11 October · Episode 176
How CSCU is Building Strong Institutional Foundations
27 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton
In Part 2 Chancellor Terrence Cheng of CSCU delves into building strong institutional foundations, bridging K-12 to higher education, ensuring equity, and the future of online learning.
Strategies for Seamless K-12 to Higher Ed Transitions, Embracing Online Learning, and Building Strong Institutional Foundations
The second half of this two-part series with Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU)’s Chancellor Terrence Cheng explores the strategy CSCU uses for building strong institutional foundations to better communicate to high schoolers how connected K-12 is to higher ed and to ensure equity and accessibility for all students. Cheng also shares how his system is revolutionizing its online learning model to better serve local businesses and CSCU’s students across numerous campuses.
Evolving Online Learning Beyond COVID-19 Specifications
Although in the early stages, CSCU is working to deliver online learning that’s effective, accessible, and cost-efficient. Cheng communicates to his presidents that the system-wide implementation of the online program does not have to be the same at every campus. These online programs need to amplify each institution’s unique offerings, assets, and stakeholders rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all solution.
Creating a Clear Pathway to Community College
Using the Common App, CSCU created a legislature-driven, GPA-calibrated automated admission program that will be implemented at the state’s 17 technical schools and CSCU’s 17 community college campuses. Upon graduation, students will be automatically accepted at their local community college.
CSCU is also bringing its IBM P-Tech partnership with Norwalk Community College and Norwalk High School to scale. The goal is to effectively convey that there’s a very clear bridge to higher education after 12th grade, almost like a “13th grade.”
Five Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards
Trust your instincts. Remind yourself that you got to be where you are today by doing things a certain way, so it’s okay to rely on your instincts. However, it’s still important to listen.
Make changes sooner rather than later. If you know that you need to make some staff or organizational changes, give yourself enough time to gather the data. But don’t take too long because that can have detrimental effects.
Own the narrative of your story. Don’t let others tell your story for you. Get out there. Be upfront. Be ruthlessly honest with the data. Have integrity in what you say. But make sure you say what needs to be said.
Have a good mentor. It’s helpful to have current and/or past presidents and chancellors who can provide support for you and even suggest what to steer clear of. This advice is critical, regardless of whether you’ve been a president or chancellor before. Every campus is different.
Build a strong relationship with your board chair. This is probably one of, if not the most critical, relationship a university president can have. It doesn’t mean that you tell him or her what to do, or vice versa, but if the two of you can be joined at the hip, it’s going to make things far smoother for you in the long run.
At a Glance
- How higher ed is not meeting 21st-century students and what can be done to remedy this.
- What higher ed needs to start destigmatizing to truly succeed.
- Why having a “winning team” mentality is so important for higher ed.
About Our Guest
Terrence Cheng is president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system, which oversees 12 community colleges, four state universities, and Charter Oak State College and serves more than 72,000 students.
The Board of Regents unanimously appointed President Cheng on May 7, 2021, and he began his presidency on July 2, 2021. He served as campus director of the University of Connecticut Stamford campus from 2016 to 2021, where he also served as a faculty member in the English department. He has also held several academic and administrative leadership and faculty roles, which include associate provost/assistant vice president, Academic Programs at Brooklyn College; and associate Dean, School of Arts and Humanities, and chair, Department of English at Lehman College. Both institutions are part of the City University of New York.
Cheng, a first-generation student, earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Binghamton University and an MFA in fiction from the University of Miami, where he was a James Michener Fellow. He is the author of two novels, Sons of Heaven (2002), and Deep in the Mountains (2007), as well as numerous published short stories and essays. In 2005, he received a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
About the Host
Transcript: Changing Higher Ed Podcast 176 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Terrence Cheng: How CSCU is Building Strong Institutional Foundations
Welcome to Changing Higher Ed, a podcast dedicated to helping higher education leaders improve their institutions, with your host, Dr. Drumm McNaughton, CEO of the Change Leader, a consultancy that helps higher ed leaders holistically transform their institutions. Learn more at changinghighered.com. And now, here’s your host, Drumm McNaughton.
Drumm McNaughton 00:30
Thank you, David. We welcome back today Terrence Cheng, the chancellor of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system. The Connecticut State system serves more than 72,000 students through its 12 community colleges for state universities and Charter Oak State College. The system is undergoing significant changes that will leverage its strength in a state that is minority majority, and it will ensure that equity and workforce preparation for colleges and universities whose graduates are the engine of the state’s workforce. Terrence, welcome back to the show.
