Dr. Melinda Nish officially started work at Southwestern College on January 2, but she was swept into college affairs on Dec. 20 when the San Diego County District Attorney raided the homes of four current and former college employees related to a pay-for-play scandal that may be the largest corruption case in county history. Nish was heavily involved in the crisis management through the holidays. SWC’s new superintendant also steps into a budget crisis hitting campuses across the state and a unique set of immigration challenges coming to a head at a national level. Upbeat and unfazed, Nish sat down with The Sun for a candid talk about her first few weeks at the helm.
A running start
“As you know, the college has been in the news,” said Nish. “So I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with external relations with the press and the community. But I’ve also had a lot of opportunities to meet the folks who work here, which was great because we had opening day ceremonies the first day on Friday. That was amazing – just hundreds of people in the gymnasium. I have been able to go out to the Otay Mesa center, National City center, the Crown Cove Aquatic Center and I’ll be going to the San Ysidro center next week. So that’s also been great. I’ve been to the Academic Senate, which was wonderful. I’m so impressed with the faculty that you students have here.
“I got into one class, so I’m glad I got into a classroom before my first month was done. And I’m working with the ASO to set up listening forums for the students as well.
“So it’s been really active, not a dull moment at all. But I’m pretty happy. I think the college is living up to and beyond my expectations.”
“The warmth of the people for someone they didn’t know at all surprised me. I mean, I did tell people in my opening address that I’m a very familiar person, I don’t insist on being called “Doctor.” I’m perfectly happy to be addressed as “Melinda.” And I did tell people I like to give hugs and I was pretty impressed that people literally took that as meaning they wanted to give me a hug, too. And I was surprised that people were that open and that friendly that quickly, but I certainly was pleasantly surprised.”
Meeting the team
“The board really is a good board. They’re fantastic. They have all their hearts and their minds in the right place. They’re here to make sure that SWC is well taken care of and they are very, very fine people to work with. So I’ve been impressed with the board.
“I just can’t say enough about the staff that worked directly with me, and with the administrators that I’ve been working with as well. Everyone knows that SWC has been in the news and that the district attorney has been conducting an investigation that does involve us, but there’s not a single person in dealing with these issues that hasn’t been right there, prepared, working overtime as needed. Everyone has pulled together because the college has turned a page. The mistakes of the past we have started cleaning up over a year ago. We’re still cleaning up and we will fix any of the issues in the past that need to be resolved.
“It’s been a difficult experience, obviously, to step into something that happened more than a year ago, but it’s been a good experience because it’s shown me how people work when they are really in a difficult situation and these people have pulled together, strongly pulled together. I’m impressed by people’s honesty, their integrity and their real love for what the college does.
“Perhaps it’s a little bit of baptism by fire. But I can’t complain that I haven’t learned a lot and I also can’t complain that I haven’t liked the way the college has handled these issues. The college should be commended.”
Always a student
“I had no idea what major to declare when I was an undergraduate. I bet that sounds familiar. I ended up completing a bachelor’s in political science with an international relations certificate and what I really enjoyed about that course of study was economics. So I began a masters program in economics. And that led me, actually, to leave the United States because I decided that it would be really good if I could finish up that last year of my masters abroad. I loved being in France so much that I didn’t come back to the states for almost a decade.
“I went to Switzerland to continue my education in economics and that’s where I started teaching. My first full-time teaching was with the American College of Switzerland…And that’s what hooked me. And so I’ve had a long time in education. I’ve been a student all my life, it seems.
“I just finished my Educational Doctorate this spring. So the doctorate that I started in Switzerland –- which I didn’t finish –- I finally finished this year. So I want to tell students, don’t worry if you don’t first succeed. You can be a student again and you can finish that degree, just don’t lose sight of your goal.”
Heart for community
“I came back to the United States and I started teaching in a community college in Salt Lake City, Utah. And that’s where my love of community colleges began. I really was so impressed with what community colleges do for students. They have such a unique role in helping so many people. And I think what I love best about community colleges is that complete open access, no one is turned away. And hopefully we’ll be able to diversify our financial picture enough that we can offer as many courses as students need so that no student is ever turned away because we don’t have a seat for them in the classroom.”
“It’s not something I’ve done formally at other colleges…but it’s based, certainly, on what I’ve done in the past. You learn in California what shared governance is and what participatory decision-making is. And I really believe in it. I think sometimes decisions take longer to formulate and actually come to a decision, but I think the decisions are generally better because people have had the opportunity to have their opinions considered, they’ve had time to think about it, there can be more buy-in in what you do and then implementation should be easier. So what you learn in that process is that you have to listen.
