Interview with Dr. Tod A. Burnett

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Dr. Tod A. Burnett: A Man Who Makes a Difference

Dr. Tod A. Burnett

(L&L) Could you talk a little bit about the unique qualities of and challenges facing community colleges?

(Dr. Tod A. Burnett): Besides being the president of Saddleback Community College, I’m on the board of Brandman University, which is an offshoot of Chapman University, part of the Chapman University System. They are going through accreditation in their School of Education in their doctoral program, which I helped with in an advisory capacity, and I’m teaching at as well. They had to start somewhere and I think, for [the college you’ve written about in L&L Magazine] The WEU it’s certainly doable, but whenever you bring in the private sector, students are going to be skeptical. It’s the chicken and the egg thing.

While the goal of free online education is noble, it’s never going to replace the human interaction of the classroom, and it’s harder to teach online than in a classroom. On a side note, I think you should definitely reach out to Gary Brahm, the president of Brandman University. They are really doing everything right, being very innovative moving forward. That’s why they split them off. Chapman is the typical four-year institution. Brandman is being innovative in the way they deliver education.

(L&L) Do you think that some students these days are reluctant to go to college, because of the high cost? They fear that they will take on a debt that they won’t be able to repay once they get out, because there won’t be a job for their degree when they get it.

(Dr. Tod A. Burnett): Yes, and that’s sad. That’s where the community college comes in, because we need to turn that around. We need to redefine what education is, what it means to have an advanced degree. We know that for a student to say, “I’m not going to go to school because there’s not going to be a job,” that’s absolutely not true. Even if you take the most under-employed degree there is, it will help you one way or the other in your career, whatever job you want to do.

Getting back to the original question, I think that WEU should be contacting the President, who has said that we need to make school affordable, relevant etc., well, there’s a perfect model. They should contact him right away and say, “Mr. President, we want to offer education for free. Can you help us?” Seriously. I do give credit to anybody, especially elected officials for thinking out of the box, or trying to take action, making education an important issue and having the dialogue. The problem is in execution. Unfortunately, the way our society is today, whether culturally, socially, definitely politically we tend to gravitate toward—I don’t want to say the lowest common denominator—I want to think of how to say this right. I’m going to coin a phrase here–the individual oppression. It used to be, back in our history that we wanted to protect the minority from majority oppression. Now it’s no longer about the minority being oppressed, it’s about the individual being oppressed. I use the term loosely. It could be related to a very small group of people also, or just an individual. When we are making decisions, we are not going to get anything done if we are going to try and appease. satisfy every small group or individual. It’s impossible. We have 35 million people, just in California alone, not to mention 250 million in the nation. How in the heck do you do something that doesn’t offend somebody, or isn’t in the best interest of one person against another when it comes to public policy? It’s impossible. So, what happens is that there are stalemates. The press, the media and even the public places it all on our wonderful two party system. How our country can all of sudden be divided up into two camps is beyond me. We’re the most diverse country in the world, and everybody is suddenly a Republican or a Democrat? I guess there is a third party, the Independents, but even at that, how can there be three? This is just the front of the opposition and problems that everybody focuses on. The real issue is that we don’t say no to anybody. If we don’t say no to anybody, then we don’t get anything done. So, things stifle.

(L&L) And, yet that’s the core of community college.

(Dr. Tod A. Burnett): Yes and no. How we have to operate under that structure, we have that problem, we have to navigate it all the time, but we’re also the solution because we provide an opportunity for everybody. We were talking about the value of a degree of higher education. There is something for everybody. Anyone who thinks that education ends at high school is completely false, and incorrect. They are doing themselves a big disservice. They may not need to go to some liberal arts college and get a degree; I agree with that.

