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VOL. 10 | NO. 45 | Saturday, November 4, 2017

Women in Memphis Higher Ed Detail Common Challenges, Goals


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In less than three years, women have taken the top leadership posts at three of Memphis’ largest higher education institutions. Southwest Tennessee Community College president Tracy Hall, Rhodes College president Marjorie Hass and LeMoyne-Owen College president Andrea Miller lead a diverse mix of institutions with different missions, but they share common thoughts about the challenges and opportunities facing higher education today.

The Memphis News recently spoke with the three presidents about the future of higher education in Memphis and the big-picture goals of increasing college access and insuring students’ success after they graduate.

Southwest Tennessee Community College president Tracy Hall (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

Tracy Hall, president, Southwest Tennessee Community College

Tracy Hall became president of Southwest Tennessee Community College in July 2015, coming to the two-year institution after serving as vice president for academic affairs at St. Louis Community College since 2011.

Hall says that as a public college run by taxpayer dollars, accountability is a big emphasis at SWTCC and a trend in higher education in the city of Memphis and beyond.

“Accountability has become more of an emphasis in higher education, especially public institutions,” she said. “Alignment with business and industry is also important. They’re saying, ‘Our tax dollars are supporting your institutions and the return on investment isn’t what we’d like to see.’”

SWTCC attracts a diverse population of students, from high school graduates to adults of all ages who are finishing their education, gaining new skills or going to school for the first time. While higher education traditionally focused mostly on academics, Hall said more wrap-around services are needed now to help students outside of the classroom and increase retention and success.

“We’ve been ill-equipped in the past, and we’ve had to expand our view of what is needed. That is part of being an urban institution; you’re no longer able to only focus on the classroom.”

She says she’s working hard to better articulate SWTCC’s challenges while also communicating that the school is working on several target initiatives, such as retention, attracting nontraditional students, and wrap-around support services for students who are not college-ready or are first-generation college students without family support for the transition.

Hall is a first-generation college student, and she was the daughter of a teen mother with high expectations.

“I knew I was going to college, but navigating all of that new world was overwhelming and scary,” she said. “I identify with our students who desire to improve their lives but don’t yet have all the tools.”

Along with a holistic approach to educating students, Hall is focused on students making the most of their financial aid and not wasting it on remedial training. New programs that help launch students into college-level classes while at the same time offering additional learning support are addressing this issue.

“Tennessee has been progressive with their approach and redesign of developmental education,” she said.

SWTCC has seen a 10 percent increase in headcount and an 11 percent increase in full-time students, which Hall attributes to a number of factors – including the Tennessee Promise program, which offers two years of tuition-free community or technical college to Tennessee high school graduates and provides them with a mentor to offer support during the application process.

Because of Tennessee Promise, Hall said, “students who might not have thought about community college in the past are giving us a second look.”

As part of a community of several and varied higher education institutions, Hall says Memphis is headed in an excellent direction. She cites the Memphis College and University Presidents Council, which was founded by University of Memphis president M. David Rudd to give presidents of the city's higher education institutions an opportunity to collaborate on ways to improve access to a college education, while also facilitating retention and completion.

Hall said the group has discovered they are all facing common issues, whether a two-year or a four-year, public or private institution, and it’s helpful to come together and talk about what works and what doesn’t.

“The spirit of collaboration is an excellent sign of things to come in higher education in Memphis,” she said.

LeMoyne-Owen College president Andrea Miller (Submitted)

Andrea Miller, president, LeMoyne-Owen College

Andrea Miller began her role at LeMoyne-Owen College in September 2015, becoming the first woman president since the historically black college started in 1862. She came to LOC with more than 20 years of higher education experience and says the collaborative atmosphere across the higher education community in Memphis has been a unique experience.

“We talk about similar issues that we have and share solutions,” said Miller, who served as chancellor of Baton Rouge (Louisiana) Community College before becoming president of LOC. “Chances are somebody is probably already doing something to solve a problem and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.”

While Miller has unique challenges tied to being a private college with a small endowment that depends on tuition and fees to fund its operations, she also deals with the larger issue of accountability in higher education.

“Because higher education institutions are so different with different missions, to find a way to assess how we’re doing is hard. What are we defining as success?”

LeMoyne-Owen, much like SWTCC, has a large population of students who are first-generation college students, some of whom are not fully college-ready and need support services to be able to fully access their education and leave the school prepared for graduate school or the workforce.

Miller believes better communication between colleges and universities is the key to ensuring a smooth transition from one degree to the next.

For example, “if a LeMoyne-Owen student is going on to a graduate program at the University of Memphis, they need to know what they need to pave the way and ensure success,” said Miller, who adds that that communication needs to improve between high schools and colleges as well.

“I’m not saying that students don’t get what they need in high school, but I’m not sure we’re talking enough about what we expect,” she said. “We need to partner more with each other to talk about expectations.”

Better incorporating state-of-the-art technology and partnering with tech companies to enhance education is another focus Miller believes it is imperative.

“Institutions are partnering not just for curriculum development, but to seek external funding for programs they don’t have the budget for,” such as LOC’s Moving Forward program. Funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, Moving Forward aims to increase the number of students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields by providing financial incentives to qualifying students.

When the college itself doesn’t have the budget, grants can supply resources to help students make the transition from a Bachelor of Science to a graduate degree.

“Business and industry partnerships are critical. … It’s the place where we align curriculum with the workforce needs,” she said. “Community colleges have traditionally done a better job of that and small liberal arts schools traditionally have not, but we’re moving in that direction to better provide the workforce with skilled workers.”

Rhodes College president Marjorie Hass (Submitted)

Marjorie Hass, president, Rhodes College

Marjorie Hass, the first woman president of Rhodes College, agrees that the two biggest challenges in higher education are access – both in who attends college and who graduates – and excellence in education.

“Rhodes is very fortunate to draw an international student body and we are delighted to provide access to a high-quality liberal arts education,” said Hass, who was named Rhodes’ president last December and began her duties in July. “But it’s always a struggle to maintain that quality and to make our education available to students with a wide range of economic backgrounds.”

Hass said one of the things that drew her to Rhodes was the unusually strong sense of civic mission among the higher education institutions in Memphis. “That feels unique to me.”

“One of my deepest core beliefs is that the value of education isn’t simply for the individual who earns the education, but for what that person will do to help repair the world,” she said. “When I talk to employers and recruiters, I always ask what they think are the most important things, and the list is always a list that a liberal arts education provides – analytic skills, communications skills, big-picture thinking. It prepares students not only for their first job, but their last job as well. Many of the jobs the students who graduate 10 years from now will have, haven’t even been invented yet.”

While liberal arts is Rhodes’ focus, Hass believes Memphis is fortunate to have a wide range of higher education opportunities. She particularly is interested in learning how other institutions are engaging students in the life of the city, and she’s focused on identifying good career pipelines and keeping talented students local so they can become the next generation of civic leaders in Memphis.

As for the significance of being women leaders in their respective institutions, all three women say they are role models for the women at their institutions and are proud to represent yet another career possibility for younger generations.

“It’s significant to the females on our campuses,” Miller said. “We are role models for them. It’s hard to aspire to become something that you very rarely see, so it makes me smile.”

Hass agreed, saying, “It’s a sign that these institutions are committed to removing barriers and a sign of great opportunity in higher education.”

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