Coming In as a Leader: Yves Salomon-Fernández Hits the Ground Running

September 11, 2018

Reprinted with permission from the Montague Reporter

By Mike Jones

As we walk the freshly scrubbed halls at Greenfield Community College, Dr. Yves Salomon-Fernández greets passing students with a confident and sunny authority.

“People don’t take me for the president here,” she tells me, “which is a good thing. I’m a non-hierarchical leader at heart…”

It is unlikely that she will remain anonymous here for long. Hired to succeed retiring 18-year president Bob Pura – not to replace him, a Chair of the Board of Trustees emphasized in the press release I was issued in advance of our interview – Dr. Salomon-Fernández arrives in Franklin County on a wind of change, bringing global and national perspectives to bear on the challenges we face in our quiet corner of the state.

The press release informed me of Dr. Salomon-Fernández’s fluency in four languages. She tells me she wakes up at 3 a.m. every day, automatically. “Which can be a real problem,” she says. “You don’t need an alarm clock if you have Yves around.”

When she was young Dr. Salomon-Fernández’s family moved from Haiti to Boston. The prestigious Boston Latin School served as a springboard into a career in education: political science and economic history; a master’s at the London School of Economics; her doctorate at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education; and finally, steady progress from teaching into higher ed administration. She served most recently as the president of a community college in rural New Jersey.

Excited at the rare chance to hobnob with such a freshly arrived power broker, I had booked an interview for the Reporter on Tuesday morning, the first day of classes. I hadn’t anticipated having to park so far from the main building, and despite all the signage, had somehow gotten lost trying to find the president’s office.
But Dr. Salomon-Fernández takes my late arrival in stride, and before long we are talking democracy and violence, rural poverty and human capital, collaboration, leadership, and listening. (This transcript has been abridged, reordered, and edited for clarity.)

MR: So you’re already really in it! How long have you been settled in the area?

YSF: I’m on week three. I live in Greenfield; I’m about a 5- to 7-minute drive from here…. How about you, are you from here?

MR: No, I moved out ten years ago…. My family moved around a lot, but we lived in the Framingham area a couple times. You taught at Salem State?

YSF: Yeah, and I also worked at Mass Bay, which has a campus in Framingham. I was the executive officer for that campus.

MR: That’s an area that’s had a ton of growth and development in the last 10 years.

YSF: Yes, and the last three years, even the last two, have been ridiculous…. And it’s becoming less affordable.

MR: How long were you in New Jersey, and where were you?

YSF: Two years – it felt like longer. I experienced tremendous growth: myself personally, as did the college. We had some challenges when I came in, but I really hit the ground running, and we did a great job. I had a phenomenal team….

It was in southern New Jersey, Cumberland County: inland, west. It was rural, and also the poorest county in New Jersey, with the lowest higher education attainment rate, the lowest health outcomes – across all indicators, they were at the bottom or next to the bottom.

At the same time there were some incredibly brilliant people I got to know, some incredibly successful, entrepreneurial folks. So in some ways I saw the potential.

And the kindness: I think there’s a level of solidarity that people have, when you grow up in poverty and that’s your community. The level of generosity that I experienced there was just beyond anything I had experienced in my life. People were just helping each other….

And then to come here – of course, Franklin County is the poorest in Massachusetts – and to see it differently. I think Franklin County wears its pioneering badge much more, and its hippie identity, and that attracts hippies from all over.

MR: It’s complicated!

YSF: Yeah, it is – and there’s also a lot of poverty, and of course there’s the opioid crisis. It’s complex, it’s different, and it’s also full of potential.

MR: Were a lot of your students in New Jersey multi-generationally local?

YSF: Yes, they never left the place. There was a deep sense of people who never went anywhere. In fact, the college was very successful at having four-year partnerships where you could finish your undergraduate degree and even get a master’s degrees onsite, because people didn’t want to leave. Those who had the means to leave would leave, but those who didn’t, which was the majority, didn’t…. I don’t know if you’ve read JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy?

MR: I haven’t read it, though I’ve read essays he wrote around it. I know of some folks in Kentucky who hate it.

YSF: That’s always how it is, isn’t it? He talks about people that do these documentaries – for some reason they find Kentucky very fascinating, and the locals hate those things.

I really wanted to experience what rural poverty looks like outside of the Northeast. So we started following the Appalachian towns in Pennsylvania, and continued all the way down through Maryland, West Virginia, and Kentucky.

To see that level of poverty, to see open drainage and sewage systems – things that I’ve seen in Haiti and other developing countries – here in the US, the richest country in the world, you think, “There’s something fundamentally wrong here.”

And it was also an eye-opener for me because, coming from the Northeast, we spend so much time talking about sustainable energy, which is very important, and how coal mining and all those things are horrible. But when you go places where that is the only industry, the only livelihood people have, it makes you realize that we can’t just have this absolutist approach – what we need, really, is a strategy to diversify the economy.

