Dr. Bill Pink: Relevance & Responsiveness in Higher Education

Matt Kirchner and Dr. Bill Pink, President of Grand Rapids Community College

Matt Kirchner 

Today’s guest is the 10th president of Michigan’s Grand Rapids Community College. For more than 25 years as an educator and a leader, both locally and nationally, he has been intimately involved in the world of education. He has an extensive background in workforce development -we will talk about that extensively today. He was a successful basketball player; in 2016, was inducted into the York College Athletic Hall of Fame. He holds several degrees: Associate Degree, Bachelor’s, Master’s Degree, and also holds a Doctorate Degree from the University of Oklahoma. Among his many accolades, he was named the Newsmaker of the Year by the Grand Rapids Business Journal in 2019. I am your host, Matt Kirchner; it is my great pleasure to introduce today, Dr. Bill Pink. Bill, thanks so much for being with us.

Bill Pink 

Matt, thank you. I’m honored to be here, because I know some of the folks who’ve done this podcast. And so to be mentioned in those circles is humbling and an honor. So thank you for allowing me to do this.

Why relevance & responsiveness are key to GRCC’s success

Matt Kirchner 

Well, and I know for sure that many will say the same thing about being in your company. So thank you so much for joining us. There are nearly 1,000 community colleges in the United States. Now I have visited Grand Rapids Community College – very, very impressive institution. I would be interested, though, Bill in understanding in your view, what makes Grand Rapids Community College unique?

Bill Pink 

So GRCC is 105 years old. We’re the oldest community college in the state of Michigan, one of the oldest in the country. So we’ve been at it for a good while. What really distinguishes us, I think, is the fact of how we pay attention to our community, as well as our students. So the way I always say it to our campus community, if you ask them, what two words would you talk about, the two words that they always will say, if you were to find anyone here, who’s been here for a while, what’s the tall bald-headed guy going to talk about? Two words: relevant and responsive. Are we relevant? And are we responsive to our community, to our students and to each other? 

If you don’t stay relevant, you tend to disappear. Sometimes I throw out Blockbuster Video – by the way, when’s the last time you saw Blockbuster? Yeah. What happened? Well, people say Netflix happened, streaming video happened; all those things happened. And a company that had hundreds, if not 1000s of stores all across the country, you don’t find anymore because of relevancy. If they didn’t stay relevant, they go away. And the way you stay relevant is that you stay responsive to your community and to your students, and to the folks who work side by side. 

So one thing I think is distinguishing to us: I believe this community of our GRCC family, we have people who have bought into that vision – that if we can be responsive to each other and to our community, most importantly to our students – if we can stay responsive; if we can ask the question, “What is it you need?” rather than walking in a room saying, “Here’s what we think you need.” That’s the biggest mistake, Matt, that has been made in higher education for years, if not decades, going into centuries, is that we have been so good, thinking we’re good. And walking in the door and saying, here’s what we think you need because you need to. . . and you have businesses, companies, communities that say, you know what, that’s really not quite what we need. We need this over here. So higher education, walking in the door, asking the question, rather than telling the answer is the most important thing. And I feel like that’s where our college has been. And that’s where I want to continue to be as this institution or as this community’s college.

Will colleges see a rise in enrollment in fall 2021?

Matt Kirchner 

And putting your students and your community first, that focus on relevance, that focus on responsiveness is paying dividends, is it not? There was some data that was just released that revealed that summer enrollment at GRCC is up 7.1% from a year ago, 5.9% from pre-pandemic levels, and I think that’s the most impressive. Your Associate Provost Tina Hoxie said, and I quote her: “As our region recovers from the pandemic, many people are looking to gain new skills and advance in their careers.” I know your institution is providing financial aid to many of these students. And those students, by the way, include adult learners who were displaced during COVID. I’m curious Bill, these numbers, these increases in enrollment, do they surprise you? And do you think the increase will continue as you begin the fall semester?

Bill Pink 

Great question, Matt. So it was interesting and very telling to us that about a month ago I was asked to be on a press conference, a national press conference with the Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. It was announcement of the next stimulus package as far as the funds that were coming to higher education, because many of those funds have been earmarked to go directly to students. And this college has been doing that for months now with those stimulus dollars. So when Secretary Cardona introduced me to speak, what he said about GRCC in his introduction – which was totally surprising to me and refreshing to know that the Secretary knows as much about us – he called us an exemplar as far as the support we have given through the pandemic, the support we have provided for students. Sometimes you have your head down to the grind, and you’re working at it. And you aren’t even thinking whether or not anyone’s noticing it or not. When your Secretary of Education mentions you that way, that is an awesome thing.

