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When Anthony Tricoli arrived at Georgia Perimeter College (GPC) as its new president nearly five years ago and started talking about a shared-governance strategy to improve the college, some folks rolled their eyes.
The previous president had also used a shared-governance model, but it wasn’t what most of the faculty and staff had in mind. With little input into the decision-making process, many at the college believed their ideas were insignificant, and as they explained, they usually learned about decisions after the fact. As a result, there was little trust between faculty and staff and the administration.
That approach also seemed to pit the college’s five campuses against one another rather than pull them together as one unit.
So when Tricoli arrived in October 2006, he had an uphill battle. But first, he had to restore trust. Tricoli started with a series of town hall-type meetings at all GPC campuses where nothing was off the table. He answered questions on any topic, including shared governance. He heard the faculty and staff say they wanted a voice in the decision-making process, so he set out to make it a reality. He also worked with faculty, staff and administrators to create a shared governance process to address key issues throughout the college.
Along the way, Tricoli eliminated silos, creating a culture shift from a federation of five separate campuses to five collaborative campuses with a “one-college” philosophy.
Listening to understand
Open forums, an outgrowth of the town hall meeting, have become a hallmark of Tricoli’s leadership. To discuss important topics, such as governance, diversity and sustainability, the president travels to five different campuses, some 60 miles apart, to hear what the college’s constituents have to say.
The meetings are open to everyone at the college—from administrators and students, to faculty and staff—and even to local residents, business representatives and politicians. GPC’s shared governance process promotes an ongoing open dialogue, even outside of the open forums, as faculty, staff, and administrators exchange informal emails between themselves and the president.
Tricoli also keeps in contact with everyone at the college with regular e-mail updates entitled “A Message from the President,” which are also posted on the college’s website.
Alan Jackson, vice president for academic affairs, who has served at the college for 19 years, said he was initially struck by Tricoli’s seriousness in ensuring everyone had a chance to comment.
“He really did want to hear their voice and what they thought,” Jackson said.
The remainder of the communication and decision-making strategy is just as comprehensive and ambitious. After holding open forums on topics raised by faculty, staff, and administration, Tricoli often delegates those topics to a “presidential think tank,” which he himself chairs, to flesh out the issues and to draft recommendations to a task team. That team clarifies the problem, recommends solutions, identifies those accountable, develops a timeline for implementation, and presents a final report to the president. The task team, which includes 15 to 20 members, disbands at the end of 29 days.
“No idea is a bad one, and everyone who participates in a think tank, task team, or open forum is encouraged to share his or her thoughts and ideas,” Tricoli said. “Sometimes it’s tough to hear. But we are open to hearing everything—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and we’re ready to take action.”
As part of Tricoli’s plan for transparency, GPC has created a governance and policy website that includes up-to-date minutes, notes, and reports for open forums, think tanks, standing committees, policy councils and task teams. It also includes a detailed governance model and the college’s policy manual, which is currently under review.
Beth Jensen, director of governance and policy, noted that the governance and policy website is a “model for inclusivity and transparency.”
“No one has an excuse not to know what is going on,” added Jackson, who carries a copy of the four-page strategic plan with him.
One month and out
Some of the issues that the temporary task teams have addressed include improvements to the admission process, online education, financial aid delivery, diversity, use of data in decision-making, and sustainability. One of the first areas GPC tackled was the enrollment process. The college’s enrollment office had been drowning in paperwork, which prolonged the acceptance process. In addition, students' paper transcripts were frequently lost.
Once the issue was flagged after an open forum, Tricoli formed a think tank and then a task team. Within 29 days, the task team made several recommendations, including a paperless process. Then the suggestions (and there were several) were promptly implemented. The move not only helped the office operate more efficiently, but it has saved the college money in printing costs and other expenses.
In addition to savings in time and other productivity and service improvements, the college’s enrollment has grown from 13,400 students to more 26,000 in less than four years.
“This fall, the college is anticipating an enrollment of 28,000 students,” Tricoli said.
The college community was initially surprised how quickly the issue with the admissions process was addressed. Prior to Tricoli’s arrival and the new shared governance model, GPC officials would often discuss issues for months or even years with little resulting action.
“It was phenomenal what happened,” said Lisa Fowler, assistant vice president for enrollment management at GPC. “Before Dr. Tricoli arrived and put this new system into place, problems were something that we just talked about forever.”
The model and its successes have garnered attention outside the college, too. Joseph Doyle, commissioner of Georgia’s State Personnel Administration—which works with state agencies to hire and train their workforce and improve organizational performance—said he is impressed with Tricoli’s accomplishments at GPC. He noted Tricoli’s “can-do” attitude inspires college leaders, faculty, and others to take on challenges.
“He involves people that he depends on,” Doyle said. “He supports them and raises them to a mind-set. It has been masterful.”
Tricoli recently received the American Association of University Professors Ralph S. Brown Award for Shared Governance. That’s not an honor bestowed every year. In fact, the last time it was presented was in 2007. Tricoli is the first two-year college president in the nation to receive this honor from the AAUP, the oldest faculty organization in the country, and only the fifth individual recognized with this award since its inception in 1998.
Tricoli was honored that several GPC faculty members nominated him for the award.
“I believe we’ve created something very special here at GPC,” Tricoli said. “The faculty members were absolutely right in demanding transparency in decision-making. We move things along at a pretty good click here at GPC, and nobody is complaining about that.”
Once the new model was created, Tricoli called for a director to provide daily management over shared governance and policy creation and revisions. He asked the faculty for nominations.
“I believed we needed to have a faculty member manage this process,” Tricoli said.
Beth Jenson, an English professor and president of GPC’s chapter of the AAUP, was selected as director.
It’s all about trust
The key element in Tricoli’s strategy of success—which he identifies as “voices, values and vision”—is trust.
“When problems are addressed or processes are changed, they must involve those who are going to be impacted by these changes,” Tricoli said. “The person who puts the nut on the bolt is the expert at putting the nut on the bolt, so he or she must be involved in all process changes which impact his or her ability to do the job. This includes faculty, staff and administrators—and students, too.”
Tricoli noted that customer service is also important—not just in serving students, but also in viewing GPC colleagues as customers. That includes faculty members, professional and support staff members and administrators.
“As you might imagine, all of these changes required an organizational culture shift that everyone had to want and that everyone was willing to work hard to gain,” said Tricoli, who tested the model when he previously served as president of West Hills College-Coalinga in California.
“The foundation of any successful shift in organizational culture is trust,” Tricoli said.
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges