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‘I have a model that I know works’

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MANY faces come together to form one face.

The first face is that of a child, excited by the challenge of getting all the jigsaw puzzle pieces in place.

The second face is that of a general. Each peg on his board represents hundreds or thousands of soldiers, and he’s got to coordinate the pegs to produce a victory.

The third face is that of a financier, knowing he can’t complete his puzzle if he doesn’t even own it, and can’t motivate his soldiers if he can’t equip them.

The fourth face has to be that of an educator, for although there is the puzzle, the strategy and the funds behind this challenge, educational futures form the goal.

The faces coalesce in the person of Stephen M. Jordan, PhD, president of Metropolitan State College of Denver. The ultimate form of his childlike excitement, battle-hardened determination and banker’s sobriety is education.

Specifically, his goal is to turn around the tremendous drop-out rate in society. By the time an unexcited, undetermined, unfocused student gets to college, it’s the last chance. For the college merely to offer the requisite courses is not enough. The courses have to be taught by a committed faculty, and a broad-based academic support system must be in place.

For this to happen, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle have to come together.

To stretch the metaphor a bit further, say that the freshman year is represented by a lower left-hand corner in the puzzle. Upper class students and other segments of the college, such as management and budget, occupy the rest of the puzzle. The strength of President Stephen Jordan is that, to put the lower left-hand corner together, he focuses not just on that corner.

No puzzle makes sense if any piece is missing.

And so, when Dr. Jordan came to Metro five years ago, he looked at the big picture in order to find a way — to put into place a strategy — that would move the lower left corner to victory.

He knew that one-half of his students are the first generation in the family to go to college, and he had to find a way to make it work for them.

FIRST, he found a college with an enormous percentage of part time faculty and interim  management. Interim vice-president of this and interim vice-president of that. Adjunct professor of this and adjunct professor of that. A college needs a full time faculty, he said. It needs tenure-track, full time professors who commit their lives to the institution.

It needs a permanent staff to devise a strategy to drastically increase student retention.

And it needs a president who can convince the college’s governing board to embrace his vision.

This entails a lot of chicken-and-egg. To devise a student retention plan for Metro’s board, Dr. Jordan needed staff, but to put his staff in place he needed moral support for his vision. And for both he needed search committees. Strategic planning, searching, hiring, board support — all must begin simultaneously. You can imagine the whirlwind.

A whirlwind: that is the feel of Dr. Jordan during an interview. But it’s a controlled, disciplined whirlwind. Dr. Jordan never appears flustered or disorganized, never explains without clarity and sequence.

IT didn’t hurt that Dr. Jordan grew up in Colorado, graduated from public schools in Colorado, got a BA at UNC, a PhD at CU, then worked on staff at the Colorado legislature and in the executive branch of Colorado state government.

Not to mention, the person who recruited Jordan from Eastern Washington College, where Dr. Jordan was president, was none other than his former doctoral dissertation adviser, Dr. John Buechner, former president of CU.

Oh, and did I mention? Dr. Jordan’s dissertation in public policy was on strategic planning.

On paper, you have a perfect candidate for a Colorado college presidency, and also a perfect candidate for an “external president,” that is, a person who can work the legislature and the private sector, can do the PR and give a public face to the institution — in order to raise the money and open up the student internships.

Dr. Jordan was hired, took a quick look around, and saw that he needed to become the perfect “internal president,” to get the many pieces of the college faculty and administrative staff in place — to meet the college’s main challenges: student retention, quality faculty, administrative stability.

On the walls of his large office hang large and colorful mementos from the many periods and previous positions of educational leadership in his life, at CU, in Arizona, Kansas and Washington State. Clearly, the success of Metropolitan State College of Denver is the ultimate goal of Jordan’s career.

This, then, is the puzzle he has assembled, the long range strategy for his educational battlefield:

• the hiring of 60 new tenure-track faculty, per year, for seven years, “from the best universities, interested in our students, connecting theory and practice” — more new full time faculty in the past five years than in the previous 40 years;

• class size limited to 20 students in the first two years — no huge lecture classes;

• lower level classes staffed by full time faculty;

• extensive support staff, such as upper division peer advisers;

• the creation of “learning communities,” with paired courses (for example, English composition and history), so that the typical urban students at Metro, who would otherwise have little chance to learn from each other, can share homework and ideas;

• the crowning jewel, a new building under construction, the “first year success building,” with all support services on the same floor (“one stop shopping”).

DR. Jordan’s strategic plan has brought results: a steadily rising freshman retention rate, up from 58% in 2005 to 68% in 2010; and a rise in the number of credit hours taught by full time faculty.

Says Dr. Jordan — trim, thin, conservatively dressed in a white shirt, beautiful tie and lawyerlike suit — “I have a model that I know works.”
The model is tailor made for his demographic, 80% of which is low or lower middle class, and 29% of which is students of color.

Meanwhile, Colorado state aid to Metro students, on a per capita basis, is far lower than aid to other Colorado schools. Just to get even with Colorado’s research universities, Dr. Jordan must fill a $42 million gap.

He’s doing it through fundraising and other techniques, such as faculty load. Full time professors at Metro teach four courses per semester, as opposed to two at the research universities.

Enrollment at Metro is up from 21,000 to 24,000 in the last five years, almost all of the growth in students of color.

Metro State educates more BA candidates than any other college in Colorado, and has more students of color than CU and CSU combined.

Metro now has two graduate programs (teacher education, accounting) and next fall will add another (social work).

Bottom line: It’s now “hip” to be in urban locations, says Dr. Jordan. The urban setting is a place where students can get experiential education and internships. Urban schools are growing, rural institutions are declining, he says.

DR. Jordan’s first “five-year plan” is complete.

• Hiring full time, tenure-track faculty takes precedence over all other expenditures.

• Retention rate is rising — that’s a college’s “accountability,” Jordan says.

• Metro’s 23 senior administration positions, all filled by interim people in 2005, are now filled by permanent people.

• $110 million has been raised or financed for capital construction projects.

Now, Dr. Jordan is on to his next five-year plan. He’s enthusiastic about the future because, he says, “I have never been in an institution that believes in its mission as much as this college.”

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

 

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