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New leader guides college’s future

When Anne Kress became president of Monroe Community College in June, the reception was far different from what she received after her last promotion. 

As soon as her name was announced by the MCC board of trustees as the candidate for president-and before the final vote-she received a standing ovation. There was a second standing ovation when she entered the room after the trustees had voted unanimously to appoint her, most of them shouting in unison to second the nomination. 

It was much warmer than when she took over as vice president of academic affairs at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla. She had been thrust into the position overnight after the departure of her predecessor, which was abrupt and public and caused upheaval among faculty and staff members. 

She treated the situation there with a dose of inclusiveness, scheduling a series of forums to discuss strategies for getting the college back on track and letting stakeholders air their concerns. Though her transition into the MCC presidency has been much smoother, Kress says she plans to take the same approach and vows openness as she tackles the college’s growth plans. 

The college has an annual budget of $112 million with 317 full-time faculty members and 590 part-time. Its enrollment for fall 2008 was 18,114, with a total combined credit and non-credit enrollment of 35,223. Enrollment is expected to rise again for the coming school year, MCC officials say, exceeding last year’s record numbers partly because of the uncertain economic conditions. 

Kress, 46, steps in at MCC at a time when there is much to discuss. Plans for a downtown campus at Renaissance Square fell apart just days after she took office, opening the door for new talks about where to put a downtown facility and how it will be constructed. Kress thinks the time is perfect for MCC to be bold. 

"In talking with every department this fall, I want to ask if there is something they really wanted to try but haven’t been able to," she says. "Every culture has risk and reward, and sometimes we need to have more risk taking than we do. Community colleges started as very risk-taking ventures back in the day, but I think over time they lost that culture."

Goals 
Moving to New York, Kress says, she has been struck by how many times she has heard the phrase "three men in a room" to describe policy making. Aside from the initial observation of a woman who rose to the apex of an industry traditionally controlled by men-"Why does it always have to be three men in a room?"-Kress also notes that too often academic decisions are made under similar circumstances. 

At MCC, she vows to open the process, continuing her "Ask Anne Anything" series, which began at Santa Fe, and inviting more voices into the decision-making process.  

"Everyone talks about transparency like it’s some magic word," Kress says. "I don’t think it’s a magic word, but I do think we need to strive for people to understand the decision that we’re making, and the only way is to see the process all the way through." 

Listening is how Kress has spent much of her first months at MCC. She says that in talking with people within the college and in the community, the same issues keep coming up-how MCC can promote economic and work force development, partnering with the community better and steering more students into technical fields. 

The last point will be a particular focus among other larger initiatives, Kress says. The college is overflowing with applicants for programs in health care while a growing number of jobs in technical fields go unfilled, she says. 

But one of the biggest and most consistent issues is what will happen in the wake of the death of Renaissance Square. The debate is at times sticky, but Kress says she is eager to jump in. 

"I don’t know if it says something about the academic culture, but I feel completely comfortable in these sorts of discussions," she says. 

Kress hopes the deliberations about a downtown campus for MCC will focus on the unique needs of students at the Damon City Campus. 

"When you look at a campus in an urban setting, you ask what cultures that campus serves," Kress says. "If you have a lot of displaced workers, they’re not going to be your traditional students. Some of the programming that is on the Brighton campus might not work down there, but then how do you design a facility that would promote those kinds of programs? Those are all exciting questions to answer, and we all have to do our due diligence and provide informed responses to the questions." 

Looking for a fresh perspective on the downtown campus will be important, she says, because much has changed since the original plans for Renaissance Square were drawn up. For example, few could have predicted 10 years ago that green technologies would be a national obsession, she says. Her goal is to be flexible and responsive to the community’s changing needs, so the ability to start a new discussion is a positive thing, Kress says. 

Terrill Tugel, former Faculty Senate president and a member of the search committee that selected Kress as a candidate, says she does not see the new president as a leader wary of making difficult decisions early in her tenure. Tugel notes that Kress has shown a knack for finding simple solutions to issues that otherwise lingered. 

"Sometimes there are problems we’re facing where the solutions have become more and more convoluted," Tugel says. "There were a couple of issues she looked at and said, ‘Why are you even approaching it this way?’ They were things we had looked at and struggled with for so long, and she just came up with solutions that were so logical."

Coming to MCC 
As Kress will admit, she was an unlikely candidate for the job at MCC. Happy in her position as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Santa Fe Community College, she had no intention of moving elsewhere or seeking a promotion to college president. 

After an unsolicited contact by a search consultant for MCC, Kress remained hesitant. 

"I thought, ‘Wow, it was such an honor, but I’m really happy where I am,’ but he asked if he could just talk to me," she says. "After talking to him I thought, ‘It might be crazy and I will never become president, but it will be a great experience to go through and I would love to become president at MCC.’" 

Once she was in the process, Kress had significant backing. She came recommended by Lawrence Tyree, picked to serve as interim president at MCC after trustees failed to select a permanent president during a 2008 search roiled by allegations of political tampering. For 11 years Tyree had served as president at Santa Fe; the campus library bears his name. 

Kress had gained familiarity with MCC through her work with the League for Innovation at Community Colleges, for which she was Santa Fe’s representative. Through the league she visited MCC’s campus and gained respect for its programs, described at league meetings. 

