Turnaround on campus; WSCC leader earns high marks

Communication was a major issue on campus when Bradley Ebersole was chosen as the next president of Washington State Community College in 2011.

A year later, the school faced difficult financial circumstances brought on by a state-mandated switch from quarters to semesters and changes in federal financial aid, among other factors.

Based on his handling of those situations and the leadership demonstrated in his first 15 months on the job, the college’s board of trustees in December unanimously voted to extend Ebersole’s original two-year contract through June 2015.

“We really wanted to show commitment to stability and support to his quality leadership,” board Chairman Ken Schilling said.

Ebersole, whose annual salary will remain at $150,000 over the additional years of the contract, said he’s grateful for the board’s decision.

“It gives me an opportunity to think about the future in a longer timeframe, and I appreciate their support,” he said.

Enrollment was a major focus for Ebersole upon his arrival in September 2011, with the school seeing an approximately 6 percent drop in enrollment from the fall 2010 quarter’s record level. With the quarters-to-semesters transition, changes in federal aid rules and an improving economy that saw more people heading to the workforce than back to school, a 5 percent enrollment decrease was anticipated for the college’s first-ever semester.

The actual numbers came in around 15.7 percent, leading in September to Ebersole recommending and the board approving mandatory furloughs, the elimination of two administration positions (both individuals hired by Ebersole) and a casual labor job, plus other reorganization changes and the transfer of $300,000 from the college’s reserves. The duration of the furloughs was based on recommendations from an employee survey.

Ebersole described the budget situation in the summer and fall as “challenging” and “tense,” but said he believes there was “a sense of moving forward” once it was resolved.

“I hope that that experience built a sense of trust in that when we do face difficult times, everyone will be involved … and we will make every effort to treat everyone fairly,” he said.

Laura Garcia, associate professor of communication studies and faculty senate president, said she feels Ebersole made an effort “to include us in the why behind the what,” which helped employees buy into the steps taken, even though they obviously weren’t happy with them.

Garcia was part of the search committee that recommended Ebersole for the job, and she said the qualities of looking forward and being inclusive that impressed her about him then have not changed since he’s come to Marietta.

“Being in the loop has never been an issue, and that’s a good thing,” she said.

Ebersole made the leaders of the faculty, professional staff and support staff senates a part of his executive cabinet. He also meets with those leaders regularly and attends their groups’ meetings.

“The intent is to be open and sharing and have everybody included in the governance of this institution,” he said.

In a previous interview, Ebersole said he might not have included the staff leaders in his cabinet had his first community college presidency been at another institution. But he knew that Washington State had been dealing with communication and trust issues between employees and leadership prior to his arrival.

Complaints about previous President Charlotte Hatfield’s leadership style led the board to engage the services of a consultant who recommended training not only for her but also board members and employees. In January 2011, the board approved emotional and organizational trust covenant training, but put those plans on hold after Hatfield announced she was stepping down before her contract was up at the end of the year.

Schilling said last year the training originally recommended was never implemented and the board felt morale had improved. On Friday, he said the board is not going to take the campus culture for granted, pointing to plans for another employee survey in the coming months.

“We’re actually going to work toward getting a pulse, or verification, if you will, but we like the atmosphere we’re seeing around the college,” he said.

Ebersole said he feels the institution’s culture is moving in the right direction, but he wouldn’t claim there’s no room for improvement.

“There’s always work to be done. I’m not about to say we’ve concluded that task,” he said.

John Richardson, instructional systems supervisor and professional staff senate co-chairman, said he can’t say whether the entire campus culture has changed, but he’s pleased with what Ebersole has done.

“I think everybody comes to that decision in their own time,” he said. “For me personally, I felt like I connected with him very early. I feel like I can walk into his office at any time and discuss anything with him.”

Board of Trustees Vice Chairman Larry Holdren said Ebersole has led the effort to improve the atmosphere on campus, but it’s taken the efforts of many to accomplish.

“I think everyone has done a better job of working well together,” he said.

Ebersole said the budget issues forced everyone at the college to focus on how to recover, and those efforts are paying off. Spring semester enrollment numbers will be announced at the Jan. 28 board meeting, but so far, things are looking good.

“We are very close to being even with last fall,” Ebersole said, noting the usual trend is for a college to see a 4 to 6 percent drop in enrollment for the spring. “Consequently, the tone at this institution right now is very positive.”

Also during 2012, the college’s strategic vision, mission, values and areas of focus were revised, along with the Campus Master Plan. The college began to focus more on not only providing access to students, something it’s traditionally done very well, but also on student success, making sure they earn their degrees when they come. Ebersole noted student success will likely be an important component of how public colleges in Ohio are funded going forward.

“As well as doing it for students and it’s the right thing to do, the institution will be funded on its success points,” he said.

The college is also constantly looking at ways to be more efficient and better serve the community. Even as officials consider developing a fire academy and adding a student health and wellness facility with the aid of state funding, lower-performing programs are being reviewed to see whether they should continue.

“I’m glad to be here. I’m very happy to have this job. There are things I want to accomplish at this institution. There’s work to be done,” Ebersole said. “I feel very good about what’s happening at Washington State.”