Terrence Cheng 01:08
Thank you so much for having me back.
Drumm McNaughton 01:10
Of course. I’m looking forward to wrapping up our conversation. Let’s dig right in with where we left off. We talked a lot about the different challenges that you’ve had in Connecticut and with the state system. Let’s jump to online programs, K-12 partnerships, and the other areas that you’re doing exceptional work in.
Terrence Cheng 01:32
Yes, online programs are the now and future. When higher ed was disrupted by COVID, we all went online. Some of us did better than others. But the reality is that we’re not going back to full face-to-face learning in every single institution. That’s just not going to happen. And just like other industries, if we don’t embrace online, then we are going to be pulverized by it.
I don’t think that’s an option. We need to understand that this is the new landscape and that education can be delivered in an effective, accessible, and cost-efficient way online that is going to help a lot of people. So I tell my presidents in my institutions that not everybody needs the same program. You don’t need the same program at four different universities or at 12 different community college campuses. Online gives us the opportunity to combine what I say are the superpowers of every institution and campus and turn them into a degree opportunity or an educational opportunity. And these opportunities take advantage of the assets of different units and different stakeholders by aggregating them so that we serve as many students as possible. That is one of our goals, which is to have more shared online opportunities, degrees, and credentials that our faculty are driving by, again, utilizing their cumulative superpowers to create these unique and special places.
Drumm McNaughton 02:59
There was a question that came to mind from an enrollment perspective. Are the students enrolling at a particular institution? Are they enrolling in different parts of the system to be able to get different courses?
Terrence Cheng 03:14
That is part of the challenge since the landscape is still a bit scattered. When you look at the major players in online education, they have really solidified their offerings and identity around purely online. And with a system like ours, we have the potential to carve out a big piece of that space. But because the culture hadn’t advanced collaborative actions in the past, we’re supercharging those activities now.
We’re looking to amplify the work of Charter Oak State College, which is our singularly accredited online-only college that offers four-year degrees, as well as non-credit certificates, badges, and so forth. So we want to use them as a kind of anchor for best practices and infrastructure. We also use them to keep the expertise and uniqueness of that experience in the hands of the faculty that may come from Southern Connecticut or Western Connecticut or any of the four universities. That is still part of the work that we need to do. You can get your online education through Charter Oak and specific programs at some of the specific institutions, but we need to start to unify aspects of that work.
Drumm McNaughton 04:35
That’s very helpful to understand.
Terrence Cheng 04:38
I think we take it for granted, right? We want to think that students are going to automatically be programmed or receive the message that college is an option. This is not true. Things have changed, and especially in certain zip codes and neighborhoods, students are not given that message. They are not told they are good enough, worthy, or should go to college the way many of the more economically stable zip codes would be.
What we can do is create more partnerships. In that vein, we created an auto admit program for our state that includes both my four universities within the system, as well as multiple private institutions. So this was a legislature-driven auto event program that is calibrated by GPA. This year, you will be able to be part of the auto admit program by using the Common app. We’ve made it more fluid and seamless. This way, more students are messaged and guided towards a four-year path straight from high school.
We’re going to take this model and actually advance it as well to our technical high schools. There are 17 technical high schools, and we have 17 community college campuses, so the symmetry is perfect. What we want to do is offer automatic admission to all technical high school graduates. Upon graduation, you will be automatically accepted to your local community college.
Again, by making it as easy as possible, we hope to give access to even more students. We have to be very intentional as well about the kinds of partnerships and academies we create. So we have the IBM P-Tech partnership with Norwalk Community College and Norwalk High School. We want to take models like that and bring them to scale. We need to communicate more that the continuum goes beyond from ninth to 12th grade. I don’t want to call it 13th grade, but I want to convey that there’s a very clear bridge to higher education upon graduation.
Drumm McNaughton 07:02
That reminds me a lot of what Madeline Atkins is doing over at Lucy Cavendish College, which is part of the University of Cambridge. They have actually changed their admission. They’re admitting 90% of their students from public institutions. It’s great. It requires them to reach back into K-12 and work with students to make sure they’re ready. Even more importantly, these students believe that they are ready to come in. There is no imposter syndrome.
After graduating from high school, these students attend the regular orientation. But Lucy Cavendish also has something prior to that called Bridging Week. In this Bridging Week, they give practice exams so that students understand how it’s going to be done. They use a tutorial model there rather than a presentation. So they put them through a couple of those so students know where their classes are going to be and feel like they belong at the university by orientation. To me, it’s a brilliant model, and that’s what I hear you’re doing as well.
