Changing Fredonia’s Culture: Dr. Cedric Howard On Enrollment, Retention, The PEPRE Process, Residence Halls, And The Student Experience

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Dr. Cedric Howard, Vice President of Enrollment and Student Services (Photo by Corey Maher)

I last spoke with Cedric Howard in early 2017, six months into his tenure as Fredonia’s Vice President of Student Affairs, in the midst of a student enrollment crisis. Since then Howard has helped bring in two of the school’s top three freshmen classes in history.

With enrollment increasing, Howard’s attention has expanded to problems of retention, budgets, and the student experience:

Ryan Maloney: Where are we as a campus right now? I last interviewed you six months into your tenure. Where are we now?

Dr. Cedric Howard: I think that really depends on who you ask. Some things are going extremely well. Some things are, for lack of a better term, still under construction, and some things we need to pay attention to. Let me give you some examples. I would say that the recruitment and admissions process is going well. We’ve completely overhauled the admissions process both on the Enrollment and Student Services side and on the academic side, and we’re seeing the fruit of our labor. It is very much a campus-wide collaboration that has led, over the past two years, to two of the top three classes in our history. So I think that is going well. Is it great? Not quite yet. Do we have the potential to bring in larger numbers? Absolutely.

Maloney: What would great be?

Dr. Howard: Great would be if we actually met our threshold as it relates to our potential. On average, a regional-comprehensive institution should yield about 25 percent of the students who apply to it. In simple math we have about 6,000 first-year student applications. We should have a first-year student class–25% of that–of 1,500. That’s when we’re being great. Currently we’re at about 18 or 19 percent. That is good. We have a couple of additional things we need to work through, and I think within the next two-to-three years we’ll be great. So if you look at a freshman class of 1,500, and you look at a transfer class of between 300 and 400, and a graduate class of 100, now you’re bringing in 2,000 students a year. Even if you’re marginal in your retention efforts and retain 75 to 80 percent of them, our institution could very easily, within three-to-four years, be somewhere between 5,300 and 5,500. I think that’s reasonable. So that’s when things are great.

With that being said, one of the categories I mentioned were projects under construction, and that’s where I see our retention efforts. Using that same “Blue Ocean Strategy” modality on the retention side: What are some things we can do to make sure our college is ready to support students when they arrive here? Not wait for them to get her and say, “What services would you like to have?” I think by preparing ourselves to be a student-ready college, rather than making sure students are college-ready, we can be proactive in identifying some areas that we know need to be beefed up. Secondly, what are some of the concepts that we know are true indicators of best-practices, i.e. the 11 High-Impact Practices (HIPS). How do we systematically implement those things on our campus? We kind of talk about them, but there are actually a set of them for students, mostly underclassmen. If we were to implement HIPS across the board it would bode well for us on the retention side.

Then there are categories that we really need to focus on. Those are things that are yet to be determined, i.e. What type of institution would we like to become? As you’re aware in the athletic department, we’re still struggling with, “Are we Fredonia State? Are we FSU? Are we Fredonia? Are we SUNY Fredonia? Are we The State University of New York at Fredonia?” We seem to be struggling with who we would like to become, and I take a slightly different stance on this. Rather than struggling with who we’d like to become, let’s become comfortable with multiple identities. So our alums and our athletes may be very comfortable with Fredonia State or FSU. That should be okay, because that’s how they identify. Others might say, “No, I need to be a part of SUNY Fredonia because that shows that I’m connected with the State University.” Then some local people say, “I just want to be associated with Fredonia because I’m from here.” We have to reconcile what we’re going to become, and I simply say that we need to be comfortable with how students view us, and not how we tell them they should view us.

Maloney: Can you talk more about these HIPS? What are they?

Dr. Howard: One of the HIPS is that you should have an internship or a service-learning opportunity as part of your undergraduate experience. And we do those things, but the thing that we don’t do is say, “How do they add to enhancing your college experience?”  We’re not intentional in laying those things out. The HIPS say that you have to be very intentional: Are you going to encourage all sophomores to do it? Or juniors to do it? Or are you going to have them do it in the summer between their sophomore and junior year? Do you see what I’m saying? It’s being very intentional in incorporating the High-Impact Practices into the fabric and ethos of a campus, and we haven’t necessarily thought through that sequence yet.

