Jacksonville, FL - It was what one trustee described as a “frank discussion.”
The Florida State College at Jacksonville Board of Trustees met for nearly four hours Tuesday to delve in to each of the 16 recommendations which were handed down as part of an independent, institutional review last week.
Led by Gwen Yates, who was officially handed the gavel of Board Chair during the regular board meeting which began after the workshop, the Board worked with College President Steven Wallace in finding the right avenue to pursue with these recommendations.
The President’s Office issued a status report for each of the recommendations offered by MGT of America, saying he was surprised at how closely many of the recommendations lined up with plans that he already had in the works. Five of the recommendations in the MGT report are either mirrored or have some alternative offered in his planned report during the normal Board meeting.
Hand in hand with accountability is a need to ease communication within the college.
One of the big focuses for today’s workshop was creating a Chief of Staff position.
The debate here centered on the exact role that position would play. The Board did not want to define the role exactly because they said it is not their position to run the College, however it was a concern that the position would be redundant. Yates reminded the Board that they were just deciding on recommendations, and suggested allowing the creation of the position at the College’s discretion, but requiring Board approval once the position is defined and before it is staffed. Fundamentally, the Trustees seemed to agree there needs to be some functional role to take some of the internal jobs and concerns off the President.
Trustee Suanne Thamm was concerned about adding any level of bureaucracy to office communication- in other words she was concerned people previously accustomed to a direct line of communication with the President would no longer have that.
Wallace says his office can take on the task of figuring out how this position would “support, assist and improve every cabinet position.”
Eliminating the Executive Vice President position is also something they hope will ease communication. This was a recommendation which Wallace sided with entirely, pointing that it is on the Board’s agenda for today- and did pass unanimously. There was some concern among the board members about one specific function they believed the EVP held- acting as College President when Wallace is out of town. Wallace clarified that statement from MGT, however, saying he appoints someone in that role and multiple people have filled it in the past. Furthermore, he says with the state of technology as it is now, he can essentially do the job through virtual media.
It’s nothing new, per say. Both the financial aid audit and the recent internal review called for more accountability at FSCJ, and now the administration has stepped in that line.
Wallace outlined five levels of accountability between the workshop and regular meeting for within the financial aid office. He says the Vice President for Administrative Services and Director of Financial Aid both bore very high levels of accountability. The Director is especially responsible for “all aspects of the program’s operational performance and failures.” As such Wallace recommends an immediate national search begin for a new Director, and the current position holder takes a step down.
Various deans and an executive director at the campuses are also put in the center of the financial aid problems, and four will be suspended without pay for two weeks.
Creating an internal auditor to report directly to the Board was another recommendation that drew questions. There was again the initial consensus that it would be an important role before some discussion on exactly what that role would be. It was mainly unclear who the auditor would report to and under which branch of the College- if any- the position would be housed. Because of the potential for the auditor to deal with very sensitive matters, some trustees wanted to make sure the role could function free of influence.
Maintaining the identity
While there is a definite focus on change and outlining a roadmap for the college to move on, not everything could be compromised.
Wallace was unwilling to move on two recommendations which he says severely compromise the very identity of the college. One dealt with integrating the non-degree classes. Wallace says FSCJ is career oriented and has worked very hard to create the separate technical institution, so consolidating those classes would essentially reverse that work they had done. In fact he went one step further, asking the Board not to just “stay the course” but to invest in further developing and defining the technical program.
The Campus President joined in Wallace’s rejection of redefining their roles. At first, Wallace had to get further clarification from MGT on what exactly their recommendation on the presidents referred to, and when the idea of either centralizing or completely decentralizing control came up it plainly rejected it.
FSCJ has what Wallace and the Campus Presidents call a “hybrid structure” that makes the college very complicated, but at the same time unique and defined. He thinks the college needs to continue moving on that path.
Training and Development
There were two separate recommendations holding this focus, one suggesting the Board amp up training, and the other offering that for leadership.
Some of the trustees had already registered for various workshops to that effect, and all agreed they would report back with any significant findings or ideas on moving forward with making it consistent.
The administration wanted to see this focus, but pointed to a lack of funding for the position which was specifically designated to manage training.
Not all apologies
One of the most critical problems cited in the financial aid review, and one recommendation from MGT dealt with the antiquated technology handling payroll and other important tasks. This was, according to Wallace, a strategic decision.
He says the college is at the point where some of the IT is held together by “bubble gum and chicken wire,” but the college chose that in an effort to reserve more funding for students. The college has operated at a fraction of the technology budget seen by most institutions- opting to keep licenses going but with few, if any, upgrades.
There is a plan in the works to begin upgrading the IT system, but something that the audit wanted to happy quickly, will in fact take some time. Wallace says he will not allow a very significant sudden investment in to the system because the funding would come from student services. He agrees it is an important upgrade to take place, but over time.
“No operational problems”
It was a statement Wallace eventually backtracked on. Toward the beginning of the workshop he told the Board FSCJ does not have any more operational problems different than what a large college would have.
A few minutes later he corrected himself, saying instead they do have problems, but they are learning from them. Moreover, at least the financial aid problems were in good shape.
Several board members told me restoring student trust and erasing the public image around the financial aid problems were some of the most important steps on the road to reviving FSCJ. Wallace is confident the changes in the financial aid office and other ideas offered up do exactly that.
Yates previously described these reviews as the roadmap for the college, and it’s a metaphor she renewed once again today. She says the talks and decisions today were good progress down that road, but it is one we will have to keep checking as we drive forward.