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Ryan’s Hopes: a Q&A with the President
RVCC leader answers questions on growth, cafeteria, and, of course, parking
By Mike Ashmore
I recently had the opportunity to speak with the president of Raritan Valley Community College, Jerry Ryan, who was gracious enough to take time out of his very busy schedule to speak with me. We touched on a variety of topics during the interview, including athletics, parking, the food at RVCC, and even a little bit about himself. So read along and maybe a question you’ve always wanted to have answered will be included in Mike Ashmore’s Ten [or so] Questions with President Jerry Ryan.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
The best parts of my job are dealing with all the people in the community and on the staff that make things happen…solving problems and making new things happen that serve people better. The most negative thing about the job is thinking you’ve fixed something and having it not fixed. And then try to fix it again and not fixing it. There’s only a few of those, but they come back every once in a while where you have to readjust. But for the most part, 99 percent of the time, this is the best job in the world.
What challenges do you face as president of the college?
We’ve got an aggressive facilities master plan that calls for more buildings to better serve students. That alone is a major challenge, to get everyone on board for the new building, and then secure the funding for the new building, and then to build the building. We’ve got several of those down the road over the next ten years. As long as the state of New Jersey isn’t in good shape for funding, finding the resources to continue to try to grow the college and to make the college even better every year will be a challenge. Student tuition, partners through private fundraising and our two counties, through their aid, that whole mix will have to be changed to make up for the fact that the state isn’t contributing.
The sheer number of students coming to us is going to be a challenge. We had a large enrollment increase this year, five to six percent, and we anticipate the same thing next year. And pretty soon, if we weren’t building a new building, we’d be out of space. But the good news is, the new building that we’re building, two thirds of it will be to provide a new home for our visual and performing arts faculty, but the other third will provide multiple full-service classrooms. That building should be able to help us quite a bit in getting through the rest of the decade in terms of enrollment increases.
Finding enough parking spaces will finally really be a problem. Students perceive it is today, but when we build that building we’re going to have to add another parking lot someplace, so we’re talking to students about what the best location is for that.
And keeping up with
the expectations of the community, that we’re a community-based
institution that needs to develop community programming. That’s
So there’s lots
of people to work with, but this is a great job, it’s a great college,
and I hope that when I leave, whenever that might be, that people will
be able to say that it’s a better college than it was when I came
Sports hasn’t been one of the highest priorities of the college. It’s not up there with developing new math and science programs, providing technology and keeping the library up to date and staff development funded. But I’ve said to the intercollegiate athletic team and to the director there that I want to have a seven-sport program. Three men, three females and golf, which would be male and female. I’ve asked them to give me a plan for that, and if they give me a plan, we can work that in within the college’s resources.
The important thing is that the intercollegiate program be “Title IX” clean [Title IX was introduced in 1972 to stop discrimination based on sex in schools, whether academically or athletically] and that we be on a 50-50 level with both men’s and women’s sports. And I want to have the athletic programs be as competitive as they can be without offering scholarships and without having recruitment outside of the counties. I really want to give the first shot to kids that are coming out of high school that want to play intercollegiately here instead of going to other counties and bringing in people.
I’m not sure or confident that it’ll be able to (do that). Because the student body is overwhelmingly working. Coaches have a difficult time finding a group of 15 to 18 people to serve on a team that can afford to spend the time practicing and playing as opposed to working.
What is the progress on the baseball and softball fields?
The baseball and softball fields will not be touched this summer. So that means they can play on them next year, they’ll be able to play in the fall. Probably next spring we’re going to have a problem. That’s the time that we’re probably going to have to work on them. The timing of that is going to be to maximize the team’s ability to use the fields. I’ve been working closely with Vice President Tom Carroll, who’s been working closely with Mary Sullivan on this.
But we do need to move them, they’re in the way of some things we have planned. And we want to build them right so that they drain correctly and so we don’t lose the time that we now lose in the spring because they’re so muddy.
What is the biggest misconception people have about a community college?
