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'It Was A Privilege'

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Washtenaw Community College is now nearly 10 years old, and about to change chief executives for the first time. President David H. Ponitz speaks with pride of Sinclair Community College in Dayton, where he will becqme president on Feb. 1, as "the fastest growing college in Ohio." At the same time, he continúes to discuss WCC with the same enthusiasm, even wonderment, that he expressed when he met for the first time with WCC's Board of Trustees on Sept. 23, 1985, and said "I am here because this appears to be one of the finest challenges in education." "It's still true," he states emphatically. 'Tve had lots of opportunities to move, to four-year universities and into the private sector. Either the timing was not right or the job was not right. I had a choice, when I came to Ann Arbor, of going to a four-year university. I've never doubted that I made the right decisión. This is an exciting place. I really consider myself privileged to have been the charter president." He expresses that feeling most directly when pausing amid comments about curriculum, buildings and long-range planning, to declare: "One of the great things at graduations, one of the great, pleasing things, is a student or parent saying, 'I didn't think I could make it.' I've shaken many a callused hand of a father whose son or daughter was the first generation of the family to complete college. That's a glorious feeling." That experienee is, perhaps, more common at WCC than at the neighboring four-year universities. The community college maintains an open admission policy, meaning the only admission requirements are that an applicant either must be at least 18 years old or have completed high school. WCC's tuition of $12.50 per credit hour for residents of the college's tax district (all but a small northeastern portion of Washtenaw County) hasn't changed in five years. Since the fall of 1965, when WCC drew 1,213 students who attended classes in abandoned buildings near Willow Run, the college has evolved to an institution with 5,200 students enrolled on the still far-from-completed main campus in southeastern Ann Arbor Township and 11 "outreach" centers. "The institution," says Ponitz, "has somewhat captured the imagination of the residents with in the county." "Thev can see that we are trying to keep the faith with those original voters (who approved WCC's creation by 11,109 to 5,085 in 1965). We have a two-year general studies program that can stand on its own feet. I'm very proud that 60 per cent of the students are in occupational courses," Ponitz says. "I remember that when I first came, the highest I could find in traveling, in visiting community colleges, was 50 per cent (in occupational or vocational courses), and I recommended that to the board. Ralph Wenrich (professor of vocational education in the U-M Education School), who was on the original board, said it should, be higher . . . That commitment has been the same since day one. Our TechnicalIndustrial División is our biggest división. This is the only community college in the state (there are 29) wherethat'strue." Ufe as president of WCC has not, of course, been an uninterrupted story of making plans and seeing them smoothly carried out. "Presidents would be less than 1 ful if they didn't report that there are days and weeks excruciating in their 'Presidente would be less than truthful if they didrvt report that there are days and weeks excruciating in their frustration...9 'IT WAS A PRIVILEGE . . . I frustration, periods of disruption," Fonitz observes. ' ín May, 1969, a resolution declaring that "the faculty of WCC unanimously express a vote of no confidence" in Ponitz was approved at a meeting! atlended by 63 of the 82 members the WCC Ëducation Association had "át that time. The resolution charged Ponitz with "inability to solve acute and aggravated problems on the campus, chief among them being the problems of our black students in achieving their rightful place in the academie community, but including nis lack of support for the academie standards of the college, his refusal to provide adequate handling of student and faculty personnel records, over-extension of the college for tax monies available, and inept day-to-day management of the college." In response, WCC's Board of Trustees issued a statement "unanimously reaffirming its continued support of the college's president, Dr. David H. Ponitz." And John Tigner, then leader of the WCC Black Students Union, said "the administration and the board have said 'yes' to our demands. We don't appreciate the association using us." In retrospect, Ponitz comments that, "They picked an issue they thought black students and faculty would rally around. It was an issue that wouldn't hold, quite simply because it wasn't true. "This college has done as much for minorities as any college in the country, possibly more. Like any institution, we have to remind ourselves there is much to do, but we've done a lot. We have always had 15 to 20 per cent minority people among our professional staff. Enrollment has been 15 to 16 per cent minority people since we started. "About 50 per cent of Michigan community college presidents were censured i by the faculties in those years (the late '60s). It's no distinction. It was an effort to separate presidents f rom boards. In this state, collective bargaining is a I rough and tumble affair. A president I takes a lot of fire." Some 96 per cent of WCC's staff, all I but the top administrators and a few key laides, have been organized in four unlions since shortly after the college lopened. By way of explanation, Ponitz I says simply "it was the thing to do, partI ly because so many of our faculty carne Ifrom school systems where they were lused to collective bargaining situations." I A more basic reason, he suggests, is that "fuzzy" aspects of Michigan's labor I laws, with "so much determined by state I arbitrators and court rulings," have "led I to a lot of insecurity among boards and I faculties." In Ohio, unlike Michigan, state laws do not recognize a right of public employés I to organize for collective bargaining, alI though such a proposal is before the legislators in Columbus. Does Ponitz' I impending move to Dayton reflect a erence for a college without unions? "Not really," he replies. "Presidents have to recognize reality and what life is, although you try to improve it. I think I can work with a faculty in either a collective bargaining situation or the collegial process. It's my judgment that quality people can perform in either way." Collective bargaining, he observes, 'changes the whole style of getting things done, but the real point is to make sure it is not an adversary situation. It takes a great deal of maturity o the part of the board, the president, and the 'aculty to keep that f rom happening. "One of the things that's changed for me," he adds, "is that in getting a colege started, we literally worked 24 hours a day sometimes. The board and president had a very high profile ... I think if you're going to survive in a collective bargaining situation, the real key is to move to a low profile and make a less obvious target. "I have a real objection to the cult of personality, the pictures of presidents reeting students that you see all through some college publications." Ponitz emphasizes his view that "there are a lot of superstars in this institution that have made this