Because this is what people have always known; this is the only thing they know. If there is a lot of unsustainable coal mining happening, and of course we know it has deleterious health effects, it’s our fault. Because as the government, we have not made an effort to diversify these regional economies….

MR: The elephant in the room is that when patterns of settlement happened to follow industry – in this case, an extractive industry – and then it’s over, we don’t ever want to have to say, “Okay, well, pack it up – we’re gonna tear this down, let the woods grow back.”

YSF: It’s interesting, right? And we had our kids look up, as we were driving through these areas, the median income. Overall and for women. And people are making $200 a week, and that’s pre-tax….

When you think about the history of the Democratic Party, these are not people that the Democratic Party should be losing…. It’s one of the things that has made me more of a middle ground person, because what I see is a lot of extremism.

Calling people “deplorables”? These are hard-working people, and the hardships that they overcome, that they deal with every day, some of us will never be able to understand and realize, and could not fathom nor survive under those conditions. It hurts me deeply when I hear comments like that being made.

I don’t care what your party is: poor, hard-working people are poor, hard-working people. I think right now there’s a level of intolerance for conservative ideas that I certainly do not support, especially in the academy. We need to be much more open, and that is the purpose of democracy.

For me, having lived in a country, in Haiti, where there was no political freedom, there was no freedom of the press, you lived in fear and you lived under a dictatorship, democracy is very important. Simple things like the right to vote is important. To have it be safe enough to go vote is very important. To not live under curfews.

I have experienced those things. To not be afraid that a bullet is going to hit you. To not be running around, scurrying, trying to find a safe place to hide, because the opposing parties are just taking out their differences on the streets with guns. And to be a child, hiding in somebody’s yard and wondering where’s my brother?, and what’s going to happen?, and where’s the adult who was with us?, because you’re all so dispersed and you’re hiding and you’re hoping things will calm down.

And then you came out, and try to call out where are you? in the dark of the night.

Those things are experiences that have defined me – and at the same time make me really appreciate democracy, and all points of view.

So one of the things that I want to make sure that I foster here is not just liberal thinking, but critical thinking. That we respect, appreciate, and become better: better scholars, better people, better citizens. Better educators, as a result of appreciating difference, and intentionally creating space for it.

MR: You were 12 when your family moved to Boston? Where did you move to?

YSF: I was 12, yeah. Dorchester.

MR: Which has a higher population than Franklin County.

YSF: [laughs] Significantly higher!

MR: That’s what really makes me feel like I’m from eastern Mass – “Come on, that’s where all the people live!” But I’d be really curious, if we get a halfway accurate census next round, to really sit down – I don’t know if you’ve had time to really look at –

YSF: The demographics! Yeah. It’s interesting here. The Community Action agency put out a very thorough report that I really enjoyed reading that talked about the demographics here: health outcomes, educational outcomes, all kinds of things.

One thing that is really stark for me, that I see – and of course, Franklin County is 93% white, right? so that’s what you see – but what I see is class difference. When I look at the population here, the traditional students versus when you go to the Workforce Center, there is a class difference. Not that there isn’t commingling, but you definitely see it.

When we talk about diversity in the city, it might be more racial diversity and ethnic diversity. And, of course, we want to make all people feel welcome across those dimensions as well, but I think the socioeconomic diversity is something that we have to be very conscious of.

And to find common ground, right? For me, I feel deep affinity for and can relate to other people, other working-class people. Things weren’t easy in Haiti, and they sure got a lot harder here in the US for us.

MR: So what also stood out for me when I looked at the county data is this dip in the age distribution – I looked at it and said, “That’s my cohort!” People move to get jobs elsewhere, or go on to higher ed elsewhere and don’t move back.

But, as an outsider who’s been here for 10 years, one of the most major changes I’ve witnessed is a lot more people my age living here. People who went away to college are moving back, raising families and things like that.

YSF: Well, this is a great place to raise a family! I have great hopes for the recreation economy here. I also have great hopes for the creative economy here, and the agricultural economy.

This weekend I spent some time with some young farmers. It’s nice to see young farmers in their twenties! Farming is wonderful, and we have to be very intentional about how we continue that in Franklin County….

When my husband and I moved from Boston to Maynard, it was because it was a place that was affordable for us. As I see the housing market tightening in eastern Mass and becoming much more unaffordable, I think places like Franklin County offer a great alternative for young families, for people who are conscious about the environment, conscious about their citizenship, their ability to affect change, and to create the world that they want to see.

And we know that for millennials and “iGens,” those are things they find very attractive. So how do we let them know Franklin County is that place?

MR: There’s always two ways to improve a place. GCC is this nexus of economic development, from the end of building human capacity. But we’ve probably both seen a lot of instances where a location becomes more upscale, but the people who were in it aren’t there, 15 years later.