Have you heard about studies in disruptive innovation? Bob Bramucci, he is our vice chancellor of technology and he does a wonderful presentation on this. You may want to do an article on both disruptive innovation and Bob Bramucci. He’s brilliant. The concept of disruptive innovation says that things are going to change rapidly, dramatically, and they need to change. That’s what’s happening in education. Within that–and he gives you all the studies and background on this—we have to ask, “Who is going to survive in higher education and who is not?” The Harvards, USCs, Stanfords, the top 100 institutions of the world will be fine. The community colleges, the trade schools and technical schools are also going to be doing pretty good. They are positioned well, but it’s the colleges in the middle, the liberal arts colleges, some of the state colleges one might argue, the middle of the road colleges are the ones which are already showing decreases. What it comes down to is that you have to show what your value is in the education and training that you have. We either have to change our institutions to keep up with these environmental, social, cultural, physical, political changes or we’ll be left behind. We’ll become obsolete, or scale down to become almost irrelevant. That, in a nutshell is what’s going on.

So, when we talk about degrees, we need to take that into account. I am passionate about community colleges, because we are the most comprehensive. This week we are sending out a press release on what we call, The High School Partnership Program. This is a comprehensive program to help students at an early age. I love the term, K-through-Career. It needs to be seamless, and a pathway all the way from kindergarten and preschool. With that, we’ll get to your common core, that’s exactly it. We keep focusing on common core, math and English preparedness, which is very important for the common core, but we need to think about the bigger picture and the holistic method of getting students to be good citizens, to have the work skills that they need. When we talk to the business community, for instance, we are hearing them say, “Yes, we need them to know math and English. We completely agree, but we need them to have analytical skills, critical thinking, communication skills. How do you work in a team? How do you come to work and dress properly? What’s proper etiquette? When I went to school, I was in the Boy Scouts, team athletics. I studied fine arts. I was in student government. Our college did activities. We were all active in PTA and our parents were involved. Our communities were involved, and it all happened naturally. Now, we’ve gotten rid of it all. Not only have we gotten rid of it in our educational process and what’s important, but we focus so heavily now on grades and, we’ll call it Back To The Common Core that we’ve lost sight of all these other skills that are important. Then, of course there are also environmental changes, the new technology changes.

We laugh about video games. I was a TV generation, so they said it about us too. We seemed to be o.k. with TV, because what we did was all sit around and watch TV together. With video games you don’t have to. With texting and everything, this is the most knowledgeable, the most worldly, the most skilled, in a way, generation of all time, yet the most disconnected. Isn’t that odd? They don’t have the basic skills—and I’m not talking about English and math only. I’m talking about communication, interaction, people and governance. With Generation Y, the Millenials, we’re having a hard time finding students who want to be leaders.

With all the leadership training, with all the stuff we talk about, we’re finding for whatever reason that young people are not stepping forward and being leaders. Part of that is the herd mentality. They’re in groups, together and they’re online and texting, but they are not ever out there alone. They have to be with the group. Today is 9/11 and it is said that mentality has to do with an insecurity that was instilled at that time. They are also the generation that has parents who have done everything for them.

(L&L Magazine) How has 9/11 changed education, in your opinion? Or, has it had an effect?

(Dr. Tod A. Burnett): I don’t know if it has had a direct impact. It’s had an indirect impact, but that’s for all of society. Other than we now mark the day with ceremony, as we are doing to honor the first responders here today, I think it’s had only a generational impact, as I was saying. These students have been brought up having to go through an airport search, and increased security measures, things we didn’t have when we were kids. They also have parents who are perhaps, understandably so, more concerned about safety, and connected, and hovering perhaps, and even doing things for them, that this generation may have lost a little bit of their independence. I have nieces and nephews, and they are great, but they have that missing component of taking leadership, taking action, taking initiative, and feeling they can make a difference. It’s really gotten lost. That’s one thing I love about the Baby Boomer generation. We’re all the idealists. We’re now older and tired, and the Gen X completely rejected that. The younger folks want to, but they don’t know how, and they are a little bit skeptical.

(L&L Magazine): Maybe they are little bit afraid to step out because of things like Facebook and YouTube. Everything they do is seen. We all had peer pressure, but we never had that kind of peer pressure.

(Dr. Tod Burnett): No, you can’t say anything in a safe environment, because everybody knows. Everybody knows everything. When you say something, the world knows. As a college president, we’ve always had that, but it’s a good point you bring up. Everyone is a little more timid at the higher levels. The funny thing is that the people who are in those higher levels are less timid, because they have a platform now.