Terrence Cheng 08:34
I love that. That’s exactly where we want to go. What we want to do even more is establish that muscle memory or coat their DNA in a certain way. We can’t expect students to know what they just flat-out have never been told or experienced. We have to help them get there. Telling someone, “I’m there to help you,” You’ve got what it takes,” or “You belong here” addresses equity and systemic barriers to education.
Of course, we’re not doing the work for them. But we’re giving them the frameworks that are going to help them as a 21st-century student. This, to me, is one of the big problems. We still use 20th-century paradigms and think they’re going to be solutions for 21st-century students and problems. It’s a broken way of thinking. If we don’t make adjustments, we’re doomed to fail.
Drumm McNaughton 09:30
Isn’t that part of Einstein’s theory of insanity, where you’re going the same thing over and over again expecting different results?
Terrence Cheng 09:38
Well, I may be the wrong person to ask about theories of insanity if you ask some of my staff so I’ll plead the Fifth on that one. But, ultimately, we just have to recognize that that the world is not the one we grew up in. Our children are needed digital learners. They understand the world in different ways through different lenses, which goes back to where we started this conversation with REP4. If we don’t see the world through their eyes, how will we ever serve them properly?
Drumm McNaughton 10:09
Absolutely, which takes us to the last point we are going to cover today—individual student instruction. If you recognize a student where they are, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution anymore.
Terrence Cheng 10:25
That’s right. Going back to this idea of 20th-century paradigms for education, it’s a very neoliberal model. If you need something, you go search it out. I need advising, so I’ll go find my advisor. I need the bursar, so I’ll go find the bursar. I need to talk to somebody, feel stressed, or feel like I’m depressed, so I’ll go find the mental health person. That doesn’t work to the advantage of our students.
We have to recognize who our students are, especially systems like ours that are minority majority and who come from very challenged socio-economic backgrounds. Oftentimes, they have not grown up with a parent who has gotten a four-year degree, much less both parents. So they don’t have that kind of framework or foundation that folks like me might take for granted or folks like my children will take for granted. We have to recognize who they are and serve them to their needs.
I am a big fan of coaching models. Some people will say concierge. I don’t like that word. We need coaches. We need a single point of contact, where if Terrence has a problem, he can go to Drumm who will say, “Okay, your car broke down. This is the local mechanic. You’re having a stressful time. You’re having trouble sleeping. Here is your mental health counselor. You’re trying to get your resume in shape for interviews and job applications? Here is your career counselor.” You need a point guard for life sometimes to get you to the right place at the right time. Especially post-COVID, we have to ask these questions to student who have sustained an immense amount of damage that we can’t even fully explain yet. We have to serve students. That doesn’t mean they’re weak. It doesn’t mean they’re any lesser. It means they need things differently than we understand it, and it’s our job to figure it out.
Drumm McNaughton 12:27
Talking about this reminds me of our good friend Russell Lowery-Hart. Russell had put all of these pieces in place at his two-year institution Amarillo College. Ninety-nine of their students went homeless and only one of them dropped out because they were able to take care of all the services that the students needed. It’s like your one-stop shop. They know exactly who to contact when something like this happens, they feel comfortable enough to be able to do that, and know they’re going to get the support.
Terrence Cheng 13:16
Correct. Knowing who you are, embracing who you are, and then ultimately destigmatizing the fact that you need help is so important. That’s why Russell is a brilliant leader who continues to do great things across his state of different institutions. That’s exactly what I would argue we all need to do in higher education and society. We have to start destigmatizing the fact that we need help and don’t know everything. We have to also accept the fact that we don’t all begin at the same starting line, depending on what zip code you were born into or whether your parents went to school or not. All these things matter. I don’t say that to be political. That’s just reality, and the data backs it up. The sooner we embrace that, the more quickly we’ll be able to help our students.
Drumm McNaughton 14:09
I fully agree. So you had some incredible results. So far, you’ve stabilized enrollment and you’re laying the groundwork for what higher ed is going to look like in the state of Connecticut. Those are fabulous.
Terrence Cheng 14:26
Well, we’re trying. We have a real opportunity to change the narrative on division. First and foremost, what we have to do is recognize that it’s always about the students and about calibrating our relationships with faculty and staff so they feel respected and supported to do the job. That is always a work that has to be done. But we have to understand that we’re here to serve and focus on student needs and outcomes. When we do that, we tell a much stronger, more detailed story to our legislators, governor, and industry leaders who are going to want to be part of all the great work we’re doing.
