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Getting to Know SUNY Empire State College: Interview with President Merodie Hancock

By Suzanne Lazar, student, SUNY Empire State College; editor, The Student Connection

September 8, 2016

FeatureWelcome to the “Getting to Know SUNY Empire State College” interview series.  Over the next few months, we will introduce some key players on the dedicated team here who make  this college a unique and innovative educational institution.  The first in this series highlights President Merodie Hancock's reponses to questions in a sit-down interview. 

Empire State College launched a makeover that began with the inauguration of President Merodie Hancock. The reorganization was given the name “ESC 2.0” and in 2014 and 2015, the college held town hall-style meetings which involved the college cabinet, faculty, staff, students and alumni discussing collegewide changes needed to benefit the nontraditional adult learning environment. 

Since the college was first established in 1971, times have changed and higher education has evolved. The internet age has taken a front seat in the way we connect, whether it’s personally, professionally or educationally, and Hancock saw the need to make significant changes at the college and streamline a more efficient way to do things with students in mind.

Part of the ESC 2.0 initiative is to redirect the way the college steers its students, which, at present, is largely by 35 geographic locations.  Hancock saw the need to reorganize the current structure and put more focus on curriculum and academics by organizing the college based on areas of study (AOS): business, human services, humanities, social science, and science/math/technology.

Another goal for 2.0 is placing focus on spreading resources more evenly throughout the college, so every student has access to the same information and events.

Our student population has grown from approximately 3,000 in 1971 to nearly 19,000 today.  SUNY Empire has a great reputation for accommodating the adult learner and the changes that Hancock is implementing will surely benefit all students, help the college evolve on many more levels and, hopefully, increase enrollment.

As a student reporting to students, I felt the need to dig into how these changes will affect us directly and share the information. I had the honor and pleasure of talking with the president about ESC 2.0 and changes happening at SUNY Empire. Here’s what she had to say:

Q: Can you talk about ESC 2.0 and what’s been happening since the decision to reorganize the college was made and the college began its makeover?

A: I support the move and we’re now at a point where we are starting to see the fruits of our labor. We are starting to share best practices across all locations, we’re aligning resources and bringing faculty together more quickly. We’re now having faculty report to a more logical grouping and merge together with a more cohesive organization of resources.    

Q: Can you elaborate on the meaning and concept of “one college”?    

A: It’s centralizing everything across the state. We need to make sure that we have common threads that run through the college. Strength and rigor of curriculum must be common throughout the college. And, treatment of policies and procedures must be common across the college. Students shouldn’t have one set of expectations if they engage in the college online and another set if they engage in the college in Buffalo. The challenge is location and we need to make sure we keep the expertise and have what our communities need. Communities are different throughout the state and “one college” has to leverage the commonalities and make sure people know their needs will be met, whatever community they may be in.

Q: Do the changes include more student engagement, for example, more communication about how students can get involved at orientations or engage face to face with other students and faculty? 

A: Yes. Director of Student Affairs Pat Myers is working to make clubs more visible on a statewide level. We see a lot of clubs in the Metro region, but other areas don’t know clubs exist. We need to be creative and connect more students through clubs, but collegewide. For example, if there’s a chess club in Manhattan, we can spread out that club and engage students in other areas and ultimately have a competition, statewide. And, we can incorporate academics with clubs by associating the two with a profession. This also applies to accessing faculty and, based on the area of study, finding the right mentor. If a student starts out in a science program, but down the road finds he or she is interested in a specified area, like plant biology, there might be another mentor for her or him across the state with more expertise and an overall better fit for the student. And that’s okay. We want students to connect with the right mentor. We want to see students take advantage of the whole college and we want to do that by bringing people together to make connections, whether in their area of study or through common interests, like clubs.    

Q: Was the new statewide college open house in June reflective of 2.0? 

A: Yes. I saw it advertised on billboards, on Facebook. Before, we couldn’t do something on a statewide level, because we did things differently by geographic area. But now, we have a centralized planning piece to broadcast one event happening collegewide, which is directly part of 2.0 and the quick moves of enrollment management and how they really helped pull this together. 

Q: What is “1Stop Student Services” and how will it benefit students?

A: The idea of this concept is when a student comes in to one of our locations, calls the college or inquires via email, instead of directing the inquiry to someone in a specific department, all inquiries will be handled one department. All different departments report to different people, but they’re within the chain of how things flow. Students who call one department won’t get transferred to another.  Each person will be able to solve the problem for the student, covering all areas. We want the student to focus on the academic side and experience less issues with calling to resolve problems or get questions answered.

Q: What is the timeframe for rolling out 1Stop Student Services?

A: We’re doing this in pieces. We’re organizing and shifting people into one building to field and handle inquiries. Different areas, such as recruiting, nursing and graduate studies, will need to cross-train to be able to answer all questions and help make the student experience easier. 

Q: How will the new associate dean positions for the five areas of study benefit students? 

A: This change will give students a stronger breadth around their field of interest. It will bring faculty together based on AOS and be more of a primary linkage for students, making location, secondary. Curriculum design will improve and be fun to watch while it’s changing. Perhaps for some students there’s a natural transition within the mentorship relationship. Other students may want to go right into their discipline with a mentor who has expertise in that area. Will it be one mentor for life or a change and transition for a student in their journey? We want students to have great experiences with their mentor(s). Students should have access to the whole college.  We don’t want to take choices away from students, we want to give choices.

Q: With the changes in the college, will there be any positions added or removed to enhance student services? 

A: There will be positions changed. There is not one unit, many departments connect to student support; it’s in a little bit of everyone’s job description to help.

Q:What do you want to tell students?

A: I love speaking with our students because they always are so passionate when they share their experience. The student experience is the iceberg. What you saw was what’s on top and there’s a lot below the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of the greatness of Empire State College is below the surface. I’m thrilled that students love what they know, but what I want them to know is how much more there is to leverage. And part of that is on us, to make them aware the iceberg is accessible. One thing I want to get across to students is that Empire State College delivers such a strong academic program.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share or talk about? 

A: Keep us informed. We are on a continuous improvement track. The whole goal is to look at what’s working and make sure we’re doing it the best we can. When we go out and meet with students, it’s because we really want to hear from you. The feedback is needed and we use it.  When we ask for input we want to have that discussion, so we get a sense of how to improve.  The voices inform us a lot.

Stay tuned for more interviews and more updates happening around SUNY Empire State College.

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