Creating the resilient community college

Creating the resilient community college

Gail O. Mellow

“The best way of honoring an institutional legacy is to extend it, and

the best way to extend it is to improve the organization’s capacity for

continual renewal.”

–Gary Hamel and Liisa Valikangas

Harvard Business Review, September 2003

A community college is always a reflection of its community, and LaGuardia Community College is no exception. Located in Queens–one of the five boroughs of New York City and, according to the 2000 census, the most ethnically diverse county in the United States–LaGuardia serves students from over 159 different countries who speak more than 110 different languages. Sixty-six percent of the students were born outside of the United States, and over half of the freshman class has been in the country five years or less. Responding to the many needs of this student population has called for extraordinary efforts from LaGuardia’s faculty and staff.


The change from a largely American-born student body to one that is largely immigrant developed gradually over LaGuardia’s 30-year history. The evolutionary pace of change in the student population allowed individual faculty members to devise new and powerful ways to reach students in individual classes and courses. But until recently, the changes needed at an institutional level had not emerged. In this article we describe how the college has begun to address the institutional needs stimulated by the new student population. In doing so, we draw lessons for any college that needs to make significant and lasting changes in the ways in which it operates.

We suggest in this article that creating deep change begins with data-collection efforts that allow for the realistic assessment of challenges. Then it is necessary to create highly participatory structures–which include outside stakeholders but in which faculty, staff, and student voices are central–in order to tackle difficult issues. Finally, publicly communicating about issues and decisions and creating other structures to sustain the change process are key to developing the kind of effective, continually self-renewing, and vital strategic plan that is an essential feature of a resilient college.


LaGuardia, founded in 1971, was the last community college to be established in the City of New York. It is named after the city’s flamboyant and visionary Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia. Its founding president and faculty were pioneers who believed that the mission of a community college was to provide a door to a college education for people who had no other one to pass through. Their hard work allowed tens of thousands of students for whom college was an unimaginable dream to earn degrees, in much the same way as Mayor LaGuardia’s creation of civic structures supported an immigrant population’s achievement of the American dream.

LaGuardia Community College has a history of innovation: it was the first community college to mandate an urban studies course and require a cooperative education internship, and it has become a national leader in the use of learning communities. But as the funding and openness of the early 1970s gave way to the shrinking revenues and increasing bureaucracy of the 1980s, little was done to evaluate its curricular and administrative structures or to decide whether to improve or discontinue practices or policies.

At the same time, the changes in the immigration laws of the 1980s began to reshape the Queens community. JFK airport became an immigrant portal, rivaling New York City’s lower east side at the turn of the century. Building upon its strengths, the college needed to rejuvenate itself to serve this new community. It was time to bring a critical perspective to routine ways of doing things and to examine whether past practices served the new student constituency.

The Middle States regional accreditation process was the pivotal point for organizational revitalization. Led by a savvy senior faculty member, the entire self-study team took seriously the accreditation directive to focus on outcomes assessment and began to collect and analyze data about student, faculty, and staff perceptions of the college’s effectiveness.

This group might have discounted the information it received about student dissatisfaction with some academic programs and student services. The college had problems, but there was no crisis. Funding, while meager and insufficient, had not dropped precipitously. Student enrollment was declining, but only slightly. Students complained about registration, about the lack of effective advisement, and about a required cooperative education course that didn’t transfer, but student voices were not routinely integrated into serious decisionmaking. The college was losing its cutting edge, but there was so little accurate information that it was easy to maintain outdated ideas about reality. But the faculty leadership of the Middle States self-study steering group began to demonstrate to the institution that it was strong enough to be critically self-reflective.

The Middle States self-study highlighted the fact that the college did not use the strategic planning process to focus its attention and resources, create realistic milestones, or provide a context and framework for action. The deep structural issue for the college, therefore, was the need for a renewal of purpose and some real measures of achievement toward its goals.

In retrospect, the need for a reinvigoration of the college’s practices was clear. Gary Hamel and Liisa Valikangas maintain that “an accelerating pace of change demands an accelerating pace of strategic evolution.” LaGuardia Community College was finding that, to be a resilient and effective organization, it had to find ways to strengthen its capacity to create and sustain profound change.


Management experts often argue that there needs to be a critical event or crisis to serve as an impetus for change. This recommendation stems from a belief that deep structural change is so difficult, and natural resistance so entrenched, that a blazing sense of urgency must be established to motivate action. In Leading Change, for instance, Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter calls for “establishing a sense of urgency,” noting that “real leaders often create … crises rather than waiting for something to happen” (1996).