“In order to participate, it can’t be all about you and your opinion. You really need to be able to listen and hear other’s opinions so that decisions reflect as many people’s desires as possible. So when I was thinking about, what do I want to do when I come to Southwestern College, I thought, well, obviously I need to learn what the culture is and what people’s goals and aspirations are here within the college. So I decided I would go out and do that in these listening forums.
“So I developed six questions and the questions, basically asking people what they think is very effective, what works well at the college and it also asks them what they think the challenges are that the college faces. What I want to do is take all the information I’ve gleaned from the listening forums and then use this to construct my goals and
strategies for the next 15 months.
“As I stated on Opening Day, I have goals, and they’re very broad, overarching goals because for me to develop more specific goals without hearing from the college I think would be foolish. My goals would be meaningless unless they reflected the college’s goals. It’s not anything novel. Certainly new presidents are always told you need to learn the culture of the college you are now leading. So this is one of the ways I am learning you, so I can be effective in leading you.”
A new approach to the budget crisis
“Student services has been hit hard. A lot of categorical programs have been in the student services area and they’ve received severe cuts. So there have been cut backs and you students have probably observed that. With fewer hours it’s taking longer for turn around in certain services such as financial aid. What we are trying to do is preserve the most important services to as many students as possible, but we’re going to have to be creative. We’re going to have to look at different ways to serve students with the resources that we have.
“We have fabulous people in student services. If we’re smart and we consolidate the funding it will allow us to cross-train and back-fill in areas where we couldn’t before. I think we have some opportunities if we have consolidation if we are creative and keep our focus on what the students really need.
“In general, it’s not just student services. Every aspect of what we do has been affected by the budget cuts. My long-term goal is to create more flexibility in our revenue streams. We need to be more diversified because when we have a budget cut at the state level that means we have no flexibility, we have no other sources of revenue. So we have to be more proactive when it comes to the college foundation and obtaining donations.
Borders and lines
“I think that we have a potential advantage being in a border town. What’s really nice about being here is people’s acceptance and forward thinking when they’re talking about border issues and immigration issues. I’m really pleased to be in this part of the country where we look at our neighbors to the south and we see them as good neighbors and we want to be good neighbors with them. We need to have our arms open. We need to understand that the line that is drawn between us shouldn’t be something that separates and divides us. So I want to look at immigration issues in a positive way. How can we work together to ensure that our students have the best environment possible? And that includes students that don’t have documents or are AB540 students.
“I’ve lived in border towns before and there always these issue. But it’s not us versus them, it’s us and us together.”
Learning, healing and moving forward
“I feel that, although this has taken a lot of time –- let’s be honest, I’d rather be on the campus speaking to students than speaking to attorneys –- we’re cleaning things up. We want the community to know that we recognize what was done wrong in the past, that we’ve changed our processes, our protocols, the way we do business, so that we will not ever allow those kinds of mistakes to happen again. We want the community to be proud of everything we do and we want the corner lot to be stunning.
“I feel confident that there will be very minimal delays on the corner lot construction, that it will be all done legally, and I think at the end of the day we have to take the wrongs of the past and turn them into the rights of today and tomorrow.
“You know that as a student, when you make a mistake, the best thing you can do is learn from that mistake. When mistakes are made, acknowledge the mistake as soon as possible, resolve it, learn from it and move forward. What is important for the community to know is that that review has been very thorough and it is nearing completion and that we’ve made a promise that we will release all findings and recommendations to the recommendations as soon as that is complete. And that will be complete within a few weeks. And if we haven’t already put into place a process or protocol that assures that we won’t have these problems again that we will put in those protocols.”
“The taxpayers have been very generous to Southwestern College. We have Proposition AA and Proposition R. This is millions of dollars that the taxpayers have agreed that we need to service our students and community and we owe it to them to show that we’ve used their money wisely and that we’ve done so in a very legal, ethical manner. I can’t say enough how important that is and the governing board is absolutely, 100 percent behind transparency in all that they do.”
The right decision
“I expected that there would be challenges. That does not bother me or scare me. I like to be able to resolve things and fix things and move forward. I’m excited to be here. I bought a home, I love where I live and I like the community. I’m exploring and finding more and more out about the community. The centers are amazing the people are warm and friendly. I think I made a fantastic decision. I’ve had some long days and some short nights but I think I made the right decision and I certainly have not waivered from my commitment to this being a long term position, a long term part of my career.”