Maloney: When we talked two years ago we talked a lot about identity. We talked about how we compare ourselves to Geneseo, and maybe that that wasn’t the best thing to do. I feel like you’ve led us in a different direction. Can you talk about what that’s been over the last two years, and maybe any push-back you’ve gotten from that?

Dr. Howard: One of the benefits of working in an environment such as Fredonia–an institution that is a four-year, primarily undergraduate, granting bachelor’s and master’s degrees, in a rural community that houses about half the students that live there, where you’re the lifeline of that community–it was easier for me to envision that in part because that is a mirror-image of my undergraduate career at Georgia College. So I am able to envision that type of student-experience here. Not having lived in New York I didn’t understand, and still don’t to a great extent, the comparison with other type-institutions within the state as best-practice aspirations. No, they are your peer institutions, not necessarily aspirational. When I was at Georgia College in the early 90’s there were roughly 3,500-4,000 students, half lived on campus, the city is roughly 8,000, and the college is pretty much the town. Now Georgia College is 7,500. They still have a lot of those dynamics, but they went through a cultural change where they had to solidify what they were going to become. So now, the official name of the school is Georgia College & State University, because that’s what the president at the time wanted us to be called, but no one identified with the State University part; they identified with Georgia College. Then a new president came in in 1997 and said, “Why are we competing with something that’s not relevant to the student? Why don’t we officially identify as Georgia College & State University, but anything internally focused from the student perspective, let’s just say Georgia College. That’s how they refer to themselves, and it really changed the psychology of the institution. So I’ve used some of those same things here, i.e. athletics was a key part of the experience at Georgia College and the athletes became the face of not just of the institution, but of the entire community. That’s in part why I’ve pushed athletics here, because when you really think about it, athletics is one of those organizations that can embody pride and respect, and nurture a sense of belonging within the campus and community, and I’ve tried to emulate some of that here. So for me, it was not looking at a Geneseo or another SUNY; it was, “How can I create a version of what I experienced at Georgia College, some 25 years ago, on this campus?” Because when I look at the dynamics of this campus, we were having some of the same conversations when I was a student there as Student Body President. Now that I’m a Vice President I can translate some of the language from back then to what we’re doing now. Most of the resistance I’ve received from this has been minor at best; it’s simply been, “We don’t quite understand that.” I think how we view ourselves internally vacillates according to what we’ve been told, and what we’ve been told is that students come to school for a degree. No, students come to school for an experience, in which the degree is part of that. A great example of that is that two-thirds of our students change their major. Well, if you’re coming for a degree you don’t change your major–you know what you want to do. They’re coming to discover who they are and what they’re going to become. Their major is a part of that; clubs and organizations are a part of that; what they get involved with while they’re here is a part of that; it all is tied into, “What is that student’s college experience?” And we have to get comfortable defining the college experience as more than just the program that they’re studying in. So I think that’s the direction that we’ve instilled within Enrollment and Student Services, and now I’m trying to install something similar to campus. It does not negate who you are within your major, but these other things help enhance the experience you have as you’re getting your degree, and you’re also getting exposure to some of these soft skills that are necessary for you to be effective and have a meaningful life once you’ve left here.

Maloney: You say that you’re trying to install this mindset in other parts of campus. Do leaders on other parts of campus come to you and say, “What are you doing over there?”

Dr. Howard: Yes.

Maloney: What do you tell them?

