When Craig Johnson accepted his appointment to become president of Ridgewater College in April 2018, he knew he had to combine the skills of an administrative executive and a politician. And in this particular case, his skillset might also have to include that of a therapist.

Johnson arrived with a portfolio of 30-plus years of relevant experience. An art history student, he earned an Ed.D. in higher education from the University of Minnesota. He gained executive-level experience at the University of Minnesota’s College of Architecture & Landscape Architecture, Moraine Park Technical College, Winona State University-Rochester and most recently as executive director at the University Center-South Dakota Public Universities & Research Center.

Johnson’s new role would involve overseeing a public community and technical college where 4,500 students studied on two campuses—one located in Willmar and another in Hutchinson, about an hour east. He would have to operate under the same constraints that the presidents of Minnesota State’s other 36 colleges and universities face. Strict caps imposed by the legislature controlled the revenue side of his budget, and the spending side was dominated by contracts that the state system negotiated, over which he would have little influence.

Closer to home, his school would have to accommodate demographic shifts in the numbers and makeup of upcoming student populations. Analysts were predicting a sharp drop in the number of high school graduates over the coming decade, and the cultural composition of those upcoming classes would change as well. Nearly two-thirds of the students in Willmar’s public school system, for example, are minority students.

He’d hear the clamor from local employers, especially manufacturers, about the urgent need for Ridgewater to churn out more graduates with specialized skills. They also would likely be looking for more informal and nontraditional kinds of training.

Plus, he’d still have to fight to reverse the stubborn stigma against community colleges believed by parents and high school educators and counselors: that a four-year college track is the only pathway to a satisfying and well-paying career.

Wait a minute, you ask, he wanted this job?

Hold on. There’s more.

Like college presidents everywhere, Johnson would have to contend with the sometimes-competing demands from powerful unions. However, Johnson’s new purview would be even more complicated than that. He was inheriting a workplace environment that had become higher ed’s version of the Hatfields and McCoys. His most urgent challenge was to heal a large and ugly rupture between Ridgewater’s faculty union and Douglas Allen, Johnson’s predecessor. The faculty union had become bitter and demoralized over what it considered Allen’s heavy-handed and autocratic management style, according to Mary Gruis, the school’s faculty union president. The faculty had overwhelmingly passed a vote of no confidence against Allen and had refused to participate in Faculty Shared Governance.

Johnson decided to use the process of creating a system-required strategic plan to help address this environment. To facilitate that process, he stepped out of the typical academic planning process and recruited Steve Haarstad and Patrice O’Malley, two veteran consultants from Enterprise Minnesota, who traditionally work with manufacturing executives. The two worked under the guidance of Ellen Roster, Ridgewater’s executive director of institutional planning and effectiveness.

Describe your path to Ridgewater

“My focus early on was pursuing my interests, art and art history, not on being a president of an institution or a community college. But I did have some strong mentors at the U of M who gave me reason to think more seriously about administrative studies and moving into administrative roles. Many of our presidents typically come up through the academic ranks, but I didn’t. Mine was more of a generalist path.” Said Johnson.

What attracted you to this position?

I have come to love and respect the mission, the open access, and the boots-on-the-ground nature of the comprehensive community college. Ridgewater just resonated with me. I was interested in the structure of the state system, and the respect for education that we have, and of course the people here, the region, and the geography.

You walked into an organization that had experienced a good deal of internal tumult, especially between the faculty and the previous administration. Why was it broken?

I wouldn’t say it was broken. Maybe it’s semantics, but I’d say it was fractured or troubled. There had definitely been a building tension and point-of-conflict that came to a boil. Part of my role was to connect as soon as possible with leadership in the college, especially in the faculty, and get a sense of how I might contribute to re-establishing a foundation for a healthier dynamic—find out what was missing, what was wrong, and what needed to be different.

What did you discover?

Communication seemed to have broken down on everybody’s part. If you stop talking to each other, you’ll stop hearing each other; the more you start thinking something’s wrong or missing, the more you might look for it and find it’s actually missing. I had to make sure that as an administration, we showed that we are truly listening. I heard a lot about transparency. People wanted decisions to be explained and justified. They wanted input and consideration about decisions before they were finalized. And that fits me just fine. In my career, I gather as much information as I can, make a decision, test the decision with the people who are going to be impacted by it, and then make the ultimate decision and go and work with it. And if you’re wrong, you have to be willing to say you were wrong and take a step back.