And so for us, what that tells me is that our folks, our family has been doing all we can to help support students in these days of pandemic. As Dr. Hoxie mentioned, we have people who are looking to get back to the world of work, but we also have people who are looking just to get back to their education experience. So now what we’re seeing the summer is we’re digging out of this pandemic, we’re seeing more of those folks come back and say, now it’s time to get this up and running again. My hope is that as strong as those numbers, look, we’ll hopefully see that continued rebound into the fall. 

I will tell you that 8, 10 months ago, when I was kind of making my own predictions, I told my team that I felt like what we see that we’ll see the best result of this a year from now. My thought is fall 2022 is when most people will get back to us. So the hope is that we will indeed see that momentum continue into the fall. And the last thing I’ll say about that, the two things that have helped us out so much is having a state here in Michigan that had two really good grant opportunities for students. The Michigan Reconnect Grant says if you’re 25 years old or older, you have some or no college and no degree, you can access the community college with last dollar tuition paid. And so the summer is the first time that people have been able to take advantage of that. We’re seeing some of those numbers come in of people saying that’s what’s going to get me back into school.

And then the other initiative is what the state calls the Futures for Frontliners initiative. Futures for Frontliners: if a person stayed, was working during the pandemic, during the shutdown here in Michigan, which was back in 2020, April, May, that timeframe. . . for folks who kept working Matt, those people showing proof of that employment, those individuals, if they were a frontliner during that shutdown time, now the state says last dollar tuition for you to say thank you. And so what we’re seeing are both of those groups of folks coming in saying I can get this going again, and here’s an avenue, that’ll help me pay for it.

Matt Kirchner 

And what a great example of how we can support workers, how we can pay back people that really served our country, served the state of Michigan, worked through the pandemic when so many were locking down and really kept essential services going. And this is just a great example of how we can give back to those individuals and reward them and continue them on on a career pathway as they look to their futures.

What long-term disruptions will higher education see as a result of COVID-19?

Matt Kirchner 

As we think about the COVID pandemic, as we think about the things we’ve learned that we’ve thought to, or we’ve come up with new new ways of doing things, it’s created so much innovation. And certainly that’s true in education, you know, we’ve been forced to rethink the way that we teach, the way that we learn, the way that we work. You know, the workforce, going remote, finding new ways to collaborate, you know, recording a podcast over Zoom, for example. Many employers are keeping some of these changes long term. I’d be interested Bill, what are some of those positive disruptions that you saw in higher education as a result of the pandemic? And how do you think these disruptions will impact education going forward?

Bill Pink 

Two things I’ll mention among several. So, number one: many of us for so long, have been in the business of providing online education. Many of us have been doing online learning for decades. What the pandemic has done is that it pushed all of us to truly ask the question, how effective are those classes? Is the technology such that students can access it well, and that faculty feel comfortable in the delivery? What does that virtual world look like? So something that really I think tossed of the ship is that now many of us – and I’d say GRCC, being one I can speak for us – we have done so much to even fine-tune what that virtual online learning atmosphere looks like. It has enabled us to (and I think that’s a sustainable piece, by the way) that now those classes and those offerings look even more robust. We went from basically two strong formats of delivery of classes to four, where now there’s this virtual delivery that we didn’t have before this. Virtual like you and I are doing right now, Matt. I know my class is at nine o’clock on a Tuesday morning. I log on and log into Zoom. There’s my instructor; there are my classmates. Now that class is being taught in the virtual world. That was added to our repertoire, and we’re using that. But also a hybrid model that combines both that virtual world and an in-person world so that maybe once every two to three weeks, I’m in person with labs, but the rest of the time, I may be in the virtual world. So I think those are changes that will continue and will become even more robust, among other things with academia. 

But the other thing is that the idea of importance in relation to wellness on our campus. One thing we’re going to do this fall and this school year, is that we are going to really push the idea of wellness on our campus with our employees and our students. Wellness from the standpoint of physical, mental health, all those components when it comes to just the world of looking at how well we take care of ourselves. COVID has taught us that and you think about all the things like hand washing and all these things that we started really emphasizing more. Now what we’re going to do this fall is we’re going to open up that and say how can we, you know, maybe generate some competition on campus to do more to take care of ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally, all those things? How well do we take care of ourselves? And can we do a better job of that? How does the institution encourage its employees and its students to do that? I’m looking forward to seeing what comes from that.

Who are key leaders in higher education in the US?

Matt Kirchner 

For sure. The innovation that’s being driven, the virtual learning that you talked about, your focus on wellness, both physical and mental. I agree, it’s gonna be fascinating to see what the future of education looks like. You know, it’s impressive how your team has led your institution through that transition, through this COVID period – takes incredible leadership. As you mentioned earlier, the Secretary of Education in the United States calling you an exemplar, that’s got to be a pretty, pretty great day in the life of the President of a community college. On this topic of leadership: on a previous episode of this podcast, we talked to your friend, Dr. Bryan Albrecht who is the President and CEO of Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin. We asked him a question. We said, who’s leading technical education in the United States? And you should be proud to know that you were listed in his top three. I want to ask you the same question, Bill: who are some leaders that you see in higher education that are doing great things that you would point to as examples and possibly future exemplars?