Dr. Howard: I think the very first thing is that I’m creating a culture shift. What I mean by that is when I work within my units I don’t mandate how change should occur; I actually listen twice as much as I talk. A great example of that is Jerry (Fisk) coming in and saying, “We need to have facilities that we are proud of, in which student-athletes aren’t getting hurt.” You would have interpreted that as, “Well, we just need to move our athletes out of Steele and into Dods.” No, it was, “When they’re doing their training, what type of environment are we going to have them in?” They need to have a space that they want to come to and can identify with and be proud of. So rather than me saying, “Well, this is what you should do,” I’m going to listen. What I tell most of my colleagues is, “Listen to people that are experts in their areas.” I am not an expert in strength and conditioning. You are. You work with your boss to say, “This is what I would like to have.” He comes to me and says, “This is what we would like to do. How can we get it done?” And I think with that synergy you build upon the collective efforts of the roles that we play. What I’d encourage my colleagues across campus to do is to look at what’s working well. Look at the organizations that are high-functioning: You see staff that are well-trained, but most importantly they feel comfortable because they’re going to be respected doing their jobs. They’re not scared that their boss will come around and mandate that things get done their way. Their boss won’t come in and say, “I think things should be done this way,” because that’s not a leader. That’s a manager. So that’s what I try to tell my colleagues across campus, is that it’s not what I do or say, it is that I have to view all members of our team as leaders. If I have to tell them to do their jobs then I don’t need them in their jobs. But conversely, I need to respect them to do their jobs in the way they deem necessary. Now, there’s training that has to occur; there’s funding that has to occur; there has to be an environment where they’re comfortable with making mistakes, and know that they’re going to be supported as they make their mistakes and grow from them. The one thing I have a tendency to say is, “When you have people that are afraid to fail they become failures.” And you can’t have innovation and creativity without risk, so if you create an environment where people aren’t afraid to fail they’re going to take risks, and when they take risks and things don’t turn out the way you think they should, then you work with them to learn from that experience. Now they’re better off, and they don’t mind trying other things. Secondly, you have to involve them in the process. I’ve long said that we’re going to co-create this together. Part of that is you have to view me as an equal partner in that process. Sometimes I think we’re afraid to allow ourselves to be equal partners with someone who technically reports to us, and so we create this hierarchy where people are afraid that people at the top are going to come down and tell them what to do. In working with my colleagues I think we have to get out of our own way. We have to realize that we have talented people. They may have some deficiencies, but work on the deficiencies. Create an environment where they’re going to want to thrive and give them a platform by which they can have a voice. I don’t ever come over to Dods–even if I don’t like something–and show up the Athletic Director or anyone else. That’s not an appropriate place. If I have some concerns I would address it with the Athletic Director and/or others who are involved with that. Sometimes we have good intentions but how we facilitate that is that we have conversations with people who are not involved in the process, and it creates a lack of trust. I try not to allow that distrust and lack of respect to enter within our division as a whole.

Maloney: As you’re talking I’m thinking about when Jerry came in. His directive to me was to start training all of our teams, and that was overwhelming at first because there are so many athletes, so I had to break it up and have athletes learn to lead themselves. The most important thing I’ve done in a long time is now we have meetings every three weeks to talk about the structure of the training sessions. When you say, “I’m not an expert in strength and conditioning,” I think, “I’m not an expert in playing hockey,” so I need your help. In our first meeting they started telling me what needed to happen, and it was frightening and I wanted to fight back and say, “No, this is how it should be because I know better.” It was much more powerful to let them tell me and implement their changes. It was instant buy-in. I wouldn’t allow something that wasn’t a best-practice, but if it makes sense then they’re more motivated to do it. One thing I’m struggling with is that I want them to take the next step and be more creative and think further outside the box: “What can we do next?” I’m wondering, when you work with your staff, do you struggle with that?

Dr. Howard: Yes.

Maloney: How do you get people to think bigger and outside the box?

Dr. Howard: First, it takes time. Steven Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says in Habit Number Two, “Begin with the end in mind.” Know where you want to take an organization, and then develop the plan in order to get there. For me, I know where I want to go. Every time I enter an institution I have a three-year plan, and every three years I revise the plan. Coming here I knew what I wanted to accomplish in three years. That’s that end game for me, and there are some deliverables for me to see if I’m on track. Now, how do I develop individualized plans for each of my team members, both as organization heads and for their own professional development, in order to attain those goals? So, one of the things is that I sometimes literally have to tell my direct reports something seven times, in seven different ways. Sometimes they pick it up the second time, but sometimes it takes seven. I don’t hold them accountable until I’ve taught them something seven times, because they’re learning. Now they’re teaching themselves how to walk through that. So now that you’re implementing this as a strategy and working with all the teams and developing team leaders, the first thing is, capture that in writing: “This is my definition of leaders, you determine the leaders, but here are some things that I need for you to tell me: How often are we going to meet? What are some of the things you want to do? What are some of your individual goals and what are some of the team goals?” That becomes the foundation of your manual, so to speak. Then, the next step is to say, “Okay, this is what I’ve done this year. Next year I’m going to do this plus some additional things.” So when the next year’s group comes in you can give them the manual and say, “This is what last year’s group did. How can we make this better?” That forces them to think creatively. “Did you reach your goals last year? If not, why?” That doesn’t mean you have to throw everything out, but what worked well and what things can we tweak? So that’s why I say give yourself time to know that it’s just going to take time to implement the long-term systemic type of change that you’re looking for, but usually what happens is as people are going through change we don’t document what we’ve done in the past. When we regress we say, “Well, I don’t know what happened in this situation.” Go back and see, “Okay, this is where we began, this is where we’re at. We had 12 steps to get to, we got to step 5, we regressed back to step 3, but guess what? We’re not at step 1 anymore.” So you have grown, now let’s get back on track.

