College chief receives high marks from staff In first week at HCC, Duncan ponders creating 4-year degree

July 06, 1998|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Mary Ellen Duncan began her first day as president of Howard Community College in tears.

They weren't tears of sadness, but tears of appreciation. Nearly 100 faculty and staff members greeted her arrival at an 8: 30 a.m. breakfast meeting June 29 with enthusiastic applause as she stepped out of her rented sport utility vehicle in the administration building parking lot.

"It was a pretty emotional thing," Duncan said of the well-wishers, some of whom had waited an hour for her appearance. "I didn't expect to see all those people outside. That was overwhelming."

Duncan has inherited a school that one administrator acknowledged is "at a crossroads." Howard is the eighth-largest community college of the 20 in the state, with a fall 1997 enrollment of 5,081. But students also pay the highest tuition in the state.

Howard has established a reputation as a leader in distance learning and technology, but the school has been criticized for overlooking the liberal and fine arts curriculum.

The recent rise in private, online schools is another challenge, said James Ball, vice president and dean of students at Howard.

"For us, that means that we have to stay competitive by offering a quality product, namely our academic programs," Ball said. "We have to make sure that our classroom delivery is as high quality as it can be."

Duncan agreed. "For all of our educational pursuits, we still have to be aggressive and responsive to the needs of our community and the community outside this campus," she said.

The third president in the 28-year history of the Columbia institution, Duncan succeeds Dwight A. Burrill, who resigned in September after 16 years. Duncan had been president at the State University of New York at Delhi since 1991.

Four-year degree

One idea Duncan is contemplating for Howard is crafting a four-year curriculum that would culminate in an applied bachelor's degree in technology and technology information.

The four-year diploma would be the first at a Maryland community college, which usually grant certificates or associate degrees after two years of courses.

"The emphasis on information technology and applied user skills are becoming so much more demanding, and there are hundreds of jobs that go begging for that type of skill," said Duncan, who created a similar program in hospitality management at Delhi. "Perhaps that's an area that Howard Community College can build on."

David A. Rakes, chairman of the school's board of trustees, said he is interested in the proposal.

"I think it's a fascinating concept," Rakes said. "I think she sees the natural linkage between technology and the county and the business community."

Another pressing task is solving the "millennium problem" that plagues computers not programmed to recognize dates after 1999. Ball said installation of a new computer system is on schedule and should be completed by year's end.

But there are contingency issues, Ball acknowledged.

"What if, for some reason, we can't get them up as scheduled? What then?" he asked. "It is daunting under any circumstances."

As she starts her new job, Duncan is also trying to find time to spend with her daughter, Kate, who is an office manager for U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella, and unpack boxes at her home in Marriottsville.

'Open-door policy'

For many people at the breakfast meeting in the campus dining hall, June 29 was their first opportunity to talk to Duncan, and many left with favorable impressions.

"She seems to have an open-door policy, and that's good," said Beverly Lang, a professor of nursing and president of the 85-member Faculty Forum. "I hope her energy will be contagious."

Arnette Haywood, who heads an association that represents the 100 support staffers on campus, said she was most impressed that Duncan stopped to greet a staffer before she walked to the dining hall.

Duncan "didn't know her name, but she still stopped to say hello," Haywood said. "I think that is a good start for her."

Pub Date: 7/06/98

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