Brevard Community College President
Over thirty years ago, I earned my Associate of Arts Degree from Brevard Community College. Having spent a semester at a large state university, before I left “to find myself,” I discovered the contrast to be compelling. The experience of smaller classes taught by teachers dedicated to their craft, rather than being herded into lecture halls for instruction by graduate students, was refreshing and inspiring. Dr. James A. Drake, president of BCC since 2007, continues the development of this remarkable institution, which serves over 27,000 students on four campuses, and is one of the 100 largest community colleges in the U.S. He is not only a respected educator and administrator, he is also a celebrated biographer of some of the most famous opera singers of the last century.
SCB: Dr. Drake, to begin I have to ask about your interest in opera.
JAD: My interest rose accidentally, not because of formal training. While going to school, I earned extra money transferring old vinyl records to reel to reel recordings . . . you remember that, I hope (laughing)? Well, I was asked to transfer a collection of early 20th Century opera recordings. Having learned by trial and error that it was necessary for me to listen to the entire recording, I suppose it began to intrigue me more and more – not only the talent and even athleticism of the singers, but the beauty of the art form as well.
SCB: Shifting from Ponselle and Pavarotti to BCC, what is the biggest change you have seen in community colleges during your career?
JAD: Most of my fortysome years in education have been spent in four-year institutions, with graduate programs, like UCF. Now, the move in Florida is to transition the community colleges into four-year institutions, which is a great accommodation to my background and experience.
Secondly, the traditional focus of the community college as a vocational/technical training center, has become much more sophisticated, as ‘technology’ means something completely different than it did in the analog era. All vocations today are highly technical, from automechanics to air conditioning, and therefore the fields of the future will require a completely new set of specialized skills. Not only will they involve this more technical type of knowledge, but it will have to include the practical and legal ramifications of environmental requirements and compliance with ADA and OSHA legislation. A person can’t enter those professions – we use to call them trades, but they are in fact professions – without this wealth of additional knowledge.
SCB: Do you see UCF and BCC continuing this collaborative relationship, with the Direct Connect program and the two schools sharing campuses, or will BCC evolve into a four-year institution?
JAD: I don’t believe so; even our Trustees have stipulated that we don’t want to be in competition with either UCF or Florida Tech. There is something of a misnomer about the community colleges, like Seminole and Daytona, that have become four-year institutions. These schools offer a very limited selection of degrees. In a traditional sense, they are not what we think of as a ‘state college.’
SCB: What is the biggest change you have seen at BCC?
JAD: I want to say this tackfully. Throughout the college’s 50-year history, there has often been a rather contentious relationship between the adminstration and the faculty. When that happens, everyone and everything suffers, including students; and because complaints are often addressed to the Board of Trustees, they are asked to be involved in arenas that are not policy-oriented, which is their charge, thus becoming mediators. One of the most dramatic changes, and I would like to think I have had some small part in it, is that we have tried to establish a form of shared governance, whereby the roles of the faculty, the administration and the students are clearly defined and respected. For the system to work there has to be shared responsibility, without tipping in favor of one group, which is where discord usually occurs. This collaborative approach, with a sense of equal partnership, has been relatively successful.
Of course one of the most obvious changes is the enrollment numbers, which have increased beyond description. That is due to the fact that we have improved the quality of our services, faculty and our marketing to the region, while maintaining our goal to provide affordable, accessable and accountable quality higher education, which is the mission of the community college. We aren’t declaring victory, but we have made and are making dramatic progress.
I can’t overlook this change: BCC was one of the first colleges nationally to promote distance learning. Back in 1997, faculty and administrative representitives from UCF and BCC did a retreat to discuss where education was headed in the future. The UCF contingent thought the worldwide web was where we were headed while the representatives from BCC thought it would be televised studies. In a very few years, it was obvious UCF had read the crystal ball a little better. Yet, we were nationally recognized for our televised courses, thanks to the leadership of Max King, but now we have transitioned to online classes, some of which even mix classroom experience with online study. Nevertheless, I should add, students still prefer being in our small classes, with the opportunity to interface directly with a professor.
SCB: How has the vision for BCC changed or been reshaped, even by degrees, during your time at the helm?
JAD: The school has become much more focused on academic quality, standards and processes. I come from a strong academic tradition myself, as a tenured professor and published author, and I believe that perspective and experience has made its way through the college and the various campuses. We see it in our applied and theoretical courses and in the role our faculty has taken in assuming ownership of the academic quality in our institution, which is there role. My role is to turn the headlights on high beam and see as far down the road as we possibly can . . . even though I am so short and sometimes have trouble seeing over the dashboard (laughing).
One of the keys in achieving this objective is our efforts to increase the number of full-time professors on our campuses. We couldn’t accomplish our goals of accessability and affordability without our part-time faculty, but we know our goals of having professors who are focused and passionate about teaching can only be achieved if we provide them with the time and resources to do that. This is what fairness dictates.
Many business models see using part-time faculty as finacially preferable in the short-term, but to me, ‘the short way is the long way;’ budget now for long-term results and make your cuts in administration, not in faculty. That is not the popular view, but it is my view and I try and act on it.
SCB: They say your job as a college president is one of the most stressful in the country; you are managing faculty and students, you’re a government liaison, fund raising, etc. How do you manage it all?
JAD: One, I remind myself, with shared governance, I don’t have to be everything. I can sample from everyone else’s input and experience and make my judgments based on the best available information. The role can be very insulating if you let it, as though everything depends on you, but of course it isn’t. You are a facilitator, not the CEO.
Secondly, is how an individual approaches the role. You don’t know what it is like until you are in it. I have four little report cards I grade myself with every day. Now, don’t think I discovered these on my own, but they do work for me. I have to be helpful. That means no matter what I feel or what I’m doing, I have to be willing to identify where others need help. I have to be edifying; I want to build people up and share with them something good about what they are doing. Third, I have to be unifying; I can’t allow discord to arise without mediation. Lastly, I have to be truthful, which often can conflict with my goal to be helpful and edifying (laughing). But there is a way to do it, in fact my own personality structure allows me to do this. I am aware of my limitations, but this is one of the areas I seem to have an ability to do.
SCB: Part of your role is to forecast what the job market is going to be in the future and how to best prepare students to be competitive and productive. How do you do that?
JAD: You have to look at key indicators, which is why resources like the Economic Development Commission is so vital. We look at demographic trends in our area, and with our staff we try to analyze what these trends mean. For instance, public service, government service and particularly the health related fields are going to continue to grow. We study the regional trends that are unique to our area.
We also have local issues that we have to focus on, the Space Center for instance. But this is a crisis we have had forty-nine years to prepare for. What we are having to adjust is recognizing how fragile people are who are going through these kinds of transitions. We have four campuses full of people to provide more than just academic advice, but to provide hope in a difficult time.