I used to use an analogy when I worked in the Bronx. I don’t use it as much anymore because I’m in Connecticut. I don’t know who roots for what team, but I would say in the Bronx, “Listen, why do free agents want to come to the Yankees? Because they’re winners. We have to prove that we’re winners. We have to prove that we’re doing things that help people win. When we do that, people are going to want to be on our team. They’re going to want to work with us. They’re going to want to be a part of the organization. But it’s incumbent upon us to do the winning work, and then the work will speak for itself. Then, we will start to connect those dots.”
But the way things are wired right now, there’s more progress to be made in that area. And, ultimately, we always want to substantiate and corroborate the state’s investment in us and the people’s trust in us. If they don’t trust that we’re going to do right by them, they’re not going to come to us. So, again, that’s a responsibility that we have to bear.
Drumm McNaughton 16:07
Well, you lost me as soon as you said Yankees.
Terrence Cheng 16:11
Let’s see. That’s why I said I only use the story when I was in the Bronx. I’m in Connecticut. So you never know. The Red Sox? It’s either the Red Sox or Yankees, depending on what part of the state you might be in.
Drumm McNaughton 16:25
Exactly. And, unfortunately, both the Yankees and the Red Sox were at the bottom of their division last year.
Terrence Cheng 16:32
That’s right and that’s okay. But winning organizations speak for themselves, and that, to me, is the goal. It’s for us to be proud, feel like winners, and really put out that winning product, so to speak, that is demonstrated by the effectiveness of our students that graduate, leave our halls, enter society, and show how great they are.
Drumm McNaughton 16:59
Well, it is also very dependent on the leadership of an organization. And if you take a look at the Yankees or the Red Sox, and, I dare say, if you take a look at the Connecticut State system, you have good leaders in place where, yes, you may have a down year or two, but you will always come back up.
Terrence Cheng 17:20
Well, that’s exactly what we’re striving for. I feel very fortunate to work with a team that is strong, knowledgeable, honest, diligent, and really committed and focused on getting it done for the students and the state. I feel blessed in that way.
Drumm McNaughton 17:38
Well, I think you are, and they’re very blessed having a leader such as yourself. And I know you’re humble enough that you wouldn’t say it, nor would you probably think it, but it is in fact the truth.
Terrence Cheng 17:49
I appreciate that.
Drumm McNaughton 17:51
So what’s next for the Connecticut State system?
Terrence Cheng 17:55
Well, we have to deal with our budget challenges. You mentioned President Gi before. We know that institutions around the country are grappling with certain realities. We are certainly wrestling with those realities. I want us to be responsible and accountable for all of that work. That’s how we change our culture. That’s how we change our productivity. That’s how we change our external perception. So whether it’s our academic programs, how we serve students, how we partner in industry, and how we ultimately symbolize and affect change across the state, it is a 24/7, all-encompassing endeavor.
I say this all the time to our team, and I know it sounds a little cheesy, but we’re blessed to be in these jobs. We are privileged and blessed to be in these positions that allow us to potentially affect change. We’re not going to be in these jobs forever, and so whether you’re in this job for two years or 20 years, your job is to do things that are going to move things forward for the next people who will take your seat after you. You want to leave something better to the team that comes after you. So if we stay focused on that and just make improvements every single day, all of a sudden, the years go by, you’ve made significant changes, and you’ve created an even higher standard for the next team to rise to. That is how we affect long-term, perpetual change. So I firmly believe in that. That’s the task. That’s the challenge. But that’s what makes you feel so good. Someday, I want to look back on this and go, “Wow, look at how great they’re doing, and I had something to do with that.”
Drumm McNaughton 19:42
Well, there’s one other piece that I’ll toss in with that, and you alluded to it earlier when you said it’s all about the students. It’s a great privilege to be in this job, but it’s also a great responsibility because we are helping to mold and shape that next generation. If you don’t think it’s important, one, you’re in the wrong position and, two, who the heck is going to take care of you when you get old and gray?”
Terrence Cheng 20:13
That’s exactly right. I want to have a really strong health care for us because someday I’m going to need that health care. I’m going to need great leaders to orchestrate the things in our state or in our country to make sure that society is sustainable and viable for the long term. It is a great responsibility.
