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Third finalist visits Northwest College

Jon Connolly visited the Northwest College campus last week as the third — and last — finalist to make his bid for NWC president.

Connolly is vice president of academic affairs at the Northern Wyoming Community College District, consisting of Sheridan and Gillette colleges, where he has worked for six years. He also served as interim college president there for several months during his second year with the district.

As with previous candidates, Connolly’s two-day agenda at Northwest College included a public reception on Wednesday, where he met members of the college community and the public, and a public presentation on Thursday.

Connolly said he came to Northwest seeking an opportunity to lead a community college and still live in Wyoming.

“I don’t want to be a president just anywhere,” he said during a telephone interview. “Joanie and I have just fallen in love with Wyoming.”

Another draw, he said, was the residential life offered to students at Northwest, which he said is the strongest of any Wyoming community college.

“That’s very appealing,” he said. “Because of that very collegial residential environment, you can build a strong academic environment.”

Connolly said he previously worked at Lone Star Community College in northeast Houston, Texas, which has 8,000 students.

“It had no residential life at all,” he said. “It is a commuter community college, and its character is very different. You just can’t build the sort of academic environment there like you can at Northwest.”

During his presentation, Connolly said, Northwest College “delivers a complete package, and it does it very well. It has a very good reputation around the state.”

Connolly said he believes he is a good match for the college as well.

“I have found Northwest College to be absolutely clear about what they want,” he said during the interview.

Shared governance is high among the college’s priorities, and among his own, he said.

“Shared governance is among the most important traditions in the academy,” whether in a university or a community college setting, he said. “It’s an essential element of academic freedom to have shared governance. It allows members of the organization to have a voice. Therefore, for one thing, you end up with better decisions.”

However, Connolly added, “Not all decisions are reached by consensus, and consensus is not necessarily shared governance.

“Sometimes, when a committee makes a recommendation, that becomes a de facto decision. But it depends on the kind of decision. There are some decisions that are inappropriate for shared governance. Those are the decisions that come to me, and I don’t have any difficulty making those decisions.”

During his presentation, Connolly stressed that shared governance is not possible without mutual trust.

“When someone says something, do they really mean what they say?” he said. “The president is not helpless here. The president sets the tone,” and that cascades down from level to level.

“You really need to provide opportunities for people to communicate, to say their piece, that their voice really matters — you don’t just pretend that it matters.”

A common barrier to communication takes place when people come to the brink of an issue, then back off because they’re hesitant to get to the heart of a contentious issue, Connolly said.

“Northwest College and other colleges that have this concern need to just plow through and have those conversations,” he said. “Northwest College has the maturity to do that.”

Even if resulting decisions don’t go in the direction some people want, as long as they have a chance to plug in their opinion and are listened to with respect, “I don’t feel bullied and I don’t feel disrespected,” he said. “We make it through to the other side, and it’s OK.”

An essential requirement for that to happen, he said, is a belief that it is possible.

“If you go into this game thinking, ‘I’ve heard this before, and I don’t believe it is possible,’ you’ve defeated yourself right there.

“I believe it is,” he added. “It can be done.”

Once decisions are made, “stick to the decisions, stick to the rules,” he added.

When planning for facilities, it is important to consider today’s needs while also looking toward the future.

“Keep in mind what you need now and plan for the 50 years from now,” he said.

Connolly said he has experience working with community leaders at local and state levels.

“The president needs to know their place; humility is entirely called for,” he said. “But you need to get to know the important people with the sharp elbows” — the “heavy hitters” in the community who provide external influence.

“What you can’t do,” he said, “is say, ‘I heard this person say this, and this other person agrees with them, therefore, they think the same way.’ You can’t assume that. The logic that got them there might not have taken the same path.”

Connolly, a biologist and a self-described “geek,” said he also is an extrovert.

“I, frankly, draw energy from people,” he said. “This is the kind of work I love. You’ve got to love the people you’re with, and you’ve got to love the place you’re at.”

Northwest College is such a place, he said.

“To me, the way people choose to talk about themselves, the issues of the college and the challenges they face, speaks a lot about the college culture. That is a sign of great health, and the kind of place (where) I want to be.”

Board to decide soon

Candidates who previously visited campus were Stefani Hicswa, president of Miles Community College in Miles City, Mont., and Debra Thatcher, vice president of academic affairs at State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill.

The NWC Board of Trustees interviewed each finalist after his or her presentation. The board met in executive session Monday to discuss the presidential finalists and contract terms.

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