Management consultant Darryl Conner originated the concept of a “burning platform” for change based on the real-life story of a worker who jumped 15 stories from a burning oil drilling platform in the North Sea rather than perish in the fire. Conner, Harrington, and Horney in Project Change Management describe change as a “pain management process” and argue that managers must “define and communicate this pain to all the targets” (2000).

We believe that this approach does not give sufficient credit to the eagerness of faculty and staff to be engaged in a process of discovery and problem solving. A crisis, real or manufactured, is not necessary if one uses organizational tools to create deep and broad participation across the campus.

Hamel and Valikangas identify “organizational resilience” as the necessary condition for long-term organizational success. Organizational resilience is characterized by an attentiveness and responsiveness to ongoing external changes that might have a profound impact on a college. Hamel and Valikangas describe a resilient organization as “free of denial, nostalgia and arrogance.” A resilient organization can develop strategies for creating innovations and allocate resources to support the development of those innovations because it has an organizational ethos of renewal.

What follows are six strategies for use by an established college to develop organizational resilience. These strategies have allowed LaGuardia Community College to regain a sense of initiative and purpose and to create coherence across a fragmented and somewhat dispirited organization.

* Involving the whole system,

* Creating new structures,

* Tackling the difficult issues,

* Supporting faculty and staff leadership,

* Publicly framing issues and decisions, and

* Sustaining change.

1) Involving the Whole System. The need to involve the whole system in initiatives for change is deeply rooted in social psychologist Kurt Lewin’s earliest work on group dynamics and participatory management and in the “open systems” theory developed by social scientists Fred Emery and Eric Trist. Their work provided a foundation for the large-scale participatory change methods developed by Marvin Weisbord (Future Search), Ronald Lippitt and Eva Schindler-Rainman (Community Futures Conference), Kathleen Dannemiller, (Whole-Scale Change) and others.

To launch the organizational-change initiative, LaGuardia used the high-engagement method called Whole-Scale Change to design a three-day summit for over 150 participants, as well as an ongoing series of post-event activities that included as much of the campus as possible–students, faculty, the administration, the board of trustees, and every level of staff from security to program directors. This summit allowed the college community to identify seven themes that became the foundation for an integrated strategic plan.

Students are essential to this process. We found that community college students can rarely give the time necessary to participate in meetings over many months, but focus groups, panels of students, and large-scale events allow student perspectives to be included in analysis and decisionmaking.

The summit also included a complete range of external constituents. From the beginning, LaGuardia Community College has been able to involve in its activities elected officials, community-based organizations, local business and industry, feeder high schools, and the colleges to which students transfer. This broad participation has enabled the college to take a more comprehensive view of what it must pay attention to and has created a powerful impetus for rigorous analysis and creative thinking.

It is frequently a challenge for groups of people with diverse areas of expertise and experiences to find common language and common ground. But the diversity of the groups used in whole-system change initiatives consistently enriches the discussion and improves decisionmaking. In fact, it is sometimes the member of a team who is not directly involved in the issue or process being discussed–the one who asks what might seem like an obvious question or who starts his or her statement with, “Well, I probably know the least about this of anyone here, but …”–who helps a group come to a new insight or understanding. For that reason, it is becoming routine now to see one of our senior leaders conducting a visual “systems check,” scanning a new group or a participant list to ensure that the whole system is represented.

Lessons Learned:

* In major organizational-change initiatives, involve as much of the campus and as many external stakeholders as possible, emphasizing collaboration across natural boundaries (such as between students and employers or professional and support staff).

* To the extent possible, carry the model of inclusion to the smallest units organized for change (such as task forces, committees, and workgroups).

2) Creating New Structures. Albert Einstein said, “The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” At LaGuardia, we needed to create new structures to provide the energy for change while honoring an academic tradition of dialogue, consultation, and shared governance.

Primary among those structures have been cross-functional task forces whose members are drawn from across the campus. Like many community colleges, LaGuardia had artificially separated the credit from the non-credit divisions. In creating new structures, we made a special effort to include faculty and staff from the non-credit division even on task forces examining credit-bearing cooperative education or enrollment management, which are not typically thought of as non-credit issues. We expanded the president’s cabinet, a unit of more than 60 academic and administrative leaders that reviews key college initiatives, to make sure that we have cross-campus conversation and perspectives on major issues.

One conclusion we have drawn from the creation of these new structures is that attention to membership, an explicit charge, and specific timelines are all necessary to ensure that these groups do not become “just another committee.”

Otherwise we found that task forces can devolve into the worst kind of committee by not preparing for meetings, not keeping clear records of action items, or positing opinions without any data. The college has instituted the practice of forming teams to research best practices and current literature on key issues. Following the Baldridge criteria, we also established key indicators of institutional effectiveness, collected baseline data, and began to review our performance on the measures bi-weekly.

