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Interim Central Penn College president talks changes, challenges

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Melissa Vayda has been Central Penn College’s interim president since December. Photo/Submitted
Melissa Vayda has been Central Penn College’s interim president since December. Photo/Submitted

Melissa Vayda became Central Penn College's interim president in December when Todd Milano stepped down after 23 years in that position. The East Pennsboro Township-based college has more than 1,200 students, off-site locations in Lancaster and Bethlehem and currently offers associate and bachelor's degrees.

Previously vice president and chief academic officer at Central Penn, Vayda has a doctorate of education in organizational leadership from Argosy University. She recently talked to the Business Journal about changes at the college and what she has learned about leadership.

Q: Your predecessor, Todd Milano, said the college's strategic direction calls for expansion into graduate degree programs. What can you tell us about that?

A: Central Penn College has a solid history of offering business and professional college degrees and will continue to build upon these strengths with advanced degrees.

Central Penn submitted a proposal to the Pennsylvania Department of Education in June 2012 to offer a master's of professional studies in organizational development. The core curriculum will focus on aspects of organizational development, including leadership, communication, strategic management and ethical responsibilities.

Students may choose to focus on one of two concentrations: Organizational development and leadership looking globally at leadership, operations and management or information systems management. The degree is culminated by a capstone in professional studies that focuses on action research.

Pending final reviews by PDE, we are hopeful to launch the graduate program for fall 2013.

Central Penn College began offering online classes in 2004. How much has that single factor changed the college in the past eight years?

The addition of online options has indeed changed our institution over the past eight years and will continue to propel the college into the future. More specifically, it has changed the composition of our student population. In 2010, our adult and continuing-education population surpassed that of our traditional population for the first time in our history. This is largely due to the availability of online offerings.

Online courses and degrees provide the opportunity for working adults to pursue a degree that otherwise would have been difficult to achieve. Central Penn College prides itself on eliminating boundaries and helping students to achieve career success. Online class options have given many more individuals the ability to learn at their convenience, while receiving personalized support from an established college in the local community.

Serving on the Middle States Commission on Higher Education since 2008, you've seen a lot of colleges and universities. What do you see as the biggest universal problems they face?

I have served as a commissioner since 2008 but have served as team chair, peer reviewer and consultant to many institutions over the past 15 years.

In regard to regional accreditation, the issues I see most frequently involve adequate planning, budgeting and assessment. Educational institutions need to be responsible stewards of tuition dollars.

Your dissertation, "The Social Constructions of Gender Limitations in Higher Education," reviewed the lives and career paths of female college and university presidents. How will what you learned in that process affect the way you serve as interim president?

I have applied part of what I learned throughout my research in an effort to get to where I am today. Throughout my research, I learned how important it was to have a network of peers to rely on, as well as mentors to seek advice from at times. I also learned to identify what leadership style is my strength and how to apply it to an organization.

In particular, I subscribe to a leadership style that embraces transparency, empowerment, autonomy and trust. Central Penn is an institution that is built for this leadership style. I have to say that the current composition of staff and faculty is the strongest I have ever seen in the 15 years I have been with the college. This is a key ingredient that helps to make such a leadership style effective.

If you could change one thing about higher education, what would it be, and why?

Right now, I would change accessibility to financial aid. There is no doubt that acquiring a college education comes at a cost, but so, too, does lack of education. While Central Penn works hard to help students eliminate this boundary, it has gotten increasingly more difficult with the cuts to federal and state financial aid.

Overall, financial aid awards and programs have been decreasing or eliminated altogether. There are also increasing numbers of students faced with bridging the gap between financial aid and the remaining costs. Over the last few years, the alternative resources to close this gap have implemented more restrictions. It has been increasingly difficult for families to finance a college education anywhere.

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