Bill Pink 

Bryan is good friend. And when I’m asked that question, I fire that right back at Bryan Albrecht because of the good work – I’ll tell you, when it comes to Gateway Tech, that’s a place that we’ve sent some of our people to look at some of the things that they do, because Bryan and his team do an incredible job in terms of technology within education, but also partnership with companies and industries. Bryan is second to none in that regard. But I’d also throw in there three others. So I believe Lee Lambert at Pima Community College System, and serving those institutions. Lee Lambert is also strong in this space of trying to be as innovative as possible with his institution and they do a great job. I also throw Scott Ralls’ name in there. Scott Ralls at Wake Technical College down in Carolina. Scott’s a friend and someone who I point to as well. And then the third person I would mention is Anne Kress at NOVA – at Northern Virginia Community College. Anne being a fairly new leader in that institution yet, Anne is strong and Anne is one that is paying close attention. 

And reason I say it that way, Matt, is because I think from a community college perspective, what is important for us as leaders to make sure we are paying attention. And paying attention from the standpoint of not just our students, but our industries, our companies, our partners. And that partnership includes all of our company partners here, but that also includes our four-year institutions: what do those partnerships look like? As well as our K-12 schools. Paying attention. And if we pay attention to the level that we are connecting all those – because I feel the community college is that connector, and I call us a convener – we have to stand in that space strong. I think those are three or four leaders, including Bryan, I think those are folks who are knocking it out of the park on a daily basis.

Matt Kirchner 

Bryan Albrecht, Lee Lambert, Scott Ralls, Anne Kress: all people on your list of great leaders because of the fact that they pay attention, as you mentioned, to their students, to their industrial partners to their four-year institutions, to their K-12 partners.

How should community colleges better help military service members transition to the private sector?

Matt Kirchner 

Now your wife Laurie retired from service in the United States Air Force Reserve. Your son Lance is a member of the US Marine Corps. First of all, thank you for supporting them and their service to our country. That’s obviously so very important. And we at The TechEd Podcast really value the service of any member of the US military and what they do to protect our freedom and our way of life. But I would also be interested – on the topic of transitions – as our military service people transition from their service to our country to the private sector. What can community colleges do to help transitioning servicemembers re-skill for a career outside of the military?

Bill Pink 

That’s a great question, because in higher education, Matt, we have to see our military, returning military folks, we have to see them as a population that is deserving of special attention. And here’s what I mean by that. So we have different things that we do in higher ed, and we have military-friendly designations and all that good stuff. We have got to make sure that we have focus for those individuals specifically. So not just being military-focus and military-friendly. What does that look like? What does that mean? In October, we’ll be opening a brand new Veteran’s Service Center here on our campus. That Veteran Center is going to allow us to do even better things. We’re actually even hiring a veterans coordinator to go into there, in addition to who we already have in there. Because what that means for our veterans: number one, it shows our veterans who are here on campus, we care about you. And there are folks who are focused on and know that you have some circumstances that are a bit different from other students in terms of funding in terms of several other things, their experience, making sure that we can have that. What did you do in the military? How do we leverage that? How do you want to leverage that? Making sure we have those kinds of conversations. 

But that Veteran Center is going to be focused on making sure intake is going to be proper, making sure that we have a support system that continues throughout their time here at GRCC. And to make sure that they can realize what their next is going to be. I had one of our veteran students in here just yesterday, and I will tell you that it was moving to hear him talk about – and this is a young man who I believe had been in the US Army, and now is a student here finishing with us and now headed to Central Michigan. And what’s so cool about that Matt is hearing him say that if it wasn’t for GRCC, he said, this is a second home for me. He said because this is what not only the Veteran Center has meant to me, but this is what the institution and the folks who care about educate, here’s what that is meant to me. So to hear a veteran and again, to your point of pointing out my wife and our son, my brother, being a veteran of the US Army, dad, who was a World War II vet. . .to me, the military side of what we do here is imperative that we are taking care of our students who’ve given so much of their lives for us and time for us. And to a halt. And to show students who are veterans who are not students here – to show them that there’s a place they can come that veterans are going to tell them, that place will take care of you. If you want to get it done. Yes, that’s where you need to go. That means a lot to me, Matt.

Matt Kirchner 

Well, anytime that somebody says that their institution of higher education has become their second home certainly shows the incredible value that an institution like GRCC has  to all of your students, but to especially to our transitioning military members. So thank you for sharing that story. Thank you for that answer.

