Add Richard MacLennan to a crowd of baffled administrators.
MacLennan, the president of North Idaho College, admits he didn’t really grasp President Trump’s message earlier this month.
Trump told a gathering of Republican lawmakers that all two-year colleges should be called “vocational schools.”
“You learn mechanical, you learn bricklaying and carpentry, all of these things,” Trump said, cheerleading for all the workforce skills he intends to promise companies willing to move to the United States.
“We don’t have that very much anymore. And I think the word ‘vocational’ is a much better word than, in many cases, a community college.
“A lot of people don’t know what a community college means or represents.”
Among the people who took immediate exception to Trump’s view of community colleges was Eloy Ortiz Oakley, leader of the largest system of higher education in the nation – California Community Colleges, which boasts 114 campuses and 2.1 million students.
“I reject that,” Ortiz Oakley told the Washington Post about Trump’s vision of two-year institutions. “What happens here affects millions of Americans.
“If people are serious about working to rebuild the middle class, you cannot do that without community colleges.”
As of 2016 (the last year full figures were compiled), there were 6.2 million students enrolled in two-year community colleges — 36 percent of all undergraduates in the nation at that time.
“Being charitable,” NIC’s MacLennan said, “perhaps the president doesn’t have a full and sophisticated understanding of what we really do, and how robust it is.
“Teaching tech and vocational skills is a major part of our mission, no question, and what we’ve done in the past few years proves that.
“But other subjects, the liberal arts and sciences that many of our students will use to go on to four-year schools, they’re simply the other side of the same coin.
“We know now that people leaving with marketable tech skills are far better off by also practicing the ‘soft skills’ — cultural understanding, communication, empathy for others.”
BOTH THREADS are part of NIC’s overall mission, which MacLennan said was to be a “true community college that serves the needs of our community.”
Hammering away at STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) proficiency is fine, as long as alumni headed into the real world have a grounding in — for lack of a better phrase — the humanities.
Google conducted a study of its employees in 2013, looking at hiring and promoting patterns all the way back to the tech giant’s founding in 1998.
When computer scientists Sergey Brin and Larry Page launched Google, they set strict hiring algorithms — hunting for the best computer scientists from the most elite science universities.
Yet when they looked at the massive overview project 15 years later, it turned out that their best and most productive employees were not necessarily the powerhouse scientists.
They were people who could relate, who worked well in teams, who showed empathy to co-workers, who could communicate — in other words, all of those infamous soft skills that Brin and Page originally had dismissed.
Needless to say, Google’s current recruiting algorithms have been adjusted.
“That experience at Google is not such a surprise,” MacLennan said. “There has to be a balance in education.”
Now, if only someone would tack that message to the door of the White House.
Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press.
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