Let’s just lower our standards,’ it’s, ‘Let’s keep the bar high and figure out how to get them there.’ ”

Will results-based legislation impact CCA’s bottom line?
“As we go into next year’s budget, we are going to have some resource constraints until our last bond payment, which falls next year.  After that, we’ll see an infusion in our operating budget, but we’re not going to feel it next year as much. So one of things I’m talking with senior leadership about is, when we talk about these budget conversations, there’s an undercurrent of, ‘We need a position here or there …” But I think we need to be clear about where our application of resources is going to make the biggest difference. And that’s not always easy. But we put resources into concurrent enrollment, which is 25 percent of our total enrollment. That makes sense. Are we doing a sufficient amount there? Our adjunct faculty need support. We need to put resources into the work that they do. They are by far the greatest percentage of our faculty. At the same time, we want to grow our full-time faculty, because the ratio is out of sync.
“Students in those gateway courses – English, Math – what is going to be required of us to get them through? So, the answer to all those questions are the things that should be driving our budget decisions. And it all synchs up with our strategic plan, which makes sense and still identifies the priority issues here. But it’s challenging. We have a lot of need and not a lot of resources. And even though the funding formula is going to be different next year, and maybe we’ll see more resources, that would be great, our enrollment has not kept up with our budgeting and so we’re going to have be more conservative next year until we can figure that out. I’m confident we will. But we haven’t yet.”

What do you believe are the impediments to enrollment growth?
“Where we still have some work to do is that we’re not a real visible institution. We don’t have the luxury of being on the main drag where people drive by and see a nice big electronic billboard that says, ‘Community College of Aurora.’ We’re in a nice industrial park, but it’s an industrial park, and on an Air Force base. And when you drive by Lowry – that’s why I’m dying to have a tree or two – it doesn’t look lovely. And what’s so frustrating is that when you look inside, there’s so much incredible stuff inside those buildings. But it’s the curb appeal thing. We don’t have it at Lowry.
“I also think it’s an issue that our campuses are so close together, north of Mississippi (Ave.), and we don’t have a presence in a relatively large district. So we have to find out how to let the rest of the district know that we’re here. We need to continue working on the transfer equation and help our families understand that we’re here and have a lot to offer students, concurrent enrollment or otherwise. And we’ve had conversations in the fall, going to most of our area high schools about CCA being a great place to start on the way towards a bachelor’s degree. We’re affordable. We have great faculty and small class sizes.
“What we’re learning is that while we’re convenient, we aren’t so to many who rely on public transportation. If we could figure something out, not just relating to transportation between campuses, but with light rail, that would be helpful to us. Or perhaps it’s building another location closer to light rail, because some of the high school principals said for our kids, it’s easier to go down to Nine Mile, hop on the train and pop down to (Community College of Denver) than it is to get to you guys. So, some of it is continuing to challenge the mythology around community colleges in general, and some of it is just helping folks understand why they should consider CCA. … The other thing we need to do is continue helping student and families understand how they can afford to pursue higher education.
“Back to Complete College America and the ideas around assessment, I do think for some of our populations, assessment creates a barrier. I’m not really sure what to do about that right now. But there are fearful test takers, people in their 30s and 40s coming back. I knew them well when I advised and I just know that a lot of students never get in the door because they’re fearful. Many take the assessment and we never see them again. Right now, it feels like it’s a necessary evil, but I’m not sure if it is.”

Concurrent enrollment in many ways is driving CCA’s numbers. Is that a concern?
“I think concurrent enrollment is an incredible thing. Colorado really got it right, because it affords opportunities for so many students who may not have considered going to college. So, as a social good and part of our responsibility as a community college, concurrent enrollment is really important. We should be translating more of those students to the college itself.
“For those students who have taken concurrent enrollment in high school and don’t go on to the ASCENT program, my hope is that we can encourage more of them to come here. Up until the last year we’ve not been very intentional about that. They’re good students. They can go anywhere. They’re college-ready with college credit. They can go to any public institution in Colorado and got a lot of bang for the buck. But they can also go here, finish up and go wherever.
“At the same time, we’ve relayed the message to high schools that not all of their students are going through concurrent enrollment. The other piece is taking the students who aren’t as well prepared and get them here and help them be successful. Another facet is our adult students. We’ve sort of assumed they’ll come to us, but perhaps we need to balance our focus on the high schools with more outreach to adults. Frankly, the population that may make the most sense is the ‘some college’ students. They’ve got some experience but no degree. How can we maybe invite them to come back?”

