Profile of Our Interim President:
Dr. Jim Riggs
by Julie Gamberg
(Dr. Riggs, all smiles, expecting greatness from GCC.)
Dr. Jim Riggs does not invite me to sit at the employee side of his large, presidential work desk, but at his office conference table. He sits with his back to the door, giving me the sweeping view of the room. He is punctual for our thirty-minute appointment, yet a full ten minutes go by before I’m able to ask any of my carefully prepared questions about plans, deficits, personnel, and programs; instead, he inquires about my publications and academic interests, and then names other faculty with similar interests. This quality of Dr. Riggs – listening with genuine interest, curiosity, and attentiveness—seems to be not only a personality trait but also a strategy to advance diverse stakeholders toward a shared solution. A lofty goal for a one-year appointment. Dr. Riggs, however, has a plan.
In our short conversation, Dr. Riggs refers to Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha (truth-force), to a report by the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, and to the book Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy by William H. Bergquist (whose ideas about academic administration Dr. Riggs hopes to expand upon in future writing). But what he talks most about is how he can specifically impact GCC in the year he is here and what qualities the next president would need in order to keep the ball rolling.
“The thing about Glendale,” Dr. Riggs says, “is it’s a very good college. Some of the things happening are amazing.” He rattles off programs such as the mathmatics lab, robotics, advanced manufacturing, nursing programs, professional development, language arts, a “robust” program at Garfield, the work happening in conjunction with the Title V grant, as well as a variety of “outstanding instructional programs focusing on cutting edge learning practices, ownership of the college by the community, a strong dedicated support staff, and a very strong foundation. I see all of that,” Dr. Riggs continues, “but I also see it in an environment where we’re overextended financially, so we have to contract, we have to do it wisely, to help people get through this really tough time of reductions and maybe even program eliminations and still help people feel vested, and supported, and supportive of the institution.”
Reaching agreement comes from listening to each other, he says, but also from changing procedure and practice. “There is lots of room for improvement in the operations here – in effectiveness and efficiency,” he says. Dr. Riggs explains that the various stakeholders at GCC all have important ideas and information about the issues the college faces. In learning the perspectives of faculty, staff, and administration, he feels he is able to “work toward not necessarily a compromise, but the best solution.” He does this, he says, by treating his interactions with staff as “peer relationships,” by clearly hearing diverse perspectives, and by keeping problem solving from becoming overly personal.
Dr. Riggs also emphasizes the importance of keeping students at the center of all discussions. “Everything I try to do is to talk about student learning and student development—student success in all of its forms. So everything we have to do has to be tested against that. Of all the bad choices, select the one that’s going to have the least impact on the students of this organization.”
So far, his strategies seem to be making some headway. “I’ve worked with him since the beginning of July,” says Isabelle Saber, Guild President, “and I’m finding him to be a very measured and competent person. He has a lot of experience both in the nuts and bolts of leadership in terms of his knowledge of rules governing higher education, but he also has a very good sense of the more intangible aspects of leadership in terms of how to deal with people.”
Some of the specific goals Dr. Riggs hopes to work toward in his year here are: creating a plan for the Garfield center to make it a more comprehensive institution; looking at plans to match the infrastructure of GCC with the current size of our institution; developing a leadership academy; improving the physical campus; and “optimizing the shared governance process.” Dr. Riggs explains that while it is easy to get bogged down in lengthy governance processes or, the inverse, to push things through too quickly, a balance between the two is possible. One key to this is to make sure all participants understand committees’ responsibilities and boundaries “so they’re not under-delivering or overstepping.”
Dr. Riggs is hopeful that the permanent hire for president will be able to continue this work, as well as build on all of the good things at GCC. “It’s easy, but completely ineffective, to throw everything out and start over,” he says. The person doing this job must possess, foremost, “good change management skills.” Dr. Riggs explains that it is vitally important for the permanent president to “understand how complex organizations work, especially community colleges.” GCC, he says, “is not a place to cut their teeth.” This person should also have a “tolerance for ambiguity, and conflict, and leading the resolution of conflict,” as well as the ability to “step up and address serious issues.” The incoming president also must possess an “in-depth understanding of the teaching/learning experience.” Although Dr. Riggs comes from teaching (albeit with a decade-long hiatus as president of Columbia College), and plans to return to teaching after his stint as GCC President, he knows “folks who came up from the business side who are very successful presidents [because they] really reached out and learned about the faculty side.” At bare minimum, he says, they should do some adjunct work.
Other traits he believes an incoming president will need are political savvy, good community relation skills, good fundraising skills, ethical grounding, and good communication, with an emphasis on listening skills.
Finally, Dr. Riggs feels that GCC needs a president who will stay at the college for the long haul. He believes GCC has suffered for its recent frequent turnover in leadership. “This institution expects and deserves a long-term president.” Dr. Riggs does feel, however, that his one-year tenure holds the singular advantage of being able to work with a simple and clear mandate. “My only goal,” he says, acknowledging the cliché, but pledging the underlying truth, “is to leave the place in better shape than when I found it.”
Reflecting on Dr. Rigg’s tenure, and on the upcoming search for a permanent president, Ms. Saber says, “I think the board has been under the impression that the guild would fight the administration no matter what, and I think this example shows that we don’t oppose presidents unilaterally, we oppose them when they’re unreasonable; when we find someone who listens, we listen as well.”
For more information on Dr. Riggs' background and professional history, please visit his bio.
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