It goes back to what I was saying before. I just think of all the opportunities I’ve had in my life. Frankly, I was a poor immigrant kid who was the first in my family to go to college here in the United States. I don’t have any brothers or sisters. Now I have the chance to be the chancellor of the Connecticut State University system. I have a chance to work with wonderful administrators, faculty, and staff. I have a chance to represent all the students that remind me of myself in so many ways. So if I’m a little crazy sometimes, it’s because I’m only going to be in this seat for God knows how long and I damn well better do a good job or else I’m going to fail all these people. That’s a responsibility I take very seriously.
Drumm McNaughton 21:19
I wish there were more people who took it that way, rather than saying, “This is a job. I’m in it for me.” Like you said, if that’s how you feel, you’re in the wrong game. Terence, thank you. Three takeaways for your fellow presidents and board members.
Terrence Cheng 21:36
Oh, gosh. I’m not one to offer a great deal of knowledge. I feel like, as a creative writing fiction writer by trade, I make things up for a living. But I’ll say this. Here are a few thoughts that come to mind.
For me, this is a big responsibility I embraced. It took me a while to get over my own sense of impostor syndrome to trust my instincts and to remind myself that I got here doing things a certain way, so I had to believe in myself to continue doing that. Now that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen. But you have to trust your instincts.
Also, make changes sooner rather than later. Again, trust those instincts. If you know that you need to make some staff or organizational changes, give yourself enough time to gather the data. But sometimes we take too long. It can have detrimental effects.
The last thing is communication. You must own the narrative of your story. Don’t let folks tell your story for you. Be out there. Be upfront. Be ruthlessly honest with the data. Have integrity in what you say. But make sure you say what needs to be said. Don’t wait for others to say it for you because who better to own your message than you?
Drumm McNaughton 22:59
I’m going to add to your list if you don’t mind. One, have a good mentor, especially if it’s your first time on the job. It’s like when we work with boards. We say when you’ve seen one board, you’ve seen one board. When you’ve seen one presidency, you’ve seen one presidency. If you’ve seen two presidencies, you’ve seen two different presidencies. Every situation is different. So find a mentor who can help you see things differently.
Secondly, build that relationship with your board chair. That is probably one of, if not the most critical relationship a university president can have. It doesn’t mean that you tell him or her what to do, or vice versa, but if the two of you can be joined at the hip, it’s going to make things far smoother for you in the long run.
Terrence Cheng 23:57
Excellent advice. I don’t take for granted that I have a really great relationship with my board chair, that’s for sure because you’re 100% right. It makes life a heck of a lot easier. And I couldn’t agree more with your advice on mentorship. I’m very fortunate to have folks who have supported me for a long time who are either current and/or past presidents and chancellors who I can call and say, “Hey, have I lost it? Am I losing my mind if I do this?” And they’ll say, “No, you’re okay. But don’t do the other thing you just said because then you’re going to have a real problem on your hands.” So having that guiding voice is absolutely instrumental.
Drumm McNaughton 24:33
What’s next for you? What’s next for Connecticut State?
Terrence Cheng 24:36
We’re going to continue talking to our legislators and working with our governor to gain their input in terms of where they think they want us to go and to give them the vision of where we believe we need to go to reconcile any differences or confusions there might be. We want to continue letting the students know that we’re here for them. We want them and we’re going to do right by them. And, ultimately, we need to let our workforce and community partners know that if they have needs, we have an incredible source of talent that is at their fingertips and we’re ready to help them fill those needs.
Drumm McNaughton 25:15
Those are great. Terrence, thank you so much for being on the show. This has been a pleasure. I look forward to doing this again in the future.
Terrence Cheng 25:25
I’d be happy to. Just give me a little time so I can report on some hopefully good news. I’d be happy to come back and share it.
Drumm McNaughton 25:35
That’d be great. Thank you so much.
Terrence Cheng 25:37
Excellent. Thank you.
Drumm McNaughton 25:39
Thanks for listening today, and a special thank you to our guest, Terence Cheng, chancellor of the Connecticut State Colleges and University system. Tune in next week.
Changing Higher Ed is a production of the Change Leader, a consultancy committed to transforming higher ed institutions. Find more information about this topic and show notes on this episode at changinghighered.com. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe to the show. We would also value your honest rating and review. Email any questions, comments, or recommendations for topics or guests to firstname.lastname@example.org. Changing Higher Ed is produced and hosted by Dr. Drumm McNaughton. Post-production is by David L. White.