Lessons on Leading and Living with Dr. Yves Salomon-Fernandez

This article is excerpted from a recent IngenioUs podcast episode with Greenfield Community College President, Dr. Yves Salomon-Fernandez.  Click here to listen to the full-length episode.

Where did your professional journey begin and what initially drew you into higher education?

YSF: I have to say it’s a little bit of pragmatism and a few incredible mentors. I started as an undergrad in political science and international relations, moved on to a master’s degree in economics, and then ultimately got my Ph.D. in statistics, educational research and evaluation. I am, in some ways, a jack of all trades with broad curiosities around a lot of disciplines.  I went from UMass Boston into community colleges at Mass Bay. I loved that.  Again, I was in the field of institutional research, planning, and assessment, continuing there all the way up to the top of the hierarchy.  I really love my job.  Being a college president, It’s not so much a title for me. It’s more about doing good work that is transformative.  Opening doors to students like me— students who wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to go to college and who never thought of being a college president. That’s my journey in higher ed.

Tell us a little more about why you love working at Greenfield Community College since it is not your first presidency.  What is it about Greenfield Community College that attracted you at this point in your career?

 YSF: For me, Greenfield’s appeal was that it was rural and also very progressive. Greenfield had the first alternative energy program and the only sustainable agriculture program in the state. Those aligned very well with my values. On paper, Greenfield looked great. I knew that it had an excellent reputation because I had worked in the state before.  I just fell in love when I came for my campus visit.  I found that the faculty and staff were very much like me and I loved what they were doing. I thought it would be a great challenge, as well as a great joy, to work on that campus and to work with some brilliant people who are just as passionate about social justice and environmental justice. It’s been a great experience. I love the faculty and staff with whom I’m able to create some good trouble every day. We have a very supportive community and a wonderful board. What more can I possibly ask for other than a great place to raise a family, and that it certainly is, so I feel very fortunate.

Like everyone else in higher ed, I know that your institution has had to pivot in response to the pandemic. Can you tell us a bit of what the experience has been like on your campus and what you’ve learned that you’re going to carry forward?

YSF: We were very fortunate that we were in the midst of strategic planning and our IT department was one of the departments furthest along in their planning.  As difficult and as abrupt as it was, we were able to obtain the technology that we needed with relative ease. One of the characteristics that I admire about Greenfield Community College is that we reflect a lot.  We evaluate what worked well, what didn’t work, and why was this the best time for this intervention. By the time we got to the end of the spring semester, we had begun planning for what the fall would look like and putting a lot into professional development for our students, staff, and faculty. The number one criterion was student success and then public health. Having those two criteria, public health and student success, meant that we had those as our bullseye for every decision we made. As a result, there’s a multitude of emerging and promising practices that we will continue to move forward.

Simultaneously, we have to say that just because this innovation worked during the pandemic doesn’t mean that it necessarily has to continue. It can be a crisis-oriented innovation that, in times of crisis, we use.  Other practices can be long-term practices because they stay true to our strategic plan. We’re looking back and looking forward to what got us to be successful and what will help us succeed in the future.   

At Greenfield, we’ve seen a real emphasis and a real need during this pandemic to prioritize equity and prioritize citizenship with all that has happened.  We’re thinking not just about awarding degrees, not just about how we go about teaching and learning, but also about our more significant, more noble commitments to society, including equity and citizenship. Those connect more to our core values of who we are, and as practices, these guiding principles are more important now than ever.

Much of your work throughout your career focused on supporting equity and inclusion as well as gender issues. Can you speak a little more about how this is playing out in your current role as President? 

YSF: I’m originally from Haiti. I came to the U.S when I was twelve and before then grew up in a very politically unstable country where we had coup d’etat after coup d’etat. When I was a child, there was a lot of political violence and I saw what it’s like to live in a democracy that wasn’t quite a democracy in practice. One of the things we see right now, and important for me as a leader, is a need to be even bolder, even more audacious in approaching diversity, equity, and inclusion. There is a need to define those things in broad terms, not just in terms of race and ethnicity, but also in terms of rural areas. What we see right now is the alienation of poor, rural, and primarily white communities. We’re again seeing the ways that a strong legacy, our history, and our contemporary practices that are fueling structural racism and inequities, are now coming to bite us. As our country is becoming more pluralistic, we will have these tensions remain.  They might manifest themselves in very violent ways if we’re not bold enough or courageous enough to tackle them, and to also provide people with opportunities and education to be able to change their plight.