institution go," adding that he means various faculty members, "trustees who have known thé difference between policy and administration, some highly outstanding administrators, 500 members on outstanding advisory committees." (The advisory commjttees are voluntary groups of local specialists in a wide range of work who advise WCC on occupational curriculum needs.) "My style," Ponitz adds, "is to work about 80 hours a week on behalf of this institution, including trips to Lansing." He is quick to point out, however, that "three of the first four executive officers are still here," referring to himself, Dean of General Studies John P. Wooden, and Administrative Dean David S. Pollock, who will become WCC's acting president Feb. 1. The,fourth, Leiand B. Luchsinger, served as Ponitz' executive assistant until leaving in 1968 to become president of the Denver Commünity College System. "By and large, we've always used the ' team concept," Ponitz continúes. "I don't like to pigeon-hole an administrator. I'm a firm believer in what I cali the leg-over-the-arm-of-the-chair adm i n istration. You talk over a course of action before it becomes a problem, rather than getting things structured so closely people feel 'only this' is my area of responsibility'. When I hire someone here I'm pretty sure he or she in three years still won't know everything about the job. The thing I ask is whether they're a quick study, able to size up situations f ast." The explanation for Ponitz' reference to frequent trips to Lansing on behalf of WCC is that Michigan's commünity colleges, unlike some of the universities, do not maintain full-time lobbyistsincön tact with the Legislature and the governor's staff. "You're looking at him," Ponitz says whenever the subject of a WCC lobbyist in Lansing arises. The position has not been quite as informal as nis comment may make it sound. When the Michigan Council of Community College Administrators was formed in the mid-1960s, Ponitz was elected twice as its vice president, and as president in 1969-70. In 1970, he was elected as the first president of the successor organization, the Michigan Community College Association. "I take some amount of pride in that organization," Ponitz comments. "It's one of the largest groups of its kind in the country. It has done a great deal to solve problems. Urban, rural, large and small community colleges can agree on more than universities can." Ponitz is quick to point out that not all the credit for successes by the colleges in the distribution of state aid, and more recently, in the matter of designing community college districts for the entire state, belongs directly to the association. "Every state legislator," he observes, "has at least one community college to look out for. And every community college student is a voter." Not all of Ponitz' efforts in Lansing are conducted for the MCCA members as a group. Glancing from his office window to where work is proceeding below on a library-classroom-office building (Learning Materials Center), which will be WCC's largest building, he remarks: "A successful college president is one who likes to get things done. This building is of key importance, a most important building for the students, and it is several years behind. It was designed five or six years ago. I worked very hard with a number of legislators on getting this through. I'm very thankful that we did. With the economie situation, it might not have been approved for several years if it hadn't been started this year." He stresses that the significance of the building now under construction, aside from the fact that it will provide 37 additional classrooms and a permanent locatioti for WCC's library, administrative offices and Tood-service courses, is that its cafetería and lounges will provide central meeting places where students and staff can meet informally. This aspect of college life has so far been available at WCC mainly in unattractive "temporary" structures. Speaking in more general terms of WCC's campus, where the only permanent structures completed so far are the power plant, the TechnicalIndustrial and Exact Science buildings, Ponitz says "We built this campus backward, the laboratory facilities first. If you don't (OVER PLEAÜE) Iï WAS A PRIVILEGE . . .' have a good lab, you really can't provide quality education.'J There also has been cooperation, of which Ponitz is particularly proud, between WCC and the U-M. "Bob Fleming and I have worked hard for cooperation between a world university and a fledgling community college," he observes adding "it may take two or three years" to gain wide participation in a program, started a year ago, through which WCC offers to set up evening sections of classes in a wide range of subjects, such as photography and drafting, for U-M students. These examples of WCC's willingness to experiment with curriculum illustrate why the college's trustees and administrators have periodically been at odds with the State Board of Education, particularly when that agency has asserted - unsuccessfully - an authority to prove or reject new conege courses. Of the state board's members, Ponitz declares, "I have the highest respect for them individually. But we think they should be helping more and controlling less. "Once you have control at a level higher than the people who are providing the lion's share of the funding, the local taxpayers, well, that is one of the worst things that could happen. "We were one of the few colleges that had black studies, that had a day care center, way back. The local board saw these as important. If-we'd had to wait for approval from the state, we'd probably never have had it. The fallacy is that ultimately there'd be greater efficiency if things were more centralized. If there's going to be slippage, I'd rather have it happen here and let the local people get af ter the college." Requests from local students and tential students, Pontiz emphasizes, have been the main factor in WCC's development of "outreach" courses in locations ranging from Chelsea High School to the Federal Correctional Institution at Milán I to downtown Ypsilanti, where approximately 10 WCC classes, and counseling, are to be offered in a leased building beginning next semester. He expects WCC's off -campus curriculum to "grow substantially" in coming years, chiefly in general studies, with courses requiring sophisticated heavy equipment necessarily remaining mostly at the main campus. "We've got to have courage to start new programs, and to stop them," according to demand from both students and local employers, he adds. Courses have been stopped, he notes, citing past offerings in agro-business, metallurgy, training for librarytechnicians, and aircraft mechanics for Willow Run. "Both young and old are saying 'Give us meaningful laboratory experiences in aD courses. Use the community. Those in the 'Golden Eagle' program, which is now getting started (offering courses tuition-free for retired persons at age 55 and for all, retired or not, at 60) are saying 'Don't just give us meet-your-maker type classes. We want classes in everything," Ponitz says. "I think the pool of traditional students (those of immediate post-high school age) will drop. The new clientèle will grow because of the requirements of industry that we all be better trained, and also because of human curiosity." fOnce you have control at a level higher than the people who are providing the lion's share of the funding . . . welL that is one of the worst things that could happen.9