Chancellor must add constituent empathy to his ledger approach

By EDDIE CELAYA

I recently had an opportunity to sit down for wide-ranging interviews with numerous Pima Community College decision makers, including Chancellor Lee Lambert. You can find portions of my interviews in our reporting throughout this issue.

A page 7 story by Brianna Hernandez focuses on college budget woes. It details three possible budget scenarios that Pima is considering.

My Higher Learning Commission story on pages 8-9 spotlights the college’s fight against accreditation sanctions.

These stories open a window into the inner workings of the bureaucracy that makes Pima run (or not run, depending on your point of view). This piece focuses on the last part of my conversation with the chancellor.

If you asked me to characterize the overall tone of our chat, I would call it educational and friendly. I allowed the chancellor wide latitude in answering questions at length, and he allowed me to interject for followups where required.

I found Lambert to be collegial, intelligent and well spoken. I also found some of his answers aloof to the concerns and views of average students.

When talk turned to Pima’s tuition rates, things got interesting. The chancellor began by referencing the Strategic Enrollment Management Plan. The SEMP acts as a guide for college enrollment priorities.

“We have also looked at, ‘How do we strengthen attracting out-of-state and international students?’” Lambert said. “Never though, and this is key, at the expense of the local students.”

Reasonable enough. Then he continued.

“Because on the international students, those students pay the actual cost of what it means to come to Pima,” he said. “They aren’t being subsidized by the taxpayer. They are paying what an individual student ought to pay.”

Perhaps the chancellor needs reminding. Most in-state students are Pima County residents. That makes them, and their families, taxpayers. You could even say they “subsidize” the chancellor’s salary.

Lambert ended his answer by asserting that concerns about the contrast in tuition rates between in state and out-of-state were “simplistic characterizations.” He continued to insist out-of-state students are “paying the true cost of the education.”

When I pushed back, asking if he could understand the frustration among students and other local constituencies in seeing their tuition rise while non-local students see theirs fall, the chancellor again was tone deaf.

“I can understand that but also, they should want to come and understand this on a much more sophisticated level,” he said.

That answer doesn’t just sound elitist. It is elitist.

To suggest the public should be “more sophisticated” elicits the worst ivory-tower stereotypes of academia. It implies not only that you’re right, but also that you’re right because everyone else is dumb.

Our conversation then turned to potential campus closings. Were campuses being considered for closure? Which ones? Would that require a reduction in instructors and staff?

No campus closures yet, Lambert said. Just a restructuring of how and where general education classes are held.

But about those staff reductions?

His reply: “There is a mythology at Pima that no one has ever been laid off, OK?”

Lambert again said he didn’t want layoffs, but “we are just running out of real estate for that.”

I’m not sure local advocacy groups like C-FAIRR (not to mention students both current and potential), don’t have “sophisticated” arguments on tuition.

And I’m not convinced that employee groups such as PCCEA and ACES are turning to supposed myths about Pima never having laid anyone off.

I am sure the chancellor first approaches problems from a financial perspective.

“I have a fiduciary responsibility to this community that we will run a financially healthy organization,” he said.

That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. However, if recent spats with the college’s employee associations are any evidence, the chancellor will need to use more honey than vinegar to effectively set his agenda.

Lambert is far from being the most out-of-touch executive in charge of an academic institution. University of Arizona president Ann Weaver Hart takes home all the awards for that.

Nevertheless, PCC needs more than a ledger-keeper to take it into the future.

It needs a leader who does more than acknowledge local constituencies. A true leader must embrace them and their specific needs.

Lambert faces three big showdowns within the next six months.

The first is with the HLC. Lambert has proven effective in dealing with the accrediting body, so credit is due there.

The other two battles, a meet-and-confer fight with employee associations and a decision on tuition, will require Lambert to leave his policy wonk comfort zone. He should attempt a hearts-and-minds campaign with the public.

His handling of these issues will do more than determine Lambert’s legacy in Tucson. It will also determine the length of his stay.

Filed Under: Opinion

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