How does community college help students develop a broader skillset?

Matt Kirchner 

As we wrap up our time today with Dr. Bill pink of Grand Rapids Community College, Bill, one last question for you. And it’s really around the whole topic of career pathways. Now, Blake Moret, who’s the Chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation – a great Midwestern innovator – was a recent guest on our podcast, and gave some really interesting answers to our questions. But one of them that was the most curious to us was he talked about more emphasis on cross-training. That their workforces being given what he called a “wider career lattice as opposed to just a ladder to climb.” You agree that in the future, we’re going to have more of a lattice, lot more options as people navigate their careers going forward? And if so, what advice would you give to a high school student listening to this episode, who’s maybe unsure of their career pathway, what they should be thinking about doing after high school?

Bill Pink 

I think Blake was spot on. Because I do believe that even in present day and days to come, that the idea of a wider lattice, I think that has a lot of merit to it, mainly because the options that are out there, and from a technology perspective, how COVID-19 has accelerated so much of that. So with that acceleration, and the technology being elevated in importance of just our daily lives these days – did you even know what zoom was before March of 2020? So with more of those things that are – as technology has taken that rise – now we are seeing more and more of that usefulness of technology and how it incorporates to some of the things that we’ve been doing all along. So that now a student coming out of high school, as they look at the breadth of what’s out there, options that are out there. Now that that breadth looks so different than it did just from two, five years ago. 

I was talking to our program director about our culinary school (and by the way, it is the best culinary school in the country) but I was talking to him just earlier this week. And he’s talking about automation, as far as culinary is concerned. And we’re talking about how, what does that look like in terms of how automation and robotics having its place in culinary arts? The same thing, I talked to our automotive technology program: automotive technology, all of a sudden now when you have more of the onslaught of electric vehicles, and it starts to make you wonder, so now with that automotive tech, do we need to bring in more from the computer information systems department to combine some of that curriculum so that they have more of a computer technician background as they’re working on a vehicle? Same thing with the culinarian? Do we need to do more in terms of what automation looks like, for that culinarian? That is part of that wider career lattice, Matt, that I think Blake is talking about. That has such a breadth to it that is so different, that it will be so different from what we’ve been doing. 

I’m a big believer – and I know I’m partial, and I’ll admit it – I’m a big believer to tell that high school student who is unsure: your best route is to come to an institution like ours. Because not only is it going to be a lower price point for you to explore, but you can explore and find out exactly what you think you want to do. I would rather you pay this price point to explore and figure it out than to pay – and I’m sorry to all my four-year partners, love you them death – but I would rather pay that price point to explore the one that we than to look at a $30-$35,000 a year education that just tells you, okay, I think this is what I want to do. Let’s do it with us. I will tell you how deep a believer it is. This coming fall, my daughter just graduated from high school, she’s going to be a GRCC Raider in the fall, because she is in that same place of saying, Dad, I’m not sure what I want to do just yet. So since I’m not sure, I just want to come to GRCC so I can help figure it out. Because I know that whatever it is, I’m still gonna need a composition, English composition class, I’m still gonna need that math class, I still need that science class. Whatever it is I go into, I might as well do it at an institution that’s going to be a great price point and is also going to have great class sizes and it’s going to have that focus on me, so that when I do decide, now I can make that transition. I think it’s the best decision from a standpoint of value, transfer value, the value that they will be able to find out in exploring what their next is going to be. Come do it at this level so that you have less pressure of finances and other things. And we can get you on to your next.

Matt Kirchner 

Well congratulations, first of all, to your daughter on her high school graduation. And on making a great decision as far as her educational pathway and her next step. How exciting is that as we talk about these career lattices, and who would have thought that we’d be talking about automation in the world of culinary arts? But but you’re right. I mean, that technology is coming to every corner of our economy, and none of them are immune. That’s just a fantastic example of all of these great options that students have as they’re thinking about what happens after high school. And certainly going the route of a community college like Grand Rapids Community College for all of the reasons that you mentioned, is a fantastic decision for high school students. So Dr. Bill Pink, I want to thank you for spending time with us today on The TechEd Podcast. Just an amazing guest. You’ve got such an incredible background, such a willingness, by the way to be genuine, to tell us what you think. Maybe not just what people want to hear. I’m sure that’s a hallmark of your leadership. And it certainly showed through on today’s episode. So again, thank you so much for joining us.

Bill Pink 

I’m honored, Matt. Again, thank you for all that you do. This podcast is incredible, because what you’re doing is that you are taking folks who have these messages and have these pieces of expertise. You’re putting it out there in a way that is consumable for individuals and useful whether it be a high school kid, whether it be an incumbent worker, whether it be a company, a business or community or university leader. So thank you for what you do, Matt, this is awesome.

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