There are two misconceptions. One kind of died out a while back. The faculty members I used to work with used to call community colleges high schools with ashtrays. The ashtrays are gone, so that misconception is no longer valid.
I think the major misconception people have is that somehow community colleges, because they may not be the first choice of where people go, are not first-class places. I would stack our faculty and our classrooms and our technology and our facilities against any college in the state and I think that we’d come out well. But there’s still a lingering feeling that community colleges are less capable of doing what you’re supposed to do than others. If there’s a black sheep in the higher education community it’s probably us because what we do. But the reality is, that the vast majority of students come here because they choose to come here, for a variety of reasons.
So this is a place that’s a first choice, it’s a place of great opportunity. And I think we’re working on the negatives. We did a marketing survey last year where we polled people in both counties. And what we found, which kind of took us by surprise, was that people who haven’t lived here long didn’t know that much about us. So that’s a marketing thing we need to work on; for people who are moving into town we need to let them know that there are community colleges here willing to serve them.
Is the college looking to expand its transfer agreements with other schools, or stick with the pre-existing ones?
We need to first monitor the ones we have and make sure they’re working properly. Four-year colleges change their requirements, and we need to work with the ten to twenty institutions where our students go and make sure that the current pacts we have are still good, still include the right courses. We need to force students to use ARTSYS so that they can themselves see what the transfer opportunities are at other institutions.
But part of it is we just need to maintain our excellent relationship with Rutgers, which is the place that most of our students go. And we have an excellent relationship with them, they’re really good to our students. The Rutgers people say that our students are actually better students in their junior and senior year than the people who started at Rutgers. I think that is a testimony to our faculty.
Are there any improvements coming on the food? That’s probably one of the most frequently complained about issues at the school...
I get both sides. But, you’re right, I would say about 50 percent of the people complain about it and the other half say it’s ok. I just went to a student government meeting and it broke down about that way.
We’re working on it every day, the people from the food service, Chartwells in this case, are eager to hear specific complaints. So if the paper can encourage students to tell Chartwells or tell me or tell Tom Carroll or tell somebody. I mean if you have a bad meal, and you have it again, and it isn’t getting any better, the best thing you can do is complain about it. Let us know, and we’ll work with them about it.
The other things I hear is that it’s too expensive. Well we just did a comparison buying, and for most of the top-selling items, we’re less expensive than any place in the area, item to item. And we checked with the deli, we checked with Quick Chek and Stop and Shop and Wegmans, we checked all that. That study we’ll share with the students.
I get complaints too that it’s not varied enough. That there’s nothing for vegetarians. We can try to do that, but it’s difficult to have that many niches. We really want to see people use the Cyber Cafe more. And we’re trying to develop the hours down there. It’s just a simple place where people can get a soda or a cup of coffee, and a cookie and a hot dog or something. It’s crazy, the cafeteria itself is huge and it isn’t used that much. It’s used from like 11:30 to 1:30 and after that it’s a mausoleum. One of our long-term plans is to take that building and make it two stories of classrooms, and have the cafeteria be someplace else.
Speaking of the Cyber Cafe, that often receives complaints as well. Any improvements on that?
The computers are modern, but it is small. We could expand the space if we thought we had to. The first thing that we could do that would probably make people happy is to have regular hours. It’s just not open as much I’d want. That wasn’t even there two years ago, so we’ve added that. But in those few years we’ve had a huge increase. I mean I see students sitting in hallways, and there’s just no place to sit around here and that’s a real concern.
The whole idea of physical facilities for students, we are addressing all the time. And as we do rehabilitations of buildings we’re trying to create spaces for students. And as we build new buildings like the new finance facility, we try to incorporate into that a nice space for students.
Are there any plans to introduce a study abroad program?
We’ve had an expressed interest to do more of that. We’ve had a small commitment to a thing called Global Visions, which is a course you take that’s directly related to a course you take here. It’s an attempt to understand the whole culture of a community or country compared to the U.S. That’s just been one trip a year.
