Creating the resilient community college

Creating the resilient community collegeA 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.