You recently wrote a blog article for Inside Higher Ed entitled, “What Community Colleges Need Right Now.” Can you walk us through some of the issues you think are particularly compelling that you highlight in the article?

YSF: Our faculty are doing a lot more work in the community college sector.  They need more support, and they need to be compensated fairly.

We have the issue of the childcare barrier. We look at the pandemic but even before the pandemic, we knew that childcare was a significant barrier for women who wanted to get themselves back on their feet or work for the first time and were exploring going into the job market. This pandemic has highlighted the importance of what happens when you ignore childcare. The folks who this pandemic has most affected have been people of color, women, and people over 50. Let’s get rid of childcare as a barrier. Let’s make sure that we address the issues of gender equity and economic justice by ensuring that each community college has a childcare facility on campus.

When we look at the college-going rate of rural populations, that is an opportunity gap. We know from the empirical evidence that rural youth do as well, or better in many cases, on the metrics in the K-12 arena. Why are they not represented in the same proportions in higher education?  We need to fix that.

Helping our students develop social capital through experiential learning is one of the other points that I brought up in that article. I also talked about financial aid for competency-based education. This is a big one that interests me because we saw the federal government have a pilot for financial assistance for competency-based learning that lasted just a few years with a handful of institutions participating.

We talk about diversifying the faculty and administrative pipeline. Our students need to see role models and we also need the lift perspectives of diverse people.  We are still very white in the Academy. I talk about professional development and cultivating innovation.  Innovation doesn’t mean that we throw the baby out with the bathwater and abandon our traditions. Our traditions, many of them, have served us well but we’re now in 2021 and we need to evolve.

You have been described as a transformational and positive leader.  What has most shaped your development as a leader and when things get tough, what keeps you going?

YSF: I would have to say that it’s the immigrant ethic in me.  I see things in terms of opportunities.  I do get down.  Let’s be honest. I’m not always up with a ton of energy, and self-care is critical. We don’t talk enough about leaders getting help. When we need help, I think as leaders, it’s essential to say, “I need help.”  I know that I can get help because living in an industrialized country, in the United States of America, however flawed our healthcare system may be, we can still get help when we need it. I do get ample help.  I think that’s part of what keeps me positive, and people want that from their leaders.  I was born an optimist. When I think of the alternatives, and because I come from one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, I think as bad as things are, at least we still have our sense of agency. We have autonomy. We have opportunities. How do we turn these difficulties and adversities into opportunities?

Recently, I discovered Taoism and I find it very helpful to ground me.  I’m not religious but there is something about the pragmatic approach and the kindness, love, and forgiveness. There is a lot of positivity that is in that writing. I carry a couple of little books and one of them is just slightly bigger than a matchbox. It has everything that I need. Whenever I feel like I’m starting to go awry a little bit, it’s good to do a little bit of reading and to realize that the sun is out and it’s a beautiful day. We have clean air to breathe, and I try to focus on what we have, and I am grateful for that. At the same time, I’m advocating for equality and to make the things that aren’t right, are made right.

Let me end with a signature question that we ask of every guest who comes on IngenioUs. What do you see coming down the road that you think needs to be on the radar of all colleges and universities right now?

YSF: We need to be very concerned about equity and about higher ed becoming an even stronger vehicle for socio-economic mobility in the region.  Higher ed needs to become a partner in helping address these issues and we need policymakers engaged in prioritizing these issues.  We need to understand that the future of work amid the fourth industrial revolution is where virtually every person needs a post-secondary credential. People who don’t have that are left behind.  Even if they can find opportunities after high school, in the long run, they will find that there are limitations to their careers.

In the theme of resiliency, we need to continue to build our financial IT, human, and institutional resiliency. This is going to be a difficult decade for higher ed for most of the country, save for the Southwest and the West. The Northeast is going to be the most adversely impacted. We have to think differently about how we organize ourselves and what kind of partnerships we want. We will see more higher education mergers, acquisitions, and other arrangements. As leaders, we have a responsibility to think of what kinds of premier partnerships might benefit our communities, our students, and our businesses because higher education or a postsecondary secondary credential is really critical.  I think we also need to keep a watchful eye on how employers are adapting and how jobs are changing. The future of higher ed is not one in which you get your degree and you’re done. We need to be prepared to support, educate, and re-educate learners who already have bachelor’s degrees, even master’s degrees, and are already in the market. They will need to acquire additional credentials to continue to be relevant and competitive in the workforce. Looking at the future, we need to empower our humans to be successful, contribute to democracy and economic well-being, and to the intellectual vitality of our regions in our country.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

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