(L&L Magazine): How else is it different now?

(Dr. Tod Burnett): It appears to be all about the individual, but we did have the Me Generation of the seventies. That was a little bit different culturally though, because that was individuals thinking, “You know what? Instead of family, the government and our country, we’re going to think about us a little bit. We’re going to get healthy. We’re going to do what we want to do, know independence. That was kind of the movement then, Women’s Liberation and all that. That was different. Now it’s all about the I.

(L&L Magazine): Have we become more selfish?

(Dr. Tod Burnett): It’s not selfish. It’s how we respond. Everybody should have a right to say and do what they want to do. That’s our country of freedoms. It’s how we respond to that. Once you say or do something, it becomes about how you respond to it. We might have something that will benefit a large majority, but because a few don’t like it, we might sit tight and do nothing.

Getting back to the community college, and one of the reasons I’m so passionate about it is that I believe that community colleges are the perfect model of flexibility, of its mission, of how it is set up, being open access, being more affordable, being in every community, and being comprehensive. Saddleback College is a comprehensive college. What we men by that is we have 360 degrees of certificates. We do everything from the sciences to transfers, and all the CTE programs, everything from nursing to auto tech, to human services, to child development. We have 100 CTE programs, and we do all the arts, athletics. We do everything. We have something for everybody. I will challenge every single person in high school to at least try a community college class, either after or now while they are attending college. I don’t care what you want to do, go in the military, go on a missionary, they want to start a business, or they want to go directly into the workforce. We have something here that is going to help them. We are here to be the focal point, to work with the high school, the parents. That’s what this program does. It doesn’t matter if a student doesn’t come to Saddleback, as long as they go somewhere and do something.
The issue about education is that we often sell the illusion, but it doesn’t have to be, but it is, of Harvard, Berkeley, USC, UCLA, Stanford, and Cal Tech etc., but less than 1% of the population is going to those programs. That’s not what we should be selling our students. We should tell them, “Guess what? You can go and be a mechanic—which, by the way makes more money than many jobs that require a bachelors—and there are so many great jobs and careers out there that are needed. In Orange County and the rest of the country there are jobs available for which we don’t have a trained workforce.
Business and Industry, non-profit and government hire and provide wages for folks. What is the type of training they need? What can we then provide to our students for them to be successful? There needs to be that closer connection. Education has expanded so much, but how much is really connected to what is needed?
We’ve always had a shortage of engineers. Why aren’t we putting everything we have into engineering? We had a shortage of nurses and both governors and everybody comes forward and look, we’ve been successful with that for the most part. Why don’t we do that with all the other sectors that we need?
We don’t need more professional athletes or actors. If people want to do that, they should follow their passion. I’m all for it, but a lot of times those passions are developed because that’s what we’ve glamorized.
I have a nephew who, right now wants to be an actor. I’m very supportive, but right away I think there are a lot of other things that he could do. I think he might, because of his passion, be good at sales, at making presentations to groups of people.

(L&L Magazine): So, how do we get that word out?
(Dr. Tod A. Burnett): We all have to keep doing what we’re doing, but also continue to look for new ways to accomplish our mission. Right now the state and the country is dealing with completions. It’s not that we need more degrees and certificates. It’s that we need more trained folks. The problem is so general. The certificates must be in the right industries.

We are literally, right now working on trying to develop a model economic workforce and development program. In California nobody has done it. We would like to say that we’ve developed the model. There are good programs out of California, because there are state systems that have taken on the challenge. We’re looking at those state systems to see how they do it. Because we are so large, so enormous, and the way our government structure and funding is, we have heavy local control but complete statewide funding. That’s a disconnect right away.

The model for community college is local. I don’t like they have districts. They play way too much on boundaries. In the future, educational boundaries will completely change. I believe that all educational institutions will no longer be the way they are today. I think students will be able to take courses from different colleges and universities to achieve one degree or certificate.

Conducted and written by Gordon Richiusa & Dana Stamos

End Note: Dr. Tod A. Burnett has agreed to do a question & answer column with our readers on the subject of education. Send your queries to: LnLMagazine@gmail.com.

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