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HCC's Phillips talks about first two years at helm

HCC's Phillips talks about first two years at helm
Dr. Dianna Phillips, President of Harford Community College talks about her first two years on the job and her hopes and plans for the future of the college. (Matt Button / The Aegis)

With the first day of fall classes less than a week away, Harford Community College President Dianna Phillips is going into what she calls her peak time of the year.

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Phillips, 60, is starting her third year as HCC’s 10th president, a role that calls for developing and maintaining relationships with the officials in the local and state governments that help fund the institution, members of the business and industrial community who want HCC to help train their future workforce, as well as the K-12 schools who will send their students to the community college.

She must foster those relationships in addition to her primary job of leading an institution that serves 8,225 students taking courses for credit and another 10,630 students in continuing education programs. There are also nearly 1,000 full and part-time employees, according to data provided by HCC officials.

“I am learning every day,” Phillips said during an interview on the HCC campus Monday with representatives of The Aegis. “I am heartened by the opportunities that I see; this community has a lot going for it.”

Phillips, a Havre de Grace resident, has a current annual salary of $209,914.

The first day of classes of the fall semester is next Monday, Aug. 27. Convocation, a series of welcoming activities for students and staff, started last Friday.

Many changes

Phillips became HCC’s president in August 2016. She goes into the fall 2018 semester with two new trustees, Judith Holloway and Brian Walker, who were appointed by Hogan and sworn in Aug. 13, plus a new athletic director, Estevan Vasquez, a new vice president for finance and administration, Joseph Harbouk, five new deans and multiple new faculty members.

Phillips acknowledged there has been discomfort with some of the changes she has initiated during her tenure — she met with The Aegis in office space in the campus library she and her aides moved into last September as part of a larger effort to create “heartbeat space” in the center of campus, connecting the president’s office with the center of campus among the library, student center and Maryland Hall.

The president’s office shifted from the Chesapeake Center off of Thomas Run Road as part of a larger initiative to revitalize that 50-year-old building as the “front door” of the campus.

“When they begin to see the results of where our students are going and what is happening with our students, [having] a more efficient and effective and streamlined operation of the campus, I think that makes it better,” Phillips said.

Phillips’ chief of staff and vice president of external affairs Brenda Morrison, who has been an HCC employee since 2006 and has worked for the last three college presidents, said Phillips challenges her staff “to be the absolute best that we can be.”

“There are days where it can be uncomfortable for me, but she challenges us to be the best we can,” Morrison said.

Security concerns

Phillips doesn’t lose sleep over whether everyone on campus like her, but said that worries about the safety and security of all those on campus as well as the security of the college’s information.

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“Safety and security are always things that you worry about, always, first and foremost,” she said.

During the summer of 2017 there was an incident on campus where visitors to community athletic activities held on the HCC fields called Harford County 911 to report seeing someone they thought had a firearm running through the campus.

The report triggered a massive response from police and campus security and a two-hour lockdown of the campus and its buildings, although few students or staff were present. Phillips herself rushed to the campus. No one was ever found.

“As a leader this is a horrifying situation, but it’s gratifying to see the response of the professionals on campus and the Sheriff’s Office off-campus,” she said shortly afterward. “It’s horrifying that we have to respond this way but I couldn’t feel more confident in their professional response across the board.”

“I hope we never have to do this again, I hope we NEVER have to do this again.” she added.

Phillips respects the staff at the college and said she has placed trust in them, saying they are “experienced,” have “good judgment” and “good instincts.”

“I don’t stay awake worrying about that thing that I can’t anticipate, but we talk about how to have good judgment, how to make decisions that are wise, to approach our work with the highest level of integrity,” she said.

“I hope those see us through when the tough times come, because the tough times do come, they do,” Phillips continued. “You have to be equal to the task.”

Helping students achieve

Phillips and Morrison said the state’s new Near Completers and Maryland Community College Promise Scholarships program should help attract more students to HCC, keep them on track to earn their degrees on time and alleviate some of the tuition costs.

The program is a product of legislation approved by the Maryland General Assembly minutes before the end of its 2018 session in April and signed by Gov. Larry Hogan in May. It will take effect during the 2019-20 school year.

The state has set aside $15 million for financial assistance to full-time community college students who are juggling work and family commitments in addition to their studies. Those students also have an income that is too high to qualify for financial assistance for low-income students such as federal Pell Grants.

“For a number of our students who aren’t Pell [grant] eligible, who are out working, this initial College Promise program has great merit,” Phillips said.

The current tuition rates for the fall semester are $129 per-credit hour for students who live in Harford County, $220 for out-of-county students and $310 for out-of-state and international students, according to college data. Consolidated student fees are $25.80 per credit hour, or 20 percent of in-county tuition.

The budget for the current fiscal year, which was approved by the HCC Board of Trustees in June, includes a 2 percent tuition hike. Tuition makes up 42 percent of college revenues, in line with a commitment from HCC officials to hold that amount to 45 percent or less.

But tuition has risen annually since 2010, a situation the past three HCC administrations have attributed to a combination of declining enrollment – in part blamed on the tepid economy, less state funding as a percentage of total revenue and rising operating expenses.

State funding covers 23 percent of revenues, county funding covers 34 percent, and 1 percent comes from “other” sources, according to Morrison and Phillips.

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Enrollment dipped another 7 percent during the fall semester of 2017-18, despite Phillips’ pledge when she became president that she would work to stabilize enrollment and keep students who enter HCC enrolled until they complete their associate of arts degrees.

Morrison said the “College Promise [Scholarships] program would potentially help us with our enrollment.”

Phillips said it costs less than $8,000, including tuition and fees and other expenses such as books and living costs, to earn an AA degree from HCC.

“We are trying to find ways to help our students be fulltime [students],” she said, by providing job opportunities for them on campus or accommodating their schedules if the work off campus. “Our focus is on student success.”

Working with HCPS

Phillips said she “couldn’t be happier with the opportunity to develop a partnership” with Sean Bulson, who is starting his first year as superintendent of Harford County Public Schools.

Phillips was involved in the Board of Education’s search earlier this year that led to the selection of Bulson to succeed Barbara Canavan, who retired in June after 45 years with the school system, the last five as superintendent.

Bulson, who came from the University of North Carolina System, started work July 2 and has spent his first weeks in office learning as much as he can about the school system that serves about 38,000 students, as well as the community that supports it.

Phillips said she has had some lunch meetings with Bulson, and they plan to meet privately once a month. There is a “laundry list” of joint initiatives happening between the community college and Harford County Public Schools, plus the college hired a staffer last fall to serve as a liaison between it and K-12 education entities.

“I’m really confident that we’re going to have a very close and productive relationship,” Phillips said.

About 70 percent of HCPS students who plan to attend college say “may come here” to HCC, based on data compiled from the State of Maryland, Phillips said.

Harford County high school students can take classes at the community college part time. Phillips and Bulson have discussed developing an early college program, through which students can earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree at the same time.

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