Dawson Community College is a small, rural comprehensive college currently celebrating its 75th Anniversary. When DCC was founded in 1940 it was at the pioneering forefront of community-led higher education in Montana, and only two other communities in Montana established similar colleges. That distinction offers DCC a degree of independence and autonomy outside of the state university system. Today the college is governed by a locally elected board of trustees under the supervision and coordination of the Montana Board of Regents.
The DCC campus in Glendive, MT. was established in the 1960s on a hilltop featuring beautiful views of both the badlands of Makoshika State Park and the Yellowstone River Valley. The most recent physical addition to campus was a $5 million expansion in 2006. That project added a 2,000-seat gymnasium, a 300-seat theater for the performing arts, classrooms, offices, workout facilities and a book store. It also included a significant expansion of the library/media center. The project was funded by the taxpayers of the college district, generous local donors and students’ building fees.
With most higher education opportunities concentrated hundreds of miles away in the larger towns of western Montana, for decades Dawson Community College has served an important role in the development of Glendive and Eastern Montana. Over the past decade declining high school class sizes and increased wage distortion from nearby oil development resulted in a precipitous decline in enrollment.
Weaknesses in executive leadership at the time resulted in a slow response, allowing the problem to intensify and creating operating distortions throughout the organization. Among these distortions was a breakdown in trust between the college and its union workforce.
Beginning in late 2012, the trustees took action resulting in a complete turnover in administrative leadership at the college. The new leaders of Dawson Community College were given a mandate to transform the operations of the college in an aggressive and comprehensive manner. Since that time, the college has undergone sweeping reforms and strategic repositioning. Every facet of recruitment, learning, student life and operations were examined, reworked and in many cases re-staffed. At the same time, the college established a culture of evidence to inform all operations and teaching.
The college is currently led by an interim president appointed in July 2015. The interim president has been successful during his tenure. Among other accomplishments, he oversaw difficult and significant reductions in teaching faculty and staff, which were an important step in the reform efforts.
These significant changes position the college to successfully meet the transfer education, career and technical training, remedial and college readiness and lifelong learning needs of the community.
The next president of DCC will have the opportunity to consolidate and affirm the recent improvements made to the college to capitalize on growth and new purposes going forward.
The next president will recognize the potential that has been created and will see a unique opportunity to quickly build for the future. The right individual will appreciate the importance and value the presence of a small, rural college within the competitive marketplace for higher education in Montana and the region.
A successful candidate will be highly self-motivated, confident, decisive, comfortable with a range of internal and external stakeholders and understand the need to manage many portfolios within a lean organization. He or she will willingly engage with student life on campus and with civic life in the community. In addition, he or she will need to serve as an exceptional advocate with the Montana Legislature, the Board of Regents, potential industry partners, local stakeholders and students to continue developing a nimble, responsive market position for the college.
The next president will need a high risk tolerance and find satisfaction in new initiatives and accomplishments. Experience with organizations in transformative periods is highly desired. Experience working within both the academy and industry or as part of academic/industry partnerships will be helpful.
The attainment of terminal degrees and higher education experience will be valued but not exclusively required. A masters degree in a relevant field, along with a record of professional accomplishment are required for consideration.
The Leadership Agenda
The objective of the trustees in the coming years is to build stability based upon the momentum of recent reforms. The next president will be deemed successful by the trustees in so far as he or she, 1) Aligns programs with the market demands of both students and employers, 2) Ensures continuous improvement in teaching quality and learning outcomes, 3) Achieves stable and productive labor relations and 4) Realizes consistently rising student enrollment and retention.
Under the leadership of the next president, DCC must aggressively pursue program review and prioritization in order to add and adjust the degrees and certificates offered to meet the evolving needs of both traditional and nontraditional students.
DCC’s independence within the state of Montana allows it to respond relatively rapidly to market conditions. This strategic advantage must be pressed going forward to boost enrollment and meet the needs of the area economy. The success of this strategy to meet the training needs of industry and respond with new academic degree and certificate offerings was demonstrated by the recent addition of a new A.A.S program in corrosion technology, which went from concept to implementation in less than a year in 2015-16.
As DCC realigns its teaching faculty to increase flexibility, it is transitioning from a large proportion of full-time, tenure track faculty, to a ratio of adjunct faculty more aligned with national trends. Managing the teaching credentials of both long-time faculty and newly added adjunct faculty to ensure transferability and learning outcomes will be critical as this transition continues.
The uncertainty created by both the rapid pace of change and the necessity of staffing reductions has resulted in tense labor relations over recent years. The next president will be successful by harnessing the enthusiasm among faculty and staff for a better future to overcome misgivings about the disruptive reform process recently experienced.
In continuing to align the right course and program offerings, establish evidence of quality learning outcomes and rallying employees to a positive purpose, the next president will realize the ultimate goal of a growing student population.
A number of structural factors should contribute to this objective. First, after abnormally small cohorts of students graduating in recent years, area high schools are returning to historic norms for class size. Second, cyclical economic trends – primarily in the petroleum industry – have resulted in less wage distortion and greater levels of unemployment in the area job market. Third, dual enrollment programs have recently been launched with area high schools to encourage community college participation even before high school graduation.