Looking even farther back, to the starting point of her career, higher education seemed an unlikely path for Kress. After graduating from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in finance, she circulated her resume among banks and other financial institutions. She found most banks were looking for loan salespeople, and while she hoped for something a little different, what she really needed was a job. 

After finishing in the top two or three candidates for a string of jobs, it looked to Kress as if her opportunity finally had come when the president of a bank asked her into his office at the conclusion of a daylong interview. 

"I thought this was it," Kress recalls. "Here I was in my little 1980s suit and my bow tie, and when I sat down he said, ‘Young lady, I want to talk to you.’ It didn’t seem like it was going well, but I stayed positive and had a smile. 

"He said, ‘I’m not going to give you information you want to hear. I’m not going to hire you, but I’m going to tell you why. When we hire people, we invest a lot of money with them, and I’ve seen you and interacted with you the whole day, and I can see that you’re bright and would do a great job, but you’re not going to stay here because this isn’t what you want to do.’" 

He was right, and Kress knew it. The incident caused her to return to college, quickly complete a bachelor of arts degree in English and go on to graduate school. 

There, another strong-willed mentor helped cement her career path. A professor and English department chairman, whom Kress describes as a bit tyrannical, noticed that she rarely spoke up in class and paired her with a faculty member to become a teacher’s assistant. It was there she discovered her love of teaching.

Rise through SFCC 
Kress started her career at the University of Florida but soon moved to a part-time teaching position at Santa Fe. From there she took a full-time position and later became chairwoman of the English department, all the while becoming more attached to the inclusive mission of community colleges. 

"When I was a TA at the University of Florida, it had a very traditional, student-age, homogenous population," Kress says. "Community college was completely different. I would have class with someone who was a dual-enrolled 16-year-old, a 45-year-old mom, someone enlisted in the Army-just the whole spectrum." 

As a first-generation college graduate, Kress says she always has had an affinity for the open access that community colleges provide. Her father attended Waukee Institute of Technology in Milwaukee and got a certificate to be a draftsman, which Kress says greatly changed his career trajectory. 

Being able to progress from the bottom rung of the academic spectrum to vice president of academic affairs also had particular advantages in forming her approach to management, Kress says. "When I went back and got my doctorate in higher education administration, it was an eye-opening experience to be in the classroom with folks who had never worked in the field and had some theories about how things should work," she says. "It was interesting to be able to come back later with all the practice I’d had and look at the theory. 

"I could see where the theories would work and where they wouldn’t work, and I could also see the very real need community colleges across the country have for leaders who could combine practice and theory, so they could have both trains running along. There will be times the theory gets you to a place you never thought of before, but the practice balances out how you get people to that place." 

Kress had no problem tackling the pragmatic issues at Santa Fe. President Jackson Sasser recalls a bizarre time when faculty members’ contracts lasted 10 months, jeopardizing the summer grad school work they normally did. In the hands of a less capable leader, it could have been a difficult situation, but Kress handled it deftly, he recalled, and negotiated for nine-month contracts instead. 

"With her, I had one of those rare moments to see someone develop with unlimited ability," Sasser says. "What she literally did was transform our college to one with an international perspective, brought in a whole area of biotech and nanotech under her leadership, and developed a business incubator. In the past four years, almost every positive thing that occurred at this college, her hand touched." 

While she might be leading the discussions at MCC, Kress herself takes a step back from the spotlight. She says she has been uneasy about the newfound attention she receives at Target or on trips with her family, though she does note that everyone has great things to say about the college. Kress also demurs when it is suggested that the standing ovation was simply for her, even though she earned glowing reviews from faculty and staff members during her preliminary visits. 

Tugel disagrees. She says a faculty fractured by the first search process was able to coalesce around Kress and her potential for leading MCC. 

"Many of them were vocal about the process last year and cynical about the board of trustees, but they have met her and all say how much they love her," Tugel says. 

Owing to the warm welcome she has received, Kress says she has grown accustomed to the area in just a short time. Her family found a home in Brighton and, Kress says, spent the summer taking advantage of a potpourri of local offerings-Strong National Museum of Play, a slew of outdoor festivals, golf. As a former Florida resident, she says, it is refreshing to be able to engage in summer activities that do not involve being indoors with air conditioning, and her two children are excited about skiing and snowboarding once winter arrives. 

Her children even attended MCC’s Summer College for Kids, which led to one of her first insights about MCC-and one of her first encounters with the limitations of her office. "The kids gave me a whole new perspective: 

The pool apparently is too cold," Kress says. "That’s what I was requested to fix, but I don’t have that authority."

Anne Kress

Position: President, Monroe Community College
Age: 46
Education: B.S., finance, University of Florida, 1985; B.A., English, University of Florida, 1987; M.A.,
English, University of Florida, 1989; Ph.D., higher education administration, University of Florida, 2007
Family: Husband Ned Davis; daughter Harper, 7; son Penn, 6
Residence: Brighton
Activities: Spending time with family, quilting, reading, baking, golf
Quote: "Everyone talks about transparency like it’s some magic word. I don’t think it’s a magic word, but I
do think we need to strive for people to understand the decision that we’re making, and the only way is to
see the process all the way through."  

rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

 

09/04/09 (C) Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303.

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