HACC faculty voted last month in favor of a no confidence resolution regarding John Sygielski, who has served as the community college’s president since 2011. “But hours before Sygielski ... received the resolution, the board of trustees held a meeting in which it unanimously voted to extend the president’s contract to June 30, 2023,” LNP | LancasterOnline's Alex Geli reported this week. HACC has five campuses in south-central Pennsylvania, including one in Lancaster County.
Sygielski blamed “a breakdown in communication” for the HACC faculty’s no confidence vote. On that point, we all can agree.
So many of our institutions are struggling these days with a failure to communicate effectively. We often struggle, too, in our daily communications with one other. Successful communication is more than just talking at someone. It means listening, and giving fair consideration to what has been heard. It means having back-and-forth dialogue. And involving all the principal parties in that dialogue.
We find it especially unfortunate to see a breakdown in communication at one of our institutions of higher learning.
There is no doubt these are difficult times for HACC. Its enrollment has tumbled from about 20,000 students in 2014 to about 17,400 today. It has a growing budget deficit, which was about $2.7 million last fall. And its debt service has ballooned by 38% since 2016, Spotlight PA’s Aneri Pattani has reported. (Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with LNP Media Group’s The Caucus and other newspapers.)
HACC faces hard decisions as it seeks to maintain its economic viability and position itself for the future. So we don’t envy the job Sygielski has in front of him.
We have praised some of his past actions, when he has shown an understanding of the views and needs of others. Last summer, he wrote an op-ed for LNP | LancasterOnline about the “unfortunate truth that groceries are increasingly an obstacle to a college degree.” He explained how HACC was addressing the problem of food insecurity among students via food pantries on the Lancaster and Lebanon campuses and educating staff about Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
But a more recent set of decisions by Sygielski concerns us.
Last fall, HACC abruptly eliminated on-campus mental health counseling — without initially announcing or explaining its decision to the student body. Following a series of articles by Spotlight PA about reactions across HACC campuses to that decision, the college finally announced that its new solution to mental health counseling was a third-party firm that will provide in-person, phone or video counseling — but none of it on campus.
We found it to be an unsatisfying remedy to a crucial issue for HACC students. One study has found that about 50% of community college students deal with mental health issues; they need more supportive services, not fewer. Having to leave campus for a counseling appointment can be a major burden, in terms of time, transportation and/or money.
This botched handling of mental health counseling is one issue that HACC faculty members cited in their December vote.
The faculty’s other concerns included “injudicious institutional reorganizations” of library services and virtual learning; the elimination of 20 tenured faculty positions; and a lack of attention to enrollment trends.
Faculty President Kathleen Adams Pratt said in a statement that the vote — rather than being a request for “divorce” — should be viewed as an opportunity for a new beginning in working with HACC leadership.
“Faculty care deeply for our beloved institution and our students,” Adams Pratt wrote. “Our every effort is focused on the success of students and we recognize that HACC must thrive for students to succeed.”
We think that’s gracious and sensible on her part. And we hope Sygielski takes advantage of the opening.
Some of the early signs are promising. Sygielski “expressed eagerness to work with faculty to improve the culture at the 56-year-old community college,” during a news conference Tuesday, Geli reported.
“I believe, if anything, this will allow us to recalibrate,” Sygielski said. “This will allow us to work together moving forward.”
Sygielski said he will form a 20-member committee to “ensure that HACC is a very good place to be, place to work (and) place to learn.” And he acknowledged that he’s made “missteps,” Geli reported.
Those are positives.
But Sygielski also suggested that the no confidence vote does not reflect the stance of the majority of HACC employees. Adams Pratt countered that the total percentage of votes “is no small number.”
Sygielski shouldn’t argue over the numbers behind the no confidence vote. He should want to discover why so many of his employees have concern about HACC’s leadership.
Sygielski said “some anxiety and unrest” are ahead for HACC in 2020 as it continues its “One-College” initiative to position itself for better success with enrollment and retention.
That initiative is bound to go much better if Sygielski, his administration and the HACC board of trustees do a better job of truly listening to the community college’s staff and students.