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Dr. Warren Hilton on the Campbell Conversations

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Dr. Warren Hilton
Dr. Warren Hilton

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with the president of Onondaga Community College, Dr. Warren Hilton.

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Dr. Warren Hilton, who became Onondaga Community College’s president last summer. Prior to OCC, Dr. Hilton held leadership positions at Kutztown University, the Community College of Philadelphia and Drexel University. President Hilton, welcome to the program.

Warren Hilton: Well, thank you for having me, Grant.

GR: It's a great pleasure to have you. So let me just start with a real basic question about you. Tell me about your career path that landed you here at Onondaga Community College.

WH: Yeah, very good question. And really, it starts before my career. You know, I grew up in Philadelphia to parents who didn't have a college education. And they instilled in me and my brother the value of education in particular, if you wanted to, you know, be gainfully employed and do great things for your family that we always needed to have that higher education. So because they instilled that in me, that is the belief that I have today, that higher education, whether it be a certificate program, an associate’s degree, bachelor's, master's, doctorate, whatever it is, is the avenue for people to, you know, have improved lives. So because of that, I was very fortunate. I did go and was first generation college student, got my degree in computer science, worked for several years in corporate America and then really understood that my passion was helping people through higher education. And so from there I went back and got some more education and then started my journey on the administrative side in higher education at large institutions like University of Maryland, College Park, Johns Hopkins University, and then moved back to Pennsylvania, my original home near Philadelphia, and gained some more experience in higher education. And I will tell you that that journey has taken me to places I never could have thought I would have gone. I've taught undergraduate and graduate courses in addition to working in an administration, and I'm thankful to be at Onondaga Community College because it's such a great institution that is moving forward in some very unique ways in helping. Whether you're 15 or 50 years old, whether your name is Michael or Muhammad. We have programs to help individuals improve their lives.

GR: You mentioned Maryland and Johns Hopkins, so you've come back to an area of good lacrosse anyway (laughter).

WH: Yes!

GR: Guess we might get into that later. But, you know I was thinking back on this when I was getting ready for this interview, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that you are the first African-American president of an institution of higher learning in the Syracuse area. And I wanted to know if that fact in and of itself was important to you.

WH: You know, any time you could be the first at something, I take it very seriously. Because there were many people that I saw that were the first that encouraged me to continue going on. So, you know, going through this, you know, K-through-12 schooling, when I saw black teachers, for example, that was very crucial to me to help me understand, you know, they might have been the first person in that role. What I saw when I went to higher education, one of my mentors was an assistant provost. You know, to see somebody that was black at that leadership level is crucial. So I think that's critically important, not just if you're black sometimes it has to do with, you know, first generation college student, gender, sexual orientation. So I take that very seriously, you know, being the first at something means that I can be that encouragement to someone else because I had so many people in my lifetime be that encouragement to me.

GR: And you've been at some other community colleges prior to OCC. You're certainly familiar with them. Is OCC typical of community colleges across the country, or are there some really important respects in which it differs from the stereotypical community college?

WH: Yeah, I think when most people think of community college, they have a picture in their head of 13th grade, right? It's just a continuation of high school. There's not active campus life, things of that nature, and OCC and many other community colleges in the state of New York are unique in that we have, for example, residence halls. I have four residence halls in OCC, so we have a vibrant community and campus life. Sixteen varsity sports, you mentioned lacrosse, many national championship, double digit national championships in lacrosse at the NJCAA level, very competitive sports, very high quality athletic facilities. And those are some things that you might not see at every community college across the country. And so I think that does make OCC unique in that we have that vibrant campus life in addition to the high quality education at an affordable cost.

GR: And the two previous presidents of OCC who’ve come before you, Debbie Sydow and Casey Crabill. They seem to me to be pretty popular from everything I could read. They both have been on this program prior to you. I was just wondering what you regard as their biggest accomplishments, the things that they, you know, kind of left for you to come in and work with.

WH: Yeah, I think to both of those presidents, I'm very thankful for the foundation and that they set, you know, Debbie Sydow with a lot of what you see on campus, the building projects those facilities that I talked about earlier certainly that continued with Casey Crabill. Casey had a real student-focused orientation, and I think that's you know, very considerable when we think about today's colleges and universities and what we can and cannot offer. And Casey’s focus on students was very critical and putting students first.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with Onondaga Community College’s new president Warren Hilton. So thinking of OCC institutionally or programmatically, if there are certain programs if you want to talk about it that way, what would you regard as the jewels in the OCC crown? What are the most, the strongest institutions?

WH: You know, I'll get in trouble if I start this (laughter)

GR: Yeah, I know that's a loaded question for me to ask you.

