An Interview with Dr. Michael Baston, Tri-C’s New President
Dr. Michael Baston is the new president of Cuyahoga Community College. Beginning his career as an attorney, he later moved to a career in higher education and served in administrative positions at several colleges in New York state. He most previously served as president of Rockland Community College in New York before coming to Tri-C.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Jonathan Beard: How did higher education become your calling?
President Baston: I enjoyed being a student when I was in college. I was very active and had a love of learning. Later, when I became an attorney, I represented educational corporations, religious institutions, and nonprofit organizations. And I started actually teaching at some colleges and a lot of Paralegal Studies programs. I loved working with the students, I felt connected to them, and to their future, whether they wanted to be a lawyer or paralegal. I felt in that sense that I could contribute to them and their development. And over these last several years, I became college president, really trying to make sure that every single student has access to the opportunities and support to live the lives that they deserve.
JB: Gotcha. I know that you mentioned several times, such as in the newsletter, that you first came to Tri-C as a prospective parent going undercover. While you ultimately ended up choosing this college, what sorts of things that you see, if any, that you thought need improvement?
PB: I thought, even though we were in a pandemic, that we could maybe have more students active in our campus and involved. I know we were in the midst of a pandemic, so we needed to have more virtual options. But one of the things that I want to see for students is the opportunity to get the most out of the college experience. That was an area that I thought I could be helpful with. The other area was that, there were a lot of people in the community when I drove around, when I talked to people, that told me about family members or friends that went to Tri-C. But when I asked them, “Have you gone to Tri-C?” or if they were interested, they hadn’t made the jump to the campus. So, I thought I could use the stories that they were telling me about others, to get them to think about how they too could come to Tri-C. So I felt in meeting folks all around the county, that there will be more opportunities to bring more students into the college.
JB: What do you think you could do to bring students back onto campus at a time when lots of campuses have lots of online programs?
PB: I think making sure that we have the kind of programs on site that students will be interested in that they will want to participate in. I think also making sure that we have services available on-site so that the students could be able to go in whether it’s the food pantry, the library, or the other services that we offer to make sure that they can feel a sense of home here, and that they’d be supportive folks to help them. Another important thing is to ensure that students know the full range of opportunities we have here. You have a lot of students that are in different programs, but there are other students that aren’t in any program. So how do we make sure that every single student knows the resources are available to them, has sort of a person or persons that they can rely on to help them navigate the system so that they can be successful? I think those are the things that will get more students to come to campus. If they knew that all these resources were here, just for them.
JB: It can be difficult for many students to find their way in higher educatino. As someone who’s worn many hats, what advice do you have for students trying to find their calling?
PB: I think it’s important for students to think for themselves about what they’re good at, what their passion is. It’s not always that you should go in a direction that your mom, dad, friends, or family say you should. Sometimes we have to understand what we’re passionate about, what we’re good at, what’s important to us, and then figure out, “How can I get connected to the kind of experiences that are going to let me explore that a little bit more?” For example, if you don’t exactly know what your major should be, or what kind of career you should have, going into one of our career services centers and taking one of the understand career navigation tests can help you can get a sense of what things you’re good at. As well as doing some internships, some apprenticeships, or even some co-curricular programs. Maybe there’s activities on campus that you could get involved in today so that you can get a better sense of, “Is this the direction I want to go?” I think it’s important for our students not to struggle by themselves. They need to know that we have so many resources. And we want to make sure that they get access to those resources.
JB: In an interview with Diversified Education, you mentioned that you were in the process of a plan to get students that, for financial reasons, were unable to complete their studies back to the campus to get through college. How do you hope to achieve this?
PB: President Biden just allowed us to have a loan forgiveness program. So, if you’re a Pell Grant recipient, and you have federal student loans, up to $20,000 can be forgiven by going through the program. Here in the state of Ohio, there are programs where if you went somewhere else, and you can’t get a transcript, then we will pay to you to be able to get your transcript so that you can get those credits to be applied to your account here and shorten the time it takes to get your degree, so you move forward to postgraduation. So, there are a lot of things that we can do to actually help students, but we have to make sure that they have the information. What I have found is that the two greatest challenges for our students are awareness, because if you don’t know these different options exist, then you can’t take advantage of them. We have to make sure that folks are aware. But we also need to ensure that folks have assistance. Just because someone know that there’s a FAFSA form doesn’t mean that they know how to fill it out. So, we’ve got to make sure that students have the assistance to get into programs, get help, and get the opportunity to reduce their debt they have student loans.
JB: Tri-C is a very diverse college, and its students come from many different demographics with their own unique experiences besides the shared goal of academic achievement. How do you hope to make sure that everyone at Tri-C feels their voice is heard?
PB: What I’ve been doing since I’ve been here is really listening to the voices of our students, our staff, our faculty. I’ve had listening sessions all throughout this month and parts of last month, these mini town halls for these different populations. I believe you have to give a voice to the people that you want to help. You have to understand the issues and the concerns. I’m new, so I would not necessarily know all of the good things or bad things or opportunities without listening to people and being careful to recognize that everyone must be involved here. That’s why we encourage students, “Get involved in student government, and the different committees and the opportunities to get your voice heard. Talk to your counselor. Talk to faculty members. Share your ideas that can ultimately get us to where we need to be.” So I’m a big advocate of students and the student voice.
