By Jacob Darling
Our new president here at SMCC, though new to our college, has a wealth of experience when it comes to the challenges of running a community college. President Joseph Cassidy began his tenure in education as a faculty member at Washington County Community College. Eventually he went on to serve as the president of the WCCC faculty association and later of the college itself.
In the 2015-16 academic year he served as president of WCCC and Eastern Maine Community College simultaneously. Before that he was a practicing lawyer and served the city of Calais as its mayor.
President Cassidy is well versed in the unique challenges of both the very small and the very big when it comes to keeping bureaucratic systems running properly. In the coming years, he hopes to bring the skills he has learned to his position at SMCC, to promote innovation and collaboration among students and faculty alike.
Last week I sat down with him to get a picture of what those challenges look like, and what the job of the college president looks like from day to day. We spoke about the unique obstacles of running two colleges at the same time, and the lessons that he brings from those experiences to his current role.
He spoke about the different styles of leadership required to manage a smaller college like EMCC, where there were fewer levels of bureaucracy between him and the rest of the faculty. “Many of the jobs of a college president involve a lot of problem solving,” he explained. As president, it is his job to help the faculty and provide them with everything they need to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities. As he put it: “You have great teachers, you have great faculty who are trying to do good work, and very often the president’s job is just to make sure that everything is working for people.”
We also talked about some of the issues he has faced just in his first month on the job. As most of you know already, the Spring Point Hall dorms are currently closed and undergoing treatment for mold. I spoke with President Cassidy about how he and his staff are tackling this issue. “We’re doing everything we can to support our students and to mitigate this challenge in a way that’s healthy and smart for the campus, “putting student needs first,” he said.
Summer students who were living in the dorms at the time the mold was discovered were moved into the Surfsite dorms. Those students who were preparing to move into Spring Point this fall have been put up in nearby hotel rooms along bus routes to the college. “We want to make sure,” he said, “that we get all our students settled who are going to be living here on campus. … That they have a safe place to live that is a convenient place to live.”
No students will be moved back into Spring Point until the mold is completely removed, the building’s HVAC system is repaired and everything is declared safe by professionals. Going forward, environmental testing of all the residence halls will be conducted on a regular basis.
President Cassidy and I also got to talk more specifically about challenges facing SMCC in the coming year and how he has been approaching them. “It’s a piping hot economy” in Maine, he told me. As a result of that, attendance at the college has been on a down trend. “What we’re finding is that we’re not down on traditional-aged students — students coming out of high school. Those students are here at the numbers they have always been,” Cassidy explained. The down trend has been in nontraditional students, those who have been out of high school for many years. These adults have been in the workforce for some time, and are finding it hard to justify leaving their jobs to go back to school when their employers can now afford to provide raises and other incentives to keep them.
The nontraditional student, Cassidy said, is an increasingly rare sight on campus. “And that’s because there are jobs. There’s so much work right now. There are more jobs than there are people to fill them.” Many people who are already in the workforce and considering the transition back into the classroom find themselves putting their long-term educational goals off in favor of short term financial stability.
President Cassidy told me of a conversation he had this summer with a potential student: “I spoke to one person who told me, ‘Hey, I was going to come to school this year, but my boss told me he’d give me two bucks more an hour.’” That kind of pay bump can be hard to pass up, President Cassidy continued, “Particularly when you’re a nontraditional — maybe you have a child or a home you’re trying to maintain. I certainly don’t fault anyone who makes those decisions.”
President Cassidy is optimistic, however, about the future of retention and graduation rates at SMCC. “The key is that we’ve got to make sure that every student that comes here is successful. That’s our goal.” To that end SMCC has engaged with the Achieving the Dream network, an organization dedicated to providing institutions of higher learning across the nation with a network of peers to share ideas that will drive innovation and reform. “We examine everything from procedures to how we do things in the classrooms and in the shops, making sure that we’re gearing this experience to the student in a way that’s going to guarantee to the extent that we can that they are going to be successful.”
The Achieve the Dream network (ATD) works with colleges like SMCC to promote a student-centered academic structure that does everything it can to set the students up to achieve their goals. “When a student joins SMCC,” Cassidy told me, “we’re going to make sure that all hands are on deck to help that person achieve their goal and to be successful. We want to make sure that everyone who can succeed does.”
My own college experience has already found this ideal at work. This is my first year at SMCC, and I have already taken notice of how helpful everyone here is. Teachers have been quick to point me in the right direction when it comes to all the resources available to me as a student — from tutoring to disability resources to study groups to where to find the most affordable books for their courses.
The faculty here does everything they can to foster a supportive environment for the students. I learned a lot while talking about the ins and out of college life with the president, and as we welcomed each other into our first year at SMCC, I was left with a reassuring sense of community and support.
This supportive community isn’t limited to the faculty and studentsz, either. I have witnessed many of my fellow students going out of their way to be helpful and kind to their classmates. I hope to see more of this as the semester progresses and I encourage all of you to support one another. Find a group, or even just a few classmates, and form a supportive community. That kind of support can make all the difference in promoting a successful and memorable college experience.