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A Community College’s “Policy Whisperer” Keeps the College in the Political Conversation

Policy and Advocacy Public Policy Division
January 9, 2019 Holly Swart Wake Technical Community College

By his own admission, Richard Sullins has a fun job.  He is the Dean of Government Relations and Strategic Partnerships at Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina.  You would be forgiven if you struggled to think of many other professionals at the community college level in a similar role—outside of the college Presidents.  Many of us policy watchers often ask ourselves if the information we pass along to colleagues is reaching the right people, if we are communicating about federal and state policy appropriately, and if we are providing enough value or having any impact.  I was fortunate to spend an hour with Richard recently to learn more about his unique role, and hear how he works to keep campus stakeholders informed.

Interviewer: Can you tell me about your unusual position, and how it came about at the community college?

Sullins: The core of this position originally existed as part of my previous job at the college. It was one of several hats I wore while in the grants division.  I proposed the Dean of Government Relations and Strategic Partnerships position as part of my Applied Benchmarking project about two years ago.  The college administration liked the idea!  I have been serving in this new capacity for about year. 

Interviewer: How does your background fit in with this new position, Richard?

Sullins: The Government Relations and Strategic Partnerships role is a perfect fit for me. My academic background is in political science and higher education.  My professional background spans the political and education professions as well.  I spent fifteen years at a small community college in western North Carolina.  Then, later I served as Director of the State Board of the North Carolina Community College System.  Years ago, I was a congressional aide, and a three-time political campaign manager.

Interviewer: That is interesting.  It sounds tailor-made for you.  Do you think a person must have a political background or a political science background in order to succeed in such a role?

Sullins:  While a person may not need to have legislative or political experience in order to succeed in a higher education job like this, I find that particular experience very beneficial. 

Interviewer: What is it specifically, about that experience, that you find most important?

Sullins: You must understand the environment where the policies are made. A person in this position needs a lot of background in the making of public policy, so degrees in political science or public policy would be a good start.  It takes someone with a global knowledge of the college and its role in the community.  Policy makers will ask questions about anything and everything, so the more well-rounded a person is, the more likely they would be to succeed in a position like this. 

Interviewer: What other skills are critical in your job?

Sullins:  It’s impossible to fulfill these kind of duties without good people skills and good communication skills.  But perhaps the most important credential that a practitioner of the political arts needs is a knowledge of how processes work.  If you are talking with legislators about the needs of your college, you have to go to them with ideas that can be accomplished through the legislative system.  That means you can’t expect to be successful by asking for unreasonable amounts of money, or policy changes that you know don’t have a chance of passage. 

Interviewer: So, how do you bridge the divide between the needs of higher education, the community college, in this case, and the legislative environment?

Sullins: You have to know how to build a coalition of support, and the supporters you have this time will probably be different than what you will need next time.  Know your legislators.  Know the committees they serve on.  Know what their interests are and who their constituents are.  I can promise you that your chances of being successful will be much higher if you do your homework ahead of time and don’t try to get out over your skis.

Interviewer: Richard, how do you turn your work into action items or policy alerts at the college?  I think that must be a really challenging part of your job—disseminating sometimes complex policy information in ways that college stakeholders can digest or act upon.  Would you agree?

Sullins: That is correct. Understanding the higher education policy environment is not enough.  Like most educational policy liaisons, I must also find effective ways to communicate about the political environment and the proposed legislative changes with the campus community.  This is especially challenging at a non-residential community college.

Interviewer:  So, how do you do it?

Sullins: Finding opportunities to engage and communicate is complicated when a large percentage of the population of students (and faculty) is part-time.  Many of the faculty work in the private sector when they are not teaching.  Many community college students are balancing jobs and families in addition to their studies.  So I began by reaching out to several campus stakeholders with a regular email legislative update.  In it, I highlight a handful of state and federal issues using  non-technical language, with a focus on  impact. These updates are quick reads for college administrators and other interested recipients.  I try to include information about each proposed bill, and how the proposed change affects the institution’s ability to serve students. Where I can, I offer some perspective and a prediction on whether or not a bill will pass based on the legislative calendar, political climate, or other factors.

Interviewer: Full disclosure here—I have read a few of your legislative highlights and I find them very succinct and valuable.  What’s next for you in this job?

Sullins:   I would like to take faculty and students with me to Washington D.C. someday.  It’s important that policy makers know about the important work being done at community colleges. From my perspective, making them aware of the good work going on here, and its ability to be replicated across the country, is one of the most important things that I can do in this role.  In the same way, establishing relationships with thought leaders across the country is another means of getting our message out, so I’m building those relationships so that we can reap the benefits down the road.

Interviewer: What is the most important issue for community colleges at this time?

Sullins: From my perspective, college affordability is the most significant policy issue facing higher education.  We have all heard that there are now more job vacancies than there are qualified people to fill them, and the key word in that phrase is “qualified”.  That means that American companies are in need of trained workers who have mastered the skills necessary to work in those positions.  To get the skills of the available workforce up to the needed level, we need to get those people enrolled in training programs, and many of them are reluctant to go to college to learn those skills because they are afraid they will accumulate a mountain of debt.  Unless we can find a way through policy to get a handle on college costs and find alternate means of making higher education more affordable, the skilled labor shortage that we see now will become more acute over the next five years.

Richard and I spoke for about an hour.  Afterward, I had a few ideas about how best to engage my staff on policy issues that affect our business processes and the campus community.  We already provide annual FERPA training for our staff, but that is only one of many pieces of legislation with which they need to be familiar.  My managers, especially, need to know about any legislation that governs their work.  They need to monitor for changes to these laws and think about how those changes might affect their day-to-day operations, including published information they maintain.  Importantly, they cannot wait for information to trickle down to them—or to be highlighted or extracted for them.  They need to be proactive.  For my team, it might begin with a refresher of the state codes under which we operate.  We might also create a schedule to remind us to check for updates to the system office’s operating procedures.  Those few small steps could help people connect with the larger policies.  I plan to begin incorporating some of Richard’s legislative highlights into our meeting agendas when appropriate. In addition, I’ll make sure they know that many higher education professional organizations, like NASPA, not only watch as policies are created, but advocate on behalf of their members and students. Therefore, they need to check those websites and consider becoming involved with one or more organizations if they are not already.  My goal is to encourage people to become part of the process by first becoming more aware and engaged. 

Do you have some good ideas about connecting Higher Ed staff to policy issues?  I would love to hear from you.

About the author:

Holly Swart is Senior Dean for Registration and Records and Curriculum Registrar at Wake Technical Community College.  Her academic background is in History and Public History.  She has worked in Higher Education for seventeen years at two-year and four-year institutions.  Holly represents the NASPA Community College Board in the Public Policy Division.  You can reach her at [email protected]