There’s an opportunity for us to work in a consortium with other colleges to expand that and I’m not sure where we are on that, I’d say it’s not our highest priority. Some institutions have taken that to an art form, at Fairleigh Dickinson to get a Bachelor’s degree, it now requires you to spend at least one semester abroad. I understand why, too. But they also have campuses in Scotland and Greece and France that you can go to (laughs) and we don’t.
What was the last CD you bought? The last book you’ve read? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
The last CD I bought, and it was a CD, I don’t even know what a DVD is...I think I do. But, last Christmas time I bought the Beatles anniversary set as a gift for my wife. We play it all the time. The last book I bought was the new biography on Benjamin Franklin. Prior to that, I read and am still reading Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of the World.”
I read a lot of books. And I’m reading management literature all the time. In addition, I try to play as much golf as I can, I’ve been playing golf since I was 10 so it’s kind of a part of me. I play over here at Fox Hollow, and I play in several charity events every year. My wife plays as well, our vacations are often golf oriented.
The five or six people who work for me can attest, this is a 70 hour a week job. Not that I’m complaining, it’s just a little time consuming. So you try to fit in some time at home and a round of golf or two and you’re out of time.
How can the college improve student involvement?
By constantly encouraging people to get involved. And the way most students get involved in the college is through curriculum clubs. So we’re encouraging more faculty and more department divisions to create those. In the four years I’ve been here, the amount of student involvement has dramatically increased. And I view it as partly being a condition of having all these new people here, a lot of whom are younger. The place has actually gotten younger. When I came here the average age was 31, now it’s 28. So it’s kind of coming down as we get some more younger kids. Mary Sullivan has done a great job in giving people an opportunity to do things, we now have some help for her. In addition to the curriculum clubs, I’d like to see bigger clubs around bigger issues developed. International club is a good example of that. I’m really pleased that the clubs have adopted, a volunteer project. That’s wonderful for the college because it forces the students out in the community and lets them learn about the community and gives the college a good feeling and a good name and gives them a good feeling and a good name.
Is there any short-term solution to the parking situation?
We’re still going to have some students that are unhappy this year because at certain parts of the day the only lot that’s fully available to them is 5 and that’s a bit of a walk. Next year we’re going to have to have a short-term solution when we build the new building. And we’re talking about a temporary lot, a gravel lot, sandlot, something that can be in place so people can park.
Where that’s going to be, I don’t know. We’re talking to the student government about what their preference is. I don’t want to jump the road, I want to stay within the road and I want to have it as close as possible, but that limits my options.
Have there ever been any discussion about a shuttle or something similar?
I haven’t discussed a shuttle. Now if the student government wanted to do that I’m not sure it would pay. It would be interesting. It’s not that far, but I guess what students here lack appreciation for is perspective. Many universities, like Cornell or Rutgers, you don’t get the closest parking. I was just at the University of Maryland down in College Park and you can’t park anywhere near the main building.
So we make it easy,
and for the few people who have to park in lot five, it’s less easy
and they’re upset.
There are two major
things colleges can do about parking. It can create more surface parking,
that’s the least expensive way to go and we do have some land do
that with. Or we might be able to build a parking deck. The problem with
parking decks is, I’ve never seen an attractive one, they tend to
be ugly. And we’ve got a very attractive campus, so I’m not
happy about that.
I think we’ll probably go with surface parking. Whatever we do with the parking will be in tangent with building a second major holding pond, which will probably be between lot two and four. There’s a large area that’s already wet and the county has asked us to consider doing that sometime in the near future.
Do you read The Record? What suggestions do you have for it?
Over the last two
years, I would have liked to have seen it come out more. But, I think
in the editions that did come out there was a real effort to cover a lot
of different things that were of interest to the student. I think being
online is a real hit because more students can have the opportunity to
read it instead of the paper edition. I like the idea that they’re
covering areas of interest to students about college development as well
as other types of things. I’ve very pleased with it, and I think
it’s doing a good job.