Was it acrimonious?

I half expected to come into a very challenging situation. What I found instead was a group people who were surprisingly open, who didn’t want to go down that road again. They really wanted to find a way to rebuild what’s here. I think that also fit my skill set. A lot of my jobs have been, in one form or another, rebuilding or redesigning roles.

Did you use a strategic plan to start rebuilding?

People often joke that I don’t do much with my art and art history background. I disagree. My art history training gave me a respect for paying attention to what went on before and how that influences what we do now and in the future. My natural instincts as an artist give me a sense of how design is behind so much of what we’re doing as a college. We’re doing a reorganization, but it’s also a redesign.

I believe in windows of opportunity. The chance for a new president to create a new strategic plan on the heels of a rather dramatic point in the evolution of the college was very timely. I learned at the College of Architecture & Landscape Architecture that when someone designs a building, the process isn’t just to produce the building, but to understand how that building fits into our goals, our culture, and what we want to be in the future. I saw it as a great opportunity for the college to examine who we are and who we need to be, and then have this plan reflect that. So, I saw the plan process as important as the plan itself. It gave us a way to reestablish dialogue and communication, to get people working together again. And I think that happened.

Using manufacturing consultants to facilitate your process has to be considered creative thinking.

I like to do things differently. And I think it fits our mission here. We’re a comprehensive community college, with growing pressure on us, appropriately, about workforce issues. We have many, many people who have been here 20 years plus. They know what we do, they know what we’ve been, and they have a good sense of where we’re going, so I thought we needed something new in the mix. And trust was a big issue, so instead of doing it all internally, let’s get somebody who’s completely outside the box of higher ed to make sure we’re trying to see things differently.

Did it work?

The consultants developed a great deal of trust through how they did the work, how they came across, and the questions they asked. I don’t know if we would have been able to get that same level of confidence if we had done it ourselves or if it had been primarily weighted by college control. We made a genuine effort to build this from every faction of the college at every level.

Manufacturing executives might be surprised by the number of constituencies you had to include.

We did it by talking to some groups on their own and some one-on-one between administration and the consultants. But we also had different factions together at the table. Because we went back and forth several times, I’ve heard little, if any, criticism that people didn’t have a voice in the process. Will you inevitably miss something? Certainly. But we made every effort to be inclusive, which was important for the college as a whole, and it was important for the plan.

How did you describe the endgame to planning participants?

We described the process more than the endgame. We asked what we wanted to accomplish and what process should get us there. About 80 percent of the way through, after we had gathered all the information, (Enterprise Minnesota’s) Steve Haarstad facilitated a critical meeting with the leadership group. And we invited faculty representation to go through some of the core issues that we had distilled from all these conversations. From there, we identified our key targets.

We identified five initiatives, the most important one being financial sustainability. How do we make this something that we know can last? We have a model, our revenue and a budget—and all that is practical and realistic. Then there are the actions, the strategic areas we’ll focus on. Success with those areas will improve our financial footing so that we know we will have a viable operation.

What are those areas?

We came up with one key difference-maker: increased engagement, both externally and internally. That was the primary driver of everything else.
The second “aha” moment was that the real key target of everything we’re doing is financial sustainability, not just increased enrollment. Increased engagement and the financial sustainability or financial viability piece became two of the five initiatives. We realized we need to really focus on increased engagement internally and externally, and that will lead us toward the goal of financial sustainability.

In between, we identified three others: challenge the status quo; address diversity, equity and inclusion; and create a distinctive Ridgewater experience. But the driver remained increased engagement. We have to do more to have greater partnerships, improve dialogue, have greater buy-in and support, and have everybody on the same page.

Describe how to challenge the status quo.

It started out with being more about transformation, reinvention and innovation. Challenging the status quo means critiquing what we do, how we do it and why we do it. We may keep doing certain things because they’re good. But it may also mean that we throw out or improve other things.

What about addressing the needs of nontraditional students?

A couple of things come to mind. One will be based in delivery. There are different needs and different interests regarding how people will access education. It’s not one size fits all. It’s about how we effectively and sustainably deliver enough versions of something to meet all of the interests out there. The smaller you are, the harder that is to do. A bigger college can probably do more of that variability.