JB: I know that at the Westshore and Western Campus, there was a lot of feedback. Some people mentioned things like childcare, some people mentioned different supports for different people on campus that they didn’t feel were available. What have you heard most frequently from students during these listening sessions?
PB: Students have really said that this is a wonderful place to go to school. That being said, they’ve also said sometimes they have difficulty navigating our enrollment systems. That sometimes they have difficulty understanding the different expectations and requirements. And sometimes they feel like they would maybe want some longer hours in certain places or new ways to participate. As I listen to what students are saying and share that broadly with our team, I think these are important things we’ve got to look at. Students are saying that it’s difficult to get the schedule that is working best with their life. How do we look at the schedule? When students say, “We want some more online or on-site classes in our majors.” We gotta look at that. When international students say, “I don’t feel that I have all of the support that I need to feel comfortable being here because I’m far away. I need to feel more of a sense of home,” I want to look at that. What does that mean in terms of the way in which we support them, communicate with them, and make sure that they’re plugged into opportunities? So I’m grateful to all the students over the last few weeks that have shared these different ideas with me, because that’s the only way that I’m able to make positive steps to helping them.
JB: How does your religious vocation affect your outlook on this job?
PB: I am a person of faith. For me, one of the major tenants of my faith, is “belief in the power of the possible.” That guides everything that I do. I really believe in people; I believe in possibilities. I believe that if we support, encourage, and inspire others wherever we can, then we are doing what we were really placed here to do. That’s what guides me and gives me that joy to get up in the morning, and think, “How can I help make someone else’s life better?”
JB: Gotcha. You’ve held Pancakes with the president, Pasta with the President, Pizza with the President, etc. If we come to your house, what’s on the menu? Who’s cooking?
PB: If you come to my house, my wife is the one that’s going to do the cooking because she’s a phenomenal cook. You’d probably have pork chops with the President!
JB: What do you want students to know about you the most that you haven’t told them yet?
PB: I love you, I believe in you. And I want to do everything I can to make sure that you get the best opportunity to live your dreams.
JB: Cat person or dog person?
PB. I’m not really a pet person (laughing) I’m a people person!
JB: Looking back on your entire career and education, what would you say is your defining moment?
PB: I was working in a law firm, and the president of a college asked me to come and be a dean. And I wasn’t sure if I was going to take the Dean’s job because I was a lawyer, I was doing well. I had a nice corner office, and a good job. So I got on a train to go home, when I bumped into this young man who gave me a tour of the campus earlier. He told me, “We need you.” And that was the defining moment for me. I made the decision to leave the law firm and come to the college because I felt such a commitment to purpose that I didn’t have it in my heart to say no. That chance meeting on the train with that young man who later I married, I christened his child, and saw him become a valued member of the community. But at that moment, he was just a student that was a tour guide, who met me in off hours, who said the words, “We need you.” That was the defining moment. That was the turning point.
JB: You said in an interview with Cleveland Magazine that you were planning to teach a class alongside your role as president. How will this help you in your position understand and help students?
PB: I like to call myself a practitioner president. I’m not just someone you see on the little emails or whatever. I believe in getting into the mix of what we’re trying to do. One of the reasons why I love teaching is because then you automatically have a focus group of what’s happening in your organization. I have the opportunity for the several hours a week I get to work with students to ask them about their experience. And not only to educate them about a subject matter, but ask them how they’re navigating our systems, our processes, so that I get to hear from the people we’re trying to help. I usually teach a, either an introduction to business or introduction to Paralegal Studies course, or some semesters I teach multiculturalism and law course, civil liberties course. I can’t teach this semester because I’m just now getting involved with the college, but, I would love to, if possible, teach next semester or next fall, we’ll see how my schedule shapes out. It’s important for me, from my perspective, to stay relevant in my field, because I’m a retired attorney, but I still enjoy the work of the law and our country. I have a degree in political science, so I’m very much interested in politics and government. This is a $300 million corporation, with 3000 employees, so I’m a businessperson, you know, and so in that role, I’m in the business of higher education, but it’s a business. Those interests and experiences, I feel, are very important to share with future college presidents, presidents of the United States, businessmen and women who will lead our country forward, lead our community forward. So that’s why I think it’s important for me, and why I feel very confident teaching at the collegial level.
JB: One-hundred years from now, what would you most want to be remembered for?
PB: Style, smile, and substance. I would like people to remember me as a person who understood the times. Who was stylish, not just in his appearance, but in the way in which he engaged populations that are not always engaged. I want them to remember my smile, not because I have the best smile in the world, but because that smile is not hiding tears, but showcasing optimism, because I am very optimistic. Even though we go through a lot of challenges, even though our democracy is not perfect, I am optimistic that we will always move froward to the future. I would also want to be thought of as a person of substance, who had really good ideas. Who encouraged others to walk in the power of who they were, to get engaged, to stay in the arena and make a difference in the world.” So I think style, smile, and substance would be the three things that I want to be remembered for.