So if the population increases, if it’s as bedroom communities where people are commuting elsewhere, or if it’s becoming somewhere people who made money elsewhere can come and spend it, that changes the –

YSF: The dynamics, yeah. The identity also.

I see us, at this pivotal point, really reinventing the higher ed model for citizenship, for modern times, and the academic enterprise also. Trying to say, “how do we become sustainable? How do we have much more partnership and collaboration? How do we see other community colleges as partners, rather than competitors? And how do we achieve certain efficiencies across the region?”

And we have an incredible group of like-minded community college presidents, and we also have the Five Colleges around the corner that are also interested in partnering. We just have to explore exactly what it looks like.

The role that the community college plays is a very important one, precisely for what you say: for the development of human capital here in the region, and also for workforce and economic development.

So, how do we do a better job at delivering our mission to the greatest number of people? When you look at the rates of higher education attainment here, we see that there are many people that we need to serve who we’re not yet serving.

MR: What are the main drivers of enrollment at GCC now, and what are the areas that you want to focus on increasing?

YSF: I think people see us as a great liberal arts college, which is very important. It’s core to the identity of the college, so we don’t want to change that.

When you look at it from the perspective of equity, there are some liberal arts programs that we have that are smaller in numbers, but we don’t want to lose them.
I had a great discussion last week with the Humanities faculty around those things. We can make purely monetary decisions, saying “This really isn’t contributing a whole lot to the bottom line” or “We’re losing money with this program,” but at the end of the day, what does that lead to? Does it lead to us saying “Well, because we are a college located in an area where people are economically challenged, then you can’t have those things?”

Or do we say, “How do we diversify our portfolio? How do we fix the enterprise model so that we can continue to have these programs that are very important – for developing multiple intelligences, for having more well-rounded citizens, better prepared leaders?”

Those are the things that I think about. Our liberal arts programs we definitely want to grow and sustain. Maybe in some areas the goal isn’t the growth, but it’s the sustaining, and enriching that experience for all students.

We also need to be moving into much more interdisciplinary majors. That is where the world is going, that is where the world is, that is what employers are expecting. How do we prepare students for a more complex world, where you don’t exist in silos? For me, that begins with breaking down the internal silos. We’ve got to model that which we want to see in our students.

And then, as we are a county that is economically challenged, we want to look at workforce development. Because we can focus on the liberal arts and leave a lot of people out: people who want jobs, who need jobs tomorrow; people who have complex lives, who have other challenges that they’re overcoming, who haven’t been in school. People who lost their jobs because the jobs have changed.

How do we also help them, where they are, so we don’t become an elitist college of those who have the luxury of purely pursuing a liberal arts curriculum?

MR: So retaining humanities, hopefully, but integrating them into different programs –

YSF: Really engaging with faculty – some of whom have never had interactions with workforce development – to say “we need you in workforce development.” And not to look at that as beneath you because it’s not serving the ivory tower.

Which people don’t do here… But to say, “That’s where we need you.” And so, when we design curricula, how do we integrate that so that employers can say, “Yes, I can see a difference?”….

We started this last week during our convocation. And these are not easy conversations to have, but I think they are conversations the college is willing to engage in.

One of the things that I asked people was what they are most afraid of. And somebody said “change,” which I suspect was in a lot of people’s minds. But we understand that if we do not change – if we do not evolve, not just changing – we can become obsolete and extinct….

MR: Have you been involved in this kind of institutional shift in other places you’ve worked?

YSF: Yes, a little bit. But here we’re diving all in, submerging ourselves. And there is a history of innovation and risk-taking here that makes it easier to do that; people do that all the time.

Coming in as a leader, I have to assess where the institution is and what they are ready for, in terms of change. In terms of evolution. And I think GCC, and the history of the Pioneer Valley, and Greenfield, is particularly ripe for that: for saying, “Yeah, we’re going to reinvent the model, it’s a little scary, we have a sense of what we’re trying to achieve, but the journey we’ve not been through.”

So my response to this person, who said that she feared change: I said to her, “I want you to be my barometer for how well we deal with change, emotionally and psychologically, as an institution, and how we retain the institutional knowledge.”

Because in the midst of all this happening, we have a huge generational change happening. Baby boomers are leaving, so we’re losing institutional history. How do we retain some of that? And for our baby boomers who are not yet retiring, how do we equip them with the skills and the knowledge and the lingo, the ways of interacting with the younger students, to be able to succeed?….

When people ask me questions expecting an answer, I generally ask them a lot of questions, so we come to the answer together. First I’d get you to talk about it so that your wheels are turning, and as you’re talking, I see what I can offer. Or maybe I already have a preconceived notion of what my answer is, but engaging in that dialogue, and that critical thinking.

Engagement is very important, both with our students and with each other. So that we get to co-create something that is fundamentally stronger than what either you or I could have come up with by ourselves.