Lessons Learned:

* Ensure that membership in new structures crosses organizational lines, such as those between credit and non-credit divisions.

* Define ground rules to encourage new thinking and behavior within work groups.

3) Tackling the Difficult Issues. Leaders who want to make major changes in their organizations often start with some “easy wins” up front in order to establish a few visible successes and build a cadre of supporters before taking on more difficult issues. One problem with this approach is that many never move beyond the small changes to address the larger organizational issues. Also, even easy wins on smaller issues can be elusive when the big underlying organizational problems remain unaddressed. In our experience, making deep change means being willing to tackle the difficult issues head-on.

Most people in organizations know what the big issues are, and over the years they may have watched their leaders work around them. Leaders who want to make deep change have to demonstrate that they are ready to discuss the “undiscussable” in order to give other people permission to do so. And in addition to willingness, it takes skills to confront those issues, skills that have to be developed and practiced.

Early in our process, a dozen senior leaders were individually interviewed about the challenges and opportunities facing the college. Many of them expressed concerns about two major issues: the adequacy of the college’s co-op program configuration and the cumbersome registration and advisement processes for students. And yet it was difficult to generate an open and honest public discussion of these issues.

Whenever someone mentioned that students were waiting in line for hours to register, old ideas permeated the conversation: “I waited in line for hours when I was a student” or “We stayed here until 1:20 a.m. to make sure every student was registered.” If someone said that students complained because cooperative education courses didn’t transfer readily, someone else would say, “LaGuardia is recognized as a leader in cooperative education.” As the late Japanese economist Jiro Tokuyama said, “the hardest thing is to unlearn the secrets of your past success.”

A major problem was the lack of data to inform our discussions. It took a formal survey of student satisfaction conducted in 2000 as part of the accreditation review to open up the conversation. And the results indicated there was a fairly high level of student dissatisfaction with registration. Data from focus groups conducted at this time supported these findings. Many were still skeptical, because the findings did not accord with how people in the college viewed themselves–they were caring and committed to students and working hard to serve them. But the data allowed the college to begin the discussion, and in the end this and many other difficult issues were raised as the campus took a fresh look at the students it now served and how well it did so.

Over the past three years, this tackling of difficult issues has largely taken place within task forces in four major areas: cooperative education, basic skills, enrollment management, and advisement. Each area had been operating for some time without specific evaluation criteria, without a clear focus on the dramatic differences that had occurred in the student population since the programs began, and without clear and continuous information about student outcomes and institutional effectiveness.

To remedy those deficiencies, we are attempting to develop a culture of “critical friends.” This is happening in several ways. First, a designated facilitator supports the task forces and president’s cabinet. It is essential that a facilitator be at every meeting and be a trained professional. The facilitator must be someone who can make a space for minority views and suggest effective strategies for raising concerns and differences.

Second, with input from across the college we create an explicit charge for each task force that names some of the sensitive issues that might be avoided if it is not made clear that these must be addressed. The president clarifies in the charge the kind of recommendations that are expected, how and when the executive staff will make decisions on the recommendations, and how review and support will be sought through shared governance structures.

Third, we ask the task force to establish sub-committees with clear charges–the most important being the one charged with reviewing existing literature and data. In most cases, the research team conducts surveys or focus groups of faculty and students, which become a powerful way to include critical voices. Fourth, there are very clear and tight time lines–from 60 to 120 days. This short time frame encourages breakthrough thinking and ensures that deliberation is always tied to action. Fifth, the work of the task forces and the college’s strategic plan are explicitly connected.

After three years, we are becoming an institution where data is systematically collected and integrated into the process of strategic decisionmaking and implementation. We are using this data to help us assess our achievements. More importantly we are becoming an organization that routinely discusses and addresses issues that seemed off-limits before–such as the factors contributing to low pass rates on critical math exams, the future of our original flagship program, or standards for promotion and tenure.

Lessons Learned:

* Reinvigorate campus discussions by infusing them with the kind of scholarship and academic rigor that is a hallmark of educational institutions. Engage faculty in leading this effort.

* Change the questions you are asking. Instead of asking, “What’s wrong?” or “Where have we fallen short of achieving our goals?” ask, “What is working well that we want to build on for the future?” and “Where are the resources and energies for change?”

4) Supporting Faculty and Staff Leadership. In establishing structures that can promote and then carry out significant organizational change, there must be deep involvement at every level of the institution, with a particular emphasis on faculty leadership. In each major task force, the assignment of significant leadership roles to faculty and staff has had the positive side effect of creating allies who promote resilience and organizational change. Change is frightening, but strongly engaging leaders who are empowered to ask critical questions and who know that their collective wisdom and insight can move the college toward a more productive future is a powerful impetus for change. These new leaders are an important part of a new infrastructure for addressing future issues.