Maloney: When you say that you have a three-year plan, I think to myself, “Jeez, I don’t have a three-year plan.” I make three-week plans, and we iterate as we go. Should I have a three-year plan?

Dr. Howard: I think you probably have a longer horizon in your plan than you’re aware of. Let me give you a great example: In the next year what would you like to accomplish?

Maloney: When Jerry gave me that directive I thought to myself, “Okay, what would be something that’s remarkable? What would be a remarkable thing for a recruit to walk in and see?” I thought it would be really remarkable if there was no need for a coach to be present, at all. We’re not there yet, because I need to be there for so many things: for teaching and learning, for accountability, and we’re not even close to that yet, but I’m thinking about all the structures that the athletes need to lead themselves.

[Dr. Howard approaches his whiteboard.]

In the groups that are working well right now this system is more powerful than me doing it for them.

[Dr. Howard writes “Group Leader Expectations” on the whiteboard.]

Dr. Howard: Okay, what are those expectations of a team captain?

Maloney: The first one is that everyone is on time. The last one is always to make sure that the Performance Center is cleaned up. If I weren’t there they would need to be experts in the exercises they’re doing, and be able to teach them. Early on we had no cell phones allowed, but that since hasn’t been a problem, but I think proper attire, too.

[Dr. Howard lists the expectations on the whiteboard.]

Dr. Howard: Okay, that’s what you’re currently doing.

Maloney: There are a few more, but yes.

Dr. Howard: Now that you have these in writing you can probably look at them and say, “What are some gaps that I need to fill?” Do you see what I’m saying? So this is year one. Year two maybe you say to the team captains, “This is what I need to do to prepare you in the off-season.” It may be that in the off-season you work on additional exercises that you’d like for them to do. For instance, it’s determined that the throwers on the track and field team need to build up their core strength: “In the off-season we’re going to focus on these exercises, and I need you to do them three-to-four times per week.” By the time you come back and start focusing on your preseason I’m going to test you again. The test may be done by the captains. As you begin to lay that out more they become what amounts to de facto assistant coaches, because they’re monitoring things. You’re facilitating the sheets that they fill out and you’re having them keep up with the team. To me, that would be an evolution.

Maloney: In some ways I think I’m already doing this.

Dr. Howard: You’re already doing it. There you go. So when you say you’re thinking three weeks out, no you’re thinking year-round, but I don’t think you’ve written it out in this way to see if from that perspective. And not just the team captains, but now you have a set of expectations for the head coaches and the assistant coaches, “Who do you want me to report this to?” You need to keep up with these things. I may have a general report or Google Doc that I update, and it’s your responsibility to go in and track those types of things. My job is to provide the information. Your job, because you’re managing your program, is to go in and look at the information and tweak things.

Maloney: It gives me a lot to think about.

Dr. Howard: I think you’re much further along than you’re aware.

Maloney: If I can change topics, over the summer we talked about residence halls and your plan to change them. Just before I came over here I was at our staff meeting and we were talking about getting more attendance at games. The first thing I thought was, “Well, if the residence halls were different and more students interacted in the residence halls . . .”

Dr. Howard: Correct.

Maloney: That would help a lot. Can you talk about that? What’s wrong with the residence halls we have?