You mentioned earlier the prospect of a third campus that could reside in a densely populated section of Aurora, perhaps with light rail nearby. How realistic is that proposition currently?
“It’s an idea that’s very much alive. But CCA has always been so frugal and tight on resources that we just try to do everything ourselves, and we’re not equipped to do that with this issue. When I look around the college, we all have different areas of expertise. The senior leadership brings different areas of expertise. But there are times I think we have to go outside the institution and find an expert to help us out. And with this third location, that’s where we are.
“We’ve met with folks from the city and received some advice. We’ve heard a lot about the light rail and transit-related development around it. I’ve talked to superintendents and the city manager. But for us to really figure this out, we’ll need a consultant or someone to come in and give us the data and recommendations that we need.
“The expansion of Arapahoe Community College into Castle Rock has been a huge success. We probably would want to ease into it. Maybe we start with just services, an outreach office with advising and financial aid.  But if we were going to go to the southeast portion of Aurora, and at one point the college was looking at the Southlands area where there’s a huge amount of development and high-income residents, those are going to be transfer students.
“So do we start doing general education courses out there? Do we do guaranteed transfer? Do we do English-Math? I think we’d have to try out some things and see if they work and make sense. But I’m pretty confident that if we did that, we would have a good result.”

The adjunct faculty has organized internally and is trying to rally around issues that directly affect them. What are your thoughts on their efforts and the recommendations they’ve put forth?
“We’re going to try and be as responsive as we can be with the resources that we have and the things that are under our control. Nate Bork, who is the voice of the adjuncts on the Faculty Senate, has done a good job of having conversations with Janet (Brandau, vice president of Academic Affairs) and I, and it’s really important for us locally to hear from them about what we might be able to do to improve their work lives here.
“Our adjuncts are such a diverse group in terms of what they do and why they do it and what it is they need from the college. But what they need to know from us is that we value them and couldn’t do what we’re doing without them. And given CCA’s roots as a ‘College Without Walls’ it was always those flexible part-timers teaching all over Aurora that made this happen.
“We do have financial constraints. That’s just a hard reality. But there’s plenty of stuff we can do here. If we can figure out the new building (under consideration at CentreTech), part of the plan there was to free up more space in the Classroom Building so that we could give adjuncts more workspace. And the things that they’re asking for, most of them seem pretty doable. A lot of them reside with Janet and her academic administrators. But I think the conversations have been positive and constructive. There may be a time when we disappoint them. But we’re trying to do everything we can to be supportive.
“I think we have to do more with incorporating them into all of what we do. It was nice at the staff holiday party that we were able to give an award to an adjunct (Shanda Plock). And at the system level all the way down, we have to be really conscious that we give them opportunities for input and that they are included on committees and invited to meetings.”

Classroom technology has been an ongoing issue. Can you talk about where things stand with those planned improvements?
“The project is starting up to where we’re bidding for the cabling and we do have a substantial amount of money allocated towards fixing our infrastructure. Sam (Thomas, director of Information Technology) said probably by next fall people will notice the fixes and feel it. We’ve done some quick fixes for students – adding power outlets in areas where they hang out so that they can plug things in. I’ve gotten questions about the need for better wireless.  … but it’s a big project and it’s going to take time.
“I’m glad that we’re not just doing band-aids but taking a comprehensive approach towards fixing the problem.”

Globalization has been a topic discussed at CCA. Do you see more emphasis on that concept as we allocate resources or in terms of hiring?
“I think we’re going to continue doing better on this, and we’re off to a great start with our involvement in the Aurora Sister Cities program and the visit from the group from Adama, Ethiopia, and the opportunity to have (ESL chair) Chris Tombari go to Ethiopia with a contingent from the city. Bobby (Pace, Political Science faculty) is involved with the Model United Nations and WorldDenver.
“What we’re trying to do is continue to acknowledge the international flavor of our student body and tap into that, but also to find ways to create educational experiences. We didn’t budget for most of these initiatives we’re into now, but we’re finding the resources and are pretty committed to make things happen. And as we find where these opportunities are for us, it will help us budget more effectively in the future so we can sustain it. There was a committee once upon a time. I think we’re close to having something like that again, which would be helpful.
“We are interested in diversifying our staff. There have not been specific conversations about internationalizing our faculty and staff. I think it’s more drawing from the community that we serve. If we do that, I think the chances are good that we’ll have more of an international flavor. But the overall conversation has been on the educational aspects and helping broaden our students’ understanding.”

What plans, if any, do you have to increase student involvement in academically enriching campus programs outside of the current student clubs?
“One of the things we’ve done well in the last year or so is add groups that represent different students. And those groups I know have connected with faculty on doing educational programs. The key at a college like this one is that Student Life and Academic Affairs have to work together.
“My big push when I came to CCA as VP of Student Affairs was that programming, even those outside of the classroom, should have some sort of learning outcome and be tied to the educational mission of the institution. I think what’s going to make it happen is that we’re going to have a new director of Student Life soon and I think we’ll see things gear up again in the spring.”

In closing, where do you see CCA in five years?
“My hope is that in five years we will have grown, and that whatever is happening to the rest of the system, our enrollments are continuing to rise. “More importantly, my hope is that we have closed equity gaps and figured out through our experiences and via research, experimentation and bold decisions better ways to help our students be successful; in particular, our students of color. We are 60 percent minority. We have got to do better. And I think five years is a sufficient amount of time for us to make an impact.
“But I do think it can’t be business as usual. We’re going to have to be courageous and try ideas that maybe we haven’t tried.”


CUTLINE: From top, Dr. Betsy Oudenhoven appearing at various events at the college throughout 2014, and below, working at her desk.

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