On most campuses, there are all too few opportunities for faculty to exercise leadership outside of the traditional department chairs or administrative positions. We have found that being chair of a task force or a subcommittee provides an excellent opportunity for leadership experience. To ensure that these leaders are supported, the on-staff facilitator maintains almost daily contact with the chairs to help them solve problems, to support their ability to move the task force into and through difficult dialogues, and to help them identify areas of promise or resistance.

The leaders are encouraged to keep in close communication with the president, both for guidance and to emphasize the high priority the institution places on the work they conduct. This contact also provides an opportunity for the president to be updated on the work in progress and to make adjustments in her charge if needed.

Building on the college’s successful Center for Teaching and Learning, which provides ongoing, in-depth professional development for faculty, LaGuardia has recently developed a new yearlong leadership-training program for faculty and staff. This is based upon the belief that leadership must be developed throughout an institution, especially one that seeks to be resilient. A team was sent to the American Association for Higher Education’s Summer Academy to prepare for one of the college-wide task forces. We now regularly convene senior leaders to reflect on our progress and deepen our own learning about transformational change. And last fall, the president and the vice presidents of each of the five divisions of the college attended the Society for Organizational Learning’s Foundations for Leadership program to deepen their own awareness and learning about what it takes to lead and sustain deep change.

Lessons Learned:

* Leadership and knowledge reside in people at every level of an organization. Inviting new leaders to step up is an essential ingredient of creating resiliency. Calling for volunteers rather than making appointments can be an effective way to allow new leaders to emerge.

* New leaders need to be supported to work in new ways. Assistance from a trained facilitator, coaching, and professional development are all necessary to support new leadership.

5) Public Framing of Issues and Decisions. Much of the organizational change literature talks about the pivotal role that communication plays in the success of any organizational change initiative. We concur with this observation, while reporting that it is challenging to communicate effectively. We are still learning how to do this, but we have some suggestions about what works well.

We believe it is essential to inform the community (via e-mail, on paper, and in campus newsletters) about every stage of every task force’s work. Therefore, we announce who is on each team, their charge and time frame, and their preliminary recommendations. Then we hold open hearings on the recommendations to elicit college-wide response, allowing for input in any way (“call us, write us, e-mail us, or tell us in an open forum”).

We find that the visible commitment to an open decisionmaking process has begun to create a sense of trust and a belief that the task forces aren’t “just another committee.” Repetitive and continuous communication through multiple channels was essential to begin this culture change. We also found it critical to use newly established structures, such as the presidents’ cabinet, to vet ideas and spread the word.

It is essential as well to translate the shared community vision into a strategic plan, to make the process of developing the plan open and accessible to all, and to make the plan a visible and public document. LaGuardia’s strategic plan is on the college’s Web site ( and is used on a daily basis to guide decisionmaking and resource allocation and to evaluate the performance of senior leaders. Drafts of the plan are presented to the college senate and the student government association, as well as shared in open forums. Progress on the final plan is reviewed publicly and regularly.

Now in our third year of this process, we recently asked the members of the cabinet, “What’s working?” “What could be improved?” and “What would it take to raise our efforts to an exceptional level?” While there was strong support for the overall process of strategic planning, the cabinet recommended that it be more directly communicated and linked to academic departments and divisions. The result has been an extraordinary series of meetings in every academic department and division to share information, discuss progress, and begin a facilitated discussion of goals for next year’s strategic plan.

Lessons Learned:

* Use all of the existing methods, formal and informal, for communication, and regularly check in to find out what’s working and what’s not.

* Be prepared to invent new and creative ways to send information, and expect that it will take time to do this well. One-way communication (e-mails, memos), while important, will be considerably less effective than two-way conversations in departments or with student leaders and open forums.

6) Sustaining Change. Creating deep and lasting change requires an internal structure to support innovation and nurture new initiatives. All members of the community must realize that the creation of a resilient college is a long-term commitment to an ever-evolving process. At LaGuardia, this meant hiring a senior-level assistant to the president who is knowledgeable about organizational change, who is familiar with the literature and practice of large-group facilitation, and who has the visibility and authority to move significant changes forward.

External contractors are important at specific points, but it is essential to have someone inside the organization who is managing the change process on a daily basis and who knows the culture and the people of the institution. This represents a large investment of time and money. But any college about ready to embark on constructing a new building would place someone at the head of that project. An internal change process is just as difficult and demands a single point of steady focus.