Dr. Howard: The problem with the residence halls is that they were built in the 1960’s, and they haven’t been renovated since then. We have too many residence halls that are too small as it relates to their vertical footprint. A campus that built residence halls in the late 90’s and early 2000’s built them taller to incorporate that type of exposure. A residence hall should not sleep less than 350. Most of the residence halls being built now are between 350 and 500. We don’t have a single residence hall on our campus that sleeps 200. We have too many and they’re spread out all over the place. So one of the things we’re doing as we’re speaking, I am working with Kathy Forrester, Dean Mike Lemieux, and Markus Kessler, and we’ve hired a consultant to come in and do an assessment of all of our residence halls. They’re also going to tell us all the residence halls that are in decent enough shape that we can build up, so we’re going to build two or three floors onto those and then perhaps convert the other residence halls to something else. So we’re currently at 2,400 students maximum in the residence halls and we can be at 2,900. When it’s all said and done we should have no more than eight or nine residence halls, plus the Townhouses, not the 14 that we have now.

Maloney: How do you explain to someone what that does to the student experience, going vertically instead of horizontally?

Dr. Howard: Imagine your family lived in a house that had three bedrooms, and those three bedrooms were laid out over 1,000 square feet. Now imagine your family in that three bedroom house, but laid out over 10,000 square feet. How likely are they to interact with each other? Building up gives you closer proximity; currently our residence halls are very spread out. They’re not interacting within the halls, and then when they go outside there’s so much space that they don’t identify with each other. That was the mindset and modality in the 1960’s: Give people plenty of space; they’re going to hang out outside in those gathering spaces. Now, with technology, I don’t have to go outside to interact. So we just have to refresh and update our housing stock to be more conducive to with how things are today. Going up will allow us to put more students in the same footprint, and that density will force more students to interact across the board.

Maloney: In the short term, I hear about the issue of students feeling like they don’t belong. From your perspective, to what degree is that true and what can we do to impact it?

Dr. Howard: Both the student-opinion survey that was conducted by SUNY in the spring, and the national survey that we did last fall, stated that, in association with our peers, we were at the bottom of the pack in our ranking of student belonging. And I think part of this has to do with the fact that we haven’t thought about what the student experience is on our campus. We have the belief that if we build it they will come, and we haven’t really thought about the cultural change that has occurred on campus. And I’m not talking about ethnicity, I’m talking about that our campus is built for the times that pre-dated cell phones, and we haven’t changed much since then. Here’s a great example: If a student would like to pay a bill they have to go four different buildings on our campus–just to pay one bill. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, but in the days when you had to over to Gregory to get your meal plan, and then go to Financial Aid, and then you go to Student Accounts, and if there was something wrong you had to go back to the faculty members to get an access code–I mean, that’s the way we function, and we haven’t changed that. But from a student perspective they’re thinking, “Well, you don’t really want me here because you’re sending me all over the place. I don’t feel valued.” I think that is part of it, and I think just our facilities: We haven’t really invested in our facilities at all. Our residence halls haven’t been updated since the 60’s. Well, that’s more than fifty years. That’s literally more than two generations that we haven’t updated our residence halls.

Maloney: Why is that?

Dr. Howard: Because as a campus we thought about students from the perspective of, “What was our college experience”, and not, “What is your desired student experience?”

Maloney: It’s similar to the way you’ve talked about the difference between a public and private school.

Dr. Howard: Private schools have to remain fresh because they look at the student from the perspective of, “That’s a dollar amount.” We don’t, because we get money from the state, but we don’t think about the fact that we get money from the state based on that student. One of the things we have to reconcile goes back to, “What is the student-experience we would like to have?”, and then changing our modality as a campus to say, “What do we need to do to be student-friendly, and student-ready?” The days where you have colleges say, “Well, students have to be college-ready,” are gone. Students are going to look at you and say, “Well, you don’t really value me because you don’t have things set up for me. This is too difficult for me, and if it’s too difficult I’m not going to want to come to you.” We don’t think about it that way.

Maloney: There’s a book on your shelf, Becoming A Student-Ready College. I went to that book discussion, and there was a lot of conversation but there wasn’t a grand plan that came out of it. What did you want the campus to get out of that book?

