John Sygielski just finished his third year as president of Harrisburg Area Community College, a tenure marked by extensive, and sometimes painful, changes.
“Ski,” as he prefers to be known, agreed to answer the Business Journal's questions on those years and what HACC's redirected future looks like.
Q: You're in the final year of a three-year reorganization plan that has a goal of growth and stability, and your accreditation was just reaffirmed. How are things going?
A: After reviewing and focusing our attention on internal operations over the past three years, we are now prepared to grow HACC through a new branding campaign, development of industry-focused credit and noncredit programs, online learning opportunities for students outside our region, college in the high school and dual enrollment offerings for secondary school students, student enrollment plans aimed at recruiting nontraditional-aged students, and a review of transfer agreements with many of Pennsylvania's four-year institutions.
This year's budget didn't include layoffs, but the previous two did. Are you finished with the cuts, or still downsizing via attrition?
At this time, we have completed our major downsizing activities. We believe that over the past three years, everyone at the college has taken an active role in reducing expenses and enhancing revenues to ensure HACC is sustainable for years to come.
What is your vision for HACC? Has it changed since you started the job?
My vision for HACC is to be the first choice in our service region and beyond for a quality, accessible higher education and lifelong learning experiences and opportunities. Some points of my vision include:
• Redoubling our efforts to understand employer and labor-market trends necessary to ensure our students achieve a degree, diploma or industry-based certificate in a relevant career field. This would include developing career pathways for current and future jobs, incorporating work-based learning opportunities in the curriculum, expanding prior-learning assessments, and providing guarantees for seamless transfer opportunities to Pennsylvania's public and private four-year institutions.
• Ensuring equity of learning and achievement by all students. Keeping our tuition affordable and providing refined developmental education opportunities are paramount to their achievement.
• Establishing and supporting ongoing community partnerships with business, education and government entities. For example, we look to enhance the partnerships we have with our 65 school districts and numerous four-year college partners for our students' benefit.
• Becoming brokers of educational opportunities rather than the only direct provider of instruction (to include working with for-profit institutions). Strengthening our role in advising, learning assessment and credentialing is an important aspect of this initiative.
• Developing and using common indicators of student success to demonstrate institutional performance.
Yes, my vision for the college has changed since arriving in 2011. This was largely due to a $9 million budget deficit, accreditation warnings, wrongdoing by former employees, reductions in school district and state funding, and antiquated or non-existent internal systems that prevented us from being efficient.
What do you see as the most significant trend in community college education right now?
Increases in distance learning opportunities, public and private partnerships, charitable contributions and recruitment of nontraditional-aged students.
Looking forward, what do you see as HACC's biggest strength and biggest challenge?
Our faculty. Our full- and part-time faculty members provide academic excellence. As I travel throughout our service region, I consistently hear from alumni that the quality instruction received at HACC was second to none.
The biggest challenge we face is the way HACC and higher educational institutions in the state are funded. However, the HACC board of trustees and I are committed to ensuring HACC remains accessible and affordable for all. Other challenges include college readiness; education technologies; diversity; globalization; and the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world in which we operate.
Based in Harrisburg, HACC offers more than 150 career and transfer associate degree, certificate and diploma programs to nearly 20,000 students at campuses in Gettysburg, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Lebanon and York and through online classes.
The nonprofit also serves more than 29,000 students in noncredit workforce development, public safety, adult basic education and continuing education programs.
John “Ski” Sygielski is HACC’s seventh president. He began his academic career as a teacher in an inner-city Chicago school, transitioned into corporate training and then began his community college career at the College of DuPage in Illinois.
A native of Cleveland, Ski is the only member of his family to earn a bachelor’s degree, which he followed with two master’s degrees and a doctorate. An avid bicyclist, he recently rode to all five campuses distributing scholarships in honor of HACC’s 50th anniversary. He and his husband, Steve Perrault, reside in Susquehanna Township with their dog Bart, a Basenji.