At LaGuardia, this assistant is part of the president’s cabinet and is now the senior point person on the strategic plan. Working closely with the vice presidents, she has been responsible for managing multiple change projects, maintaining momentum, creating strategic linkages between separate activities, and using the institutional framework for identifying resources–all while bringing a variety of people to the table and communicating results.

We have found that putting this position in the president’s office makes clear the continued focus on enacting the strategic plan and working assiduously on those issues identified in the strategic planning process. It also reinforces the idea that the issues considered by the task forces are an institutional priority. The ability to focus on elements of the strategic plan year after year strengthens the perception as well as the reality of progress. This further motivates action and eliminates the frequent complaint of campus participants in strategic planning that they have been in lots of committee meetings but have seen very little change.

Lessons Learned:

* Commit at the outset to sustaining organizational change–designate resources, identify the right people, place them at the appropriate level, and support them.

* Anchor the overall change effort in a strong, visible, and ongoing strategic-planning process.


Although deep change initiatives are, by their nature, always works in progress, we believe that the consistent application of these six principles (involving the whole system, creating new structures, tackling the difficult issues, supporting faculty and staff leadership, publicly framing issues and decisions, and sustaining change) has started our college on the path toward organizational renewal.

All of the major activities we have undertaken to support the change initiatives over the past three years (large-scale visioning events, cross-functional teams, open forums, research teams, strategic planning, supporting new leaders, and professional development and coaching) take time and require skills or capabilities that may be new to a college. But over time these kinds of activities are becoming part of the culture and central to the way we work.

At LaGuardia, these strategies are building a solid plat-form upon which to sustain significant organizational change. Now in the third year of the strategic planning cycle that was launched by the original vision summit, we can see that the college has made substantial progress on most of the issues identified there. We have been recognized as a national leader in graduating Hispanic students and among first-year-experience programs, we have been identified by the National Survey of Student Engagement as one of the three top-performing large community colleges, and we have received a Certificate of Excellence from the Hesburgh Awards for significant contribution to faculty development that enhances undergraduate teaching and learning.

Many faculty and staff at LaGuardia Community College now say that there is the sense that “we’re coming back.” The consistent use of the strategic plan and the critical role of data in focusing the next level of major analyses and initiatives have provided the campus with a renewed sense of purpose and identity. There is now more belief that the college is actually setting a series of goals and establishing milestones against which we can measure our progress.

Perhaps more importantly, the consistent use of cross-campus teams has deepened a sense of community that we believe will sustain the campus as it moves toward the future. The phrase “The World’s Community College” is beginning to be more than a catchy advertising phrase describing the students we serve–it has begun to embolden a renewed sense of innovation.

There are definite drawbacks to using these new techniques and to initiating change by means of a dialogic process instead of in reaction to a crisis. It takes faculty, staff, and administrative time. It requires expert facilitation and therefore investment in outside consultants and the internal development of a cadre of skilled individuals who can support these efforts. It requires leaders at all levels to expand their skills. There has been some resistance, which we have tried to address, from organizations such as the union and campus groups concerned that cross-functional teams may be taking on roles that belong to them. And finally, even large-scale planning efforts do not guarantee rapid and effective implementation. Any organizational change effort requires constant vigilance to ensure progress.

Despite these drawbacks, however, we have found that these processes have been powerful strategies for getting to “the tough stuff,” addressing deep problems that can plague an institution for years unless they are brought to the surface, analyzed, and resolved.

The processes have been a powerful way to turn exciting ideas into action. They have provided a mechanism for cultivating new leaders from across the campus and signaling to them that leadership entails understanding the necessity and the challenge of moving from vision to action.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these new strategies have allowed the college to find ways of sustaining organizational change and moving toward the resilience touted by Hamel and Valikangas. In some ways, the creation of a resilient college simply involves integrating the visioning process with good management practices–strategic planning married to effective implementation. But our innovation is in maintaining an unwavering commitment to engaging the whole system. We have created a process of weaving disparate parts into the whole, and we are emerging stronger, more effective, and more committed as an institution.

Gail O. Mellow is president and professor of social science at LaGuardia Community College, part of the City University of New York. She is a social psychologist with extensive experience in higher education–having served at community colleges in Maryland, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey–and is co-author of two books and over 40 articles on community colleges. Rosemary A. Talmadge is special assistant for organizational development at LaGuardia. She has been engaged in organizational change and strategic planning for more than 25 years in large public institutions, churches, colleges, and with nonprofit boards. In 2004 LaGuardia was awarded the Hesburgh Certificate of Excellence in recognition of its faculty development program designed to enhance undergraduate teaching.

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