Dr. Howard: Well, it was an academic exercise. In part, there lies the problem: It was an academic exercise. And this is the struggle: Many campuses that are in flux are still driven based upon the idea that faculty members have discussions, and from those discussions are some general questions that are being asked. Then you take those general questions and develop plans, and then you see if you have a champion for the plan. Well, that takes four or five years. That’s not the way we operate, and colleges that are growing in enrollment and flourishing, that’s not how they operate. And so we have to get out of the modality of the traditional, educational, academic exercise where we’ve got to have a discussion about what the problems are: “Well, first we’ll have a discussion about the fact that we have a problem, then we have to have another discussion to define what the problems are, then we’ve got to have data to validate that we do have those problems, then we have to determine who’s going to come in to study to see what problems we actually have, and then we’ve got to have a group to develop the plan, and then another group to implement that plan.”

Maloney: That’s frustrating.

Dr. Howard: Yes, and today’s culture of students get frustrated because their vernacular is, “You either care about me or you don’t.” So when they say, “I don’t belong,” what they’re really saying is, “You don’t really value me because you’re making things hard for me, because I have to go through all these other things. You’re not paying attention to our experience. First of all, ask us what student-experience we want.” Then we have to put together a plan to facilitate those things. That’s where we have to get to.

Maloney: When you first described the private versus public model I thought about how I interact with my student-athletes. If I were running a business I would probably do a lot more to make this experience incredible.

Dr. Howard: Correct.

Maloney: Here, I’m not necessarily incentivized to do that.

Dr. Howard: No.

Maloney: So you talked about a student having to pay a bill. What are some other examples of, “We need to get there?”

Dr. Howard: For one, when have we ever stated that athletics is part of the student experience, and really promoted it as an important part of the campus? Or, if you look at student opinion surveys they’ll tell you that out of the 14 comprehensive schools ranked, we were near the bottom as it relates to the quality of the food. When did we ask students what they would like to have? We don’t. We just say, “Well, let’s give some more options.” Well, just because you give more options doesn’t necessarily mean those are the options students would like to have. Another thing is what we did with the admissions process. Our old admissions process was that we would begin to admit people in January through March. Well, if you know anything about the admissions process you know that 80 percent of students make the decision about what school they’re going to go to by December 31st. So we were entering that process much later, and then in April is when you received your initial scholarship award, and then we wanted you to make a decision by May 1st. That’s the old modality, versus having a student-centered campus that says, “Well instead of holding your application, why don’t I just let you know?” If you’re going to get in you’re going to get in. That’s focusing on the student experience.

Maloney: So I have one more question, and I don’t mean make it a negative question, but I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about the PEPRE process.

Dr. Howard: Please ask.

Maloney: Where are we with the PEPRE process? What do you want the campus to know?

Dr. Howard: So we have a process that was developed and approved in February 2013. We’ve never had to activate the PEPRE process, so it is more of an art than a science. Because this is the first time we’ve had to activate the PEPRE process we haven’t necessarily thought through all the phases of each stage of the process. So we know that by this date we have to do this, and by this date we have to do that, but we haven’t thought about, “Okay, what are the phases of information that we need to go through in order to get from one step to the next?” I would say that the PEPRE process is an excellent way for you to examine your existing practices, and to take a look at yourself and say, “Can I be more efficient? Can I be more effective? Am I the best version of myself possible?” And it can really be a positive thing. I think by framing the conversation around what we would like to become is more productive and much more positive campus conversation to have. What I would want the campus to know is that I’ve been through a similar process before at another institution, and that institution became much better and stronger than when they entered it. I hope that the PEPRE process will make us stronger and put us on a more solid foundation financially once we’ve gone through it.

Maloney: I heard a great metaphor for this: A small, controlled burn in a forest will get rid of all the necessary brush, but if humans put that fire out too soon they risk creating a catastrophic fire in the future.

Dr. Howard: Absolutely. I often say that you have to cut out and drain an infection for natural healing to occur. If you don’t, the infection can spread to other parts of the body. The infection on our campus is that we spend more money than we bring in. Until we address that we’re always going to have this infection. I love the forest fire metaphor, because I think it speaks to this same type of dynamic. This is an exercise that I really enjoy because it forces you to demonstrate and validate that you’re operating in the way that you say you are. That’s why I feel so encouraged about Enrollment and Student Services: We’ve gone through a complete reorganization in the past two years, and I think we can validate that we’re actually doing the things for our students that we say we’re doing.

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