WH: But I will you know, I'll answer the question by saying you know, we are very responsive to the community's needs, right? And so, you know, think about, the last ten years, if you think about what employers, people in business and industry, K-12 education were asking for, you know, ten years ago, it was a well-rounded citizen. So liberal arts and sciences were very important. We're very strong in the liberal arts and sciences. Now as you’ve seen, there's a little bit of a shift to what some people would call workforce development. Programs that are, you know, specific where people can upskill and get into jobs in a quick fashion. And you've seen some of the offerings that we have rolled out over the last two years, programs like home health aide, certified nursing assistant. Some of our newer programs that now are being responsive are construction management which will start this next fall. We'll be rolling out our cannabis education program in January. So those programs that are responsive to the community's needs and what employers’ business and industry need, as well as the folks who want to be gainfully employed in those industries, those are the things that we're also very good at. So we're good in a number of different areas. And so you think about something like a statistic I heard a few months ago was 75% of seniors and people with disabilities in our state that need a home health aide do not have access to a home health aide. So we created a home health aide program and that program will be kicking off and we'll be able to train more home health aides. So I wouldn't say we're strongest in a particular area, but I would say we're very responsive to what the community needs.

GR: And on the other side of the coin, are there are there particular things that you as an incoming president have identified that OCC needs to improve on? Maybe it's expanding those types of programs that you just mentioned, but are there particular areas that you're going to focus on improving?

WH: Yeah, I think to continue with the theme of being responsive. We want to find more ways to be responsive, so some of the things that we're thinking about down the road, certainly have to involve Micron. Since Micron is coming to town and we're one of their key partners. So making sure we have curriculum that is, you know, in maybe a 12 week format that gets someone 12 weeks and you can interview at Micron and have a job. But then after that 12 weeks how you can come back and maybe get a yearlong certificate and then build upon that with the two year degree. So I'm really thinking about what people in higher education call stackable credentials is very key because you know, if you think about a person who needs a job yesterday, they don't want to wait two years necessarily to get that degree. We can get them something in a shorter format, get them in work and then have them come back on a part time basis to get that longer term degree so they can continue to advance in their career. And so I think we want to do a lot more of that. Our cannabis education program, which will be rolling out in January, is a partnership with Cleveland School of Cannabis, and that's a fully online program. You could do it at your own pace, low cost, and it will give you the credentials that you need to work in that industry. And so some of the flexibility and format and then how do we stack things or a couple of the things that we're looking to build upon on the foundation that was laid by the previous two presidents.

GR: That makes a lot of sense. I was also curious to hear whether, you know, I'm sure that you did in the process of interviewing for this position and then deciding to take it a lot of prep and research about OCC. You already kind of know the terrain of community colleges coming in. But I was wondering, once you got here, was there any big thing that you discovered that you didn't know going in? Like, oh, you know, nobody told me this…

WH: Yeah, you know, there were two things and both of them are good things.

GR: Okay.

WH: The first thing I already alluded to, I knew there was talk about the semiconductor industry coming to the state of New York when I got here and realized that the location was right outside of Syracuse in Clay, New York, and that our county executive, Ryan McMahon and our governor and Senator Schumer and all those folks and more were involved in those conversations, Rob Simpson from Center State CEO, and then got invited to those conversations. That was a good thing to find out that I didn't know in the interview process that we were very close to having a large semiconductor company come in, so that was excellent. The second thing, often when I'm out in the community, I'll have on Onondaga community college gear. And so every just about everybody I bump into that I talk to has a connection to OCC. And that is something, again, that's very good. And they might not always put it on their resume. They've taken a few classes in the summertime at OCC while they were at a four year institution where they got a degree or a certificate at OCC. And it really shows that OCC is a part of this community and has added value to the community. So both of those things I found out were very good.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and my guest is Onondaga Community College President Warren Hilton. He became OCC’s president last summer. Well, President Hilton, you've spoken a couple of times now about Micron. I did want to ask you a couple of questions about that, because you really have arrived at what I think is a very interesting moment for the area, because for decades here in Syracuse, the dominant theme was how to manage and how to try to reverse some really long term declines in manufacturing and also population outmigration. And now that there has been this Micron investment announcement, and I have to say, I'll just let you know, we have in Syracuse seen this movie before with previous announcements of big things. But it does seem to me like there is a commitment to something that's really substantial, and that commitment seems pretty solid to me. And one of the things I was curious about is how is OCC thinking about responding to those opportunities and needs, and you've already spoken to that but if you want to add to that, certainly, by all means do that. But I also wanted to ask you the other side to this, just to get your perspective on it. I wonder if you have any concerns about Micron as far as OCC is concerned, becoming kind of like the tail that wags the dog because the amount of investment is just so large. And in terms of Syracuse's economy that I wonder whether they're you know, you're having conversations are thinking about, okay, we need to respond to it, but OCC can't become an extension of the Micron effort, if that makes sense.

