Dr. Darrell Cain is a candidate for Bellevue College president. He grew up in Gary, IN, and is a first-generation college student who currently teaches in the graduate school at University of Maryland Global college and has over 15 years of teaching and research experience. Cain was also the first African American President of Pierce College, Puyallup, and presently serves as Interim President of Everett Community College. As part of the Bellevue College process for electing a new president, he recently answered questions at an Open Forum interview on campus. Questions were also submitted by the Bellevue College community.
Before questions were asked, Cain presented a talk on a given topic: “Over the past several years, the college community has become increasingly divided. As president of Bellevue College, what strategies would you employ to mend the campus culture and bring us together as a community?”
He expressed the importance of repairing the fractured community. “Amidst the pandemic, our communities have become fractured, but it is only through our collective efforts to heal and rebuild that we can emerge stronger and more united than before.” During the talk he also made a point of making the values that he held as a leader clear. These were integrity, empathy, transparency, equity and social justice, all student-focused and people-centered. Cain said that he wanted to make sure students were included in the conversation and referenced his own time as a college student and how much he appreciated it when he was approached about his opinion. Establishing personal connections was also one of his major priorities.
When laying out his steps for creating and fostering an inclusive environment, he explained a three-step plan:
- Establishing group norms and shared governance
- Active listening and listening to diverse perspectives
- Intentional engagement and accountability
He wants to allow people to approach the table “without fear” by setting norms that would foster creative and inclusive environments. He drew a quote from his grandma: “There’s a reason you have two ears and one mouth.” Active listening is a big part of his approach. Cain wants to take an active listening approach by asking productive questions and making sure diverse perspectives are heard so we can “build and grow.”
Intentional engagement refers to “bringing all of our stars and faculty and students to be a part of the conversation” and making sure that all options are heard.
Cain then laid out how he would encourage collaboration and cooperation. He said that he would “establish a common goal such as belonging, create collaborative work teams, establish milestones and indicators and accountability, and lead by example”. Again, he brought up the importance of making sure that all groups have a voice.
To build trust and transparency, Cain wants to “provide updates and share information through multiple mediums, have an open-door policy, and engage formally and informally.” When talking about multiple mediums, he stressed the importance of sharing information in a collaborative environment, and “providing routine ways to share information.” His open door policy means that his door is always open, and he encourages conversation.
As another way to mend the campus community, Cain also said that showing gratitude and celebrating success would be key parts of his strategy. This would include acknowledging others’ work and sacrifice, celebrating successes and milestones, and hosting and supporting engagement events. Meaningful engagement events create social connections. He said that giving back is contagious, and that active participation encourages more active participation.
When asked about his values surrounding shared decision making and ensuring that “shared decision making becomes an institutional practice,” Cain talked about identifying key priorities and drawing ideas from a larger, more representative group.
The next question was, “thinking about campus culture and diversity, how would you transform our campus culture to create a culture that’s welcoming and diverse at all levels from students, faculty, administrators and the board of trustees?” Cain said that it has to be “interwoven into all aspects of what we do.” He said that equity is the “key contributor.” He compared it to a system and said that to create a diverse, welcoming culture, that system had to be integrated into all aspects of the school.
Cain was asked to describe previous experience with student success in the next question. He was asked how he previously worked with staff and faculty to improve student success and access, and how he’d bring about systemic change in the college culture to achieve that. He responded by saying, “We must recognize that if our mission is to improve the quality of access and opportunities for learners, then are we being responsive to that mission?” Cain said that we have to make concentrated decisions to make sure that groups who aren’t thriving can begin to thrive. He discussed the importance of analyzing college data about students to make sure that all groups have the conditions that they need to succeed and talked about his previous experiences in doing this at other colleges.
Cain was then asked by the monitors: “Can you address how can, and should, a community college address anti-blackness?” He responded, “The fact that that’s even a question brings concern. Because it’s really important that no group should feel, or, if the culture does not allow in terms of individuals based on their ethnicity or race, gender, sexual orientation, what have you, then, that takes away in terms of us fulfilling our mission. We’re not being inclusive, but we’re being exclusive.” Cain went on to say that people who felt like this was taking place should have a safe space to share their experiences and stories. He talked about getting to the root, the “why” of the issue and the importance of not only implementing strategies to combat this, but changing the culture. “And if we say that we want to create this inclusive environment, but again, still groups are feeling that they’re excluded, then we’re going to — no matter what strategies — we have to change the culture.”
The follow-up question asked Cain to give an example of systemic change, and specifically how the college needed a systematic plan for recruitment and retention of faculty and staff of color. He was asked to give an example of how he’s achieved this at a previous college. He described a model for cluster hiring. Cain said that he created a page with information of what they believe and what they model, what they brought to the table that’s going to enhance the institution and what they need to be successful in their journey at the campus. He said that to recruit diverse faculty and staff, you need to be true in terms of what you do. From there, Cain said that outreach was important — for example, formalizing partnerships and looking locally at community-based organizations. He also said that at previous colleges, they’d reevaluated their tenure process and made modifications to make sure that all faculty had mentorship and the opportunity to be authentic.
Cain’s next question was about adjunct faculty. He was asked, “How would you work to support and improve job satisfaction for our contingent force, specifically adjunct faculty, and what do you consider to be an appropriate level of contingent labor at Bellevue College?” Cain said that he currently serves as an adjunct faculty member at another college to make sure that he’s staying connected with the field and staying current with what’s meaningful for students. Cain said that he is involved and engaged in ways to improve learning spaces and what challenges students face. He said that adjunct staff should have the same opportunities for training and development and should be included in committees and opportunities to be involved. Adjunct faculty, he said, should be listened to and valued because of their unique and specific knowledge. In terms of adjunct faculty salary, he talked about taking incremental steps toward fair wages and making sure that adjunct faculty members are being compensated and receiving equitable pay.
The monitor’s next question was about sustainability and how Cain would, as campus president, support and elevate the campus community in its efforts to address the issues and impacts of environmental and climate justice on students, faculty, staff and community. He responded by stating that it’s important to be aware of our contributions in terms of sustainable resources. He also talked about sustainability student clubs and events and how they’d previously funded events that could increase awareness about sustainability. An important part of his strategy was leading by example.
During the pandemic, one group of people found out that they learn better online and the other found out that they learn better on campus. Now, both feel like their learning needs are going unmet and that they don’t have enough flexibility. Faculty struggle with providing all choices. Cain was asked how he planned to meet student and faculty needs in this regard. He talked about looking at success rates and understanding learning-style preferences. Sometimes, he said, online learning can be convenient for students but not the best way for them to learn. Cain also mentioned that students, especially those from historically underrepresented groups, could face significant losses from not being in the classroom. This could relate to internships, grants, scholarships and other missed opportunities that could come from not being as involved on the campus. He said that it would require a balanced approach that combines looking at data and helping students become aware of what their learning styles are. Some fields, he said, require in-person learning. “Some things you can do remotely,” he said. “Other things, you can’t.”
The last question was about the mental health of college students and the high rates of mental illness. “What will you do to ensure that all students can comfortably access quality mental health and wellness resources?” Cain called the rates and statistics “really alarming” and noted that the pandemic “highlighted the difficulties that individuals may be enduring in their life.” He said they had to create mechanisms and systems to make sure that there is adequate access to mental health services for all students. He said that if there weren’t adequate resources or counselors, then they could look for opportunities for collaboration in the community. Cain summed up his Open Forum by saying that it’s a combination of developing a plan, making it a priority, and reallocating and redistributing resources.