Collins focuses on student empowerment

President Elaine Collins

Kayla Friedrich

President Elaine Collins

As part of Johnson State College’s search for a new president, which began in response to President Barbara Murphy’s announcement of retirement at the end of the semester, four semi-final candidates visited campus the week of Jan. 26 to share their leadership styles and views for the future of the college. One of these candidates was Dr. Elaine Collins.

Over the course of three days, Collins met with Murphy, VSC Chancellor Jeb Spaulding, and JSC students, staff, and faculty to discuss her plans should she be appointed the college’s next president, and on Monday, Feb. 2, Collins was chosen as one of two finalists to be interviewed and voted on by the VSC board of trustees on Feb. 9.

With a Bachelor’s in music, a Master’s in curriculum and instruction, and a Ph.D. in educational policy and leadership, Collins says her leadership style is laid-back, and she may not be your typical administrator, but her door is always open, and she is driven to accomplish the goals that she sets at the beginning of her position. She said that she will not make promises now that she doesn’t believe she can fulfill in the future, and the reason she has decided to leave her current job is because she has accomplished everything she set out to do, and it is time to look for increased responsibilities, allowing someone else to step up to the plate there.

“The job of a college president,” said Collins, “is to catalyze the potential for the college. So, it’s to ensure that all students have the opportunity to fulfill their dreams, to make sure that the college has the infrastructure for all students to succeed, and to have visibility and an idea of how to move the college into the future.”

Currently, Collins functions as the chief operating officer for the College of Education at Grand Valley University in Michigan, and has previously served as vice president of arts and sciences at West Shore Community College and interim vice president of academic affairs at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and according to her curriculum vitae (CV) Collins worked at each of these institutions to help construct a college environment in which the students come first.

In a question and answer session with about eight students, Collins said that as a first-generation college student, she knows the difficulties and struggles of learning in a new institution, and wants to make sure that ever ystudent can succeed at Johnson State.

“Looking at academic support services,” she said, “one thing I would want to do as I came in is to ensure that [the students] had the supports necessary to fulfill their dreams. Typically people are here, because they want to graduate, so I want to ensure that students will have a seamless kind of flow through the years, and then are able to graduate. I’d want to make sure all the services are in place to make that happen.”

According to Collins, the first thing she would want to do as president is get to know the students, staff, faculty and community. She wants to go on listening tours to hear people tell her what the issues are, and how she could be the best president. Then, her top priorities for the first two years as president, if appointed, would be enrollment, branding, and retention. She wants to determine how to best brand the institution so that Johnson State College can expand their image and reputation both locally and across the state.

“You do such good work here,” Collins said, “and as I was comparing [Johnson State] to other colleges, you don’t brag a lot. I mean, I had to really hunt, and I found it in your YouTube videos, but I was watching things for at least five minutes, and then I hear all these gems. I’d want to make sure people knew what was going on through the variety of things that you do. This whole concept of student empowerment, that’s exciting, and that’s something to brag about.”

According to Collins, after branding, retention is about 75 percent of how to build enrollment. She said that in her current college, she uses a program call MAP-Works (Making Achievement Possible Works) to survey students within the first few weeks of transitioning into college, to determine whether they feel safe and welcome, how they feel about their classes, and how many hours a week students are studying for each class.

“What the system does,” Collins says, “is determine from these series of questions, which students are going to be potentially at risk. So, they are saying that they are studying only one hour for all their classes, they don’t feel connected, they don’t want to spend time on campus because they don’t feel there are any organizations they want to be in, so we know right away there’s danger. And so, what we do then is reach out, through personal contact, to all students that are coming back as at risk of leaving the college…It’s more of a concierge sort of approach to working with the students to figure out what is going on. So, really taking a strong interest in reaching out, connecting, and following up. You can’t try once and give up. This has to be a continuing process.”

Then, Collins said that during the second and third year, the questions on MAP-Works change, and work to connect students with the campus and their future professions more, so that after the second or third year, they are more driven to complete their degree at the same institution in which they started. She wants to prepare students to work in a global world.
Collins’ themes of student empowerment, retention, and branding present in her discussion with students on Jan. 29, were echoed in her community colloquium presentation with students, staff and faculty on Jan. 30, and after presenting her accomplishments at other institutions, Collins was asked why she wanted to leave where she is now, and said that as a leader, you have to know when your shelf-life has expired.

“I have reached a point in my life,” says Collins, “where this is kind of the last stop for me, and I want to make it an amazing capstone experience of an already amazing career. I have been attracted to Johnson State College specifically because you are a teaching institution, and I have only worked in teaching institutions…I love teaching, I came up with teaching, and I want to work at place where that value is promoted. Also, the only time that I have ever seen courage required in a job description was at the job at Grand Valley State University, and here. Those are the only two times I’ve seen that word, and somehow that’s attractive to me. I want to really engage in strong challenges, and I am excited about that.”