A second consideration is communication. It’s not the same for every group. A third is the support side, whether it’s co-curricular, extracurricular, or support services. Our challenge is to understand our current and trending populations. It’s not the same as 20 years ago. We might find a population that we just can’t serve if it’s too small, or it’s too expensive, or there isn’t enough demand out there. It all means we’ll probably have to make some tough decisions about financial sustainability. We can’t do everything, and we’re likely going to have to drop some things.

How much of your challenge is population?

It’s a consideration, but I think it almost gets too much weight. We will face our demographic challenge around 2025 when high school graduation numbers will drop significantly. We’re not at that point, yet. But we need to start thinking about how to get more nimble, because we know there will be a point five, six years from now when attracting traditional age students right out of high school will be tough.

I think our greatest challenge is the status quo. It’s about how we may need to change things that have worked well for decades, but may not be working well right now. We can’t only look at numbers and population groups and such.

What about diversity demographics?

They’re booming here in Willmar, and we need to do more to address that new population. For example, I think we’re around one-quarter of a diverse population in Willmar, but we’re 18 percent in terms of our numbers here at Ridgewater. We’re nowhere near the numbers that are coming through the schools. The schools, I believe, are almost two-thirds of minority populations. We know we have to pay more attention to recruitment and communication and engagement—and we have to be welcoming and support many of those students of color who are coming to us as new Americans.

How are you addressing workforce issues?

I think employers are changing their view of where education and training fit into their hires. Our business of providing an education that leads to a credential doesn’t have as much value as it used to have—employers are more inclined to think about a potential employee beyond what education credential he or she has. We may need to do more non-credit training. In the midst of it all, you have the whole debate about debt and cost, and what’s the ROI on going to college. We’re in the middle and it’s swirling around us. I think we have to make better sense of that.

What do you say to manufacturers who are continually frustrated by the four-year-track mentality that comes out of high schools?

It’s absolutely real. We often talk about how many of us who are concerned about it have kids going to get four-year degrees. There needs to be a merging of the two options. For example, there’s a small—but I think slowly growing—population that will get a four-year degree and then get technical training to customize that four-year degree to fit a career path.

And what about the stigma about community college?

We still are not at a point where people understand the value and the quality of a community college education as a way to get a lower credential that can really do more for you than you think, or it can give you a low-cost way to get ready to go get your four-year degree. We have changed so much, but the public still has an old-fashioned perception of us. Students get a solid foundation from every one of our two-year colleges in the Minnesota State system. There is data that shows the people who finish a two-year liberal arts degree with us and go on to get a four-year degree do as well or better than other transfer students because of the foundation they get in our smaller scale classrooms with high-quality faculty. The only thing they might miss is the big campus experience. And I’m not going to dismiss that. That’s part of the enjoyment of college. That’s real. But if you’re looking more at your education and its value, people don’t understand the quality of what’s here and what it could do for them. That’s on us. We have to get that message out there. But we need employers, we need community leaders, we need alumni to help us do that.

We need better engagement with the public to help them really understand how they can use us. We are one of the major solutions to the whole issue of student debt.

Back to the plan. Are you happy with the end product?

I’m even happier with the process that got us there. I think it helped accomplish what I hoped it would. It gave us a gathering point. It helped bring people together to communicate and interact. It was a good way to demonstrate that we’re really trying to be inclusive and increase participation. The plan won’t sit on the shelf for three years. We are actively developing our work plan for this upcoming year so that every key unit in the college will be required to look at those initiatives and identify one to three action items they’re going to do that will help move that plan forward. We expect to have year one be primarily focused on engagement. So, 12 months from now, we’ll be able to answer how we increased engagement to fit that first focus of the plan. And then years two and three, we’ll put more focus on the other initiative pieces.

One of the consultants who helped with the planning process has said he was more than impressed with the commitment of everyone involved at improving the student experience.

I agree. People in our industry come to work because of the students. They come for the love of teaching, to change lives, and to help people discover themselves. And this college especially has a long history, and a well-deserved history, of absolutely wanting to help students succeed here. It’s embodied in every meeting we have, and it was present in the discussions producing our plan.

Featured story in the Fall 2019 edition of Enterprise Minnesota magazine.

Return to Fall 2019 magazine