WH: Well, I understand what you're asking Grant, and it's a perfectly good question and wise question and one that we have thought about and discussed on campus as well as at the state level. And so, you know, the first thing I'll say in that vein is that working with the folks in the SUNY system, we are going to have a coordinated effort across all of the community colleges on how we can provide that talent workforce for Micron. OCC will lead that effort, but we are not going to be selfish about it because the scale and magnitude of the talent that Micron will need, we’ll be coordinating with other community colleges and Micron to make sure that we're able to supply that workforce, so that's number one. Number two, I know everybody asks the question, is Micron, is this real? Will it come to fruition? I don't have the crystal ball but I can tell you in all my conversations and my experience working with large employers over the last 25 years, this company, Micron, feels a lot different than some of those other conversations. And we've had at OCC, the great advantage of visiting Micron's Northern Virginia chip fab and their community college partner in Northern Virginia. And they confirmed for us that Micron is different. So we're terribly excited about that and we are going to have that coordinated effort. Now with that, we'll be doing a few things. We'll be offering, as I said earlier, this kind of stackable arrangement, right? So there'll be a more like, most likely a 12 week program where we can train folks to go work for Micron. High paying jobs, we're being told, in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year. And then we're also developing and have a one year certificate program that will give people even more advanced training to continue to move up in the organization. And then we'll have a two year degree as well. Again, giving people the opportunity to upskill and move up in the organization. The bulk of the staff at that Clay facility will be with Micron calls process technicians and equipment technicians. So they're very specific skills that we're going to be training people on. And so we're going to use that layered approach so that we can get people in the industry, get them experience and things of that nature. And then the other last thing I'll mention is we're talking with Micron about a couple of things, how we, you know, supply the diverse workforce for them and how we do it with different on-ramp. So not just through our educational programs, maybe it's through an apprenticeship program and other things. So I'm very pleased about the experience we've had thus far with Micron, and I'm looking forward to it. And then we are building our own clean room on campus that will be a facility to train technicians in what it means to work in a clean room. And I think that's very critical. I've had the opportunity to visit clean room facilities and put the suit on. And it's a very different experience than working in any other advanced manufacturing environment.

GR: That all makes perfect sense and it sounds like you've really thought this through and the institution is ready to go. And I agree with you, it does feel different to me, too. And so, yeah, we'll just keep our fingers crossed on that.

WH: I have to say this, Grant, too. Anybody who wants to partner with OCC, we're willing to have that conversation not just about curriculum, but the other issues that will surround getting people to those jobs, transportation, childcare, all of those things are going to be critically important for us to solve to supply this talent pipeline.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is Onondaga Community College President Warren Hilton. So on a less happy note, I want to ask you about this other development, and that is Cazenovia College recently announced that it will close and you know, they're in a completely different situation from OCC. But nonetheless, I was just wondering whether that news gives you any pause.

WH: Yeah. So anytime somebody in the higher education family has to close, it's sad for all of us. And I think, you know, what I talked about earlier, there's at OCC, we want to continue to be responsive. And I don't know all the details of why Cazenovia is where they are, but we want to continue to be responsive to the community needs so that we become a chosen partner, whether it's partnering with a large organization like Micron or Amazon, whether it's partnering with K-through-12 schools or whether it's partnering with four year institutions like my colleagues at SU or LeMoyne, Oswego, etc. So we're very interested in making sure that we're being responsive to the needs that are out there in the community.

GR: And, you know, I teach at Syracuse University and I've had some really, really good students who have come from OCC and then go into SU. Two questions here: what is the relationship between OCC and SU, and have there been any discussions or would you be open to them of trying to forge a closer one than what already exists?

WH: Yeah, I think we have a solid relationship and certainly I've spoken with your Chancellor. I really like Chancellor Syverud and all of his staff over there. And we want to forge even closer partnerships and work with SU in ways where our students can continue to transfer. You talked about lacrosse earlier, so I know we've had a few lacrosse players that have transferred from OCC over to SU, but even in more ways than just athletics, we're looking forward to partnering and creating even closer ties because, you know, I see it as if OCC, SU, LeMoyne, you know, ESF, we all need to work together as opposed to working separately as competitors and then our whole region will be successful if we can figure out how we can partner together.

GR: And OCC, if I understand it correctly, it's only a two year institution or it's a two year only institution, I should say. And have there ever been conversations about making it into a four year institution? I guess this is the pattern across the entire state to have the community colleges be two year only. But do they ever reconsider this or is that set in stone?

WH: Yeah, that's a good question, I don't know if it's ever been considered here in the state. I know other states have had those discussions. You know, I think what we strive to do, as I said earlier, as community colleges and particularly OCC, be responsive to the community needs. And again, you know, whether you're 15 years old and high school and want to take one of our college classes while you're in high school, or whether you're 50 or 60 years old and you want to get some personal enrichment or upskill from any walk of life, whether you've been previously incarcerated, whether you have $1,000,000 in the bank. That's what community colleges are all about. Adult learners, workforce development and taking the traditional age student, giving them the two year degree so they can transfer to a four year institution or go directly into a career. And so that's really what OCC is all about. As I said earlier, it doesn't matter to us. We're part of the community and we want to serve everybody that we can in the community.

GR: So we've got a couple of minutes left. I wanted to ask you a couple more, I guess, more personal type of questions, if I could in the time we’ve got remaining. The first one is more personally, what are your impressions of central New York so far?

WH: Yeah, I really enjoyed it. So far, it's been great. The environment, the restaurants, I've probably partaken too much in eating. But the culture, the beauty, fall is just a fabulous time to be in Central New York. And as we head into this winter season, I'm looking forward to even some of the snow. So I think, you know, my family is excited to be here and I think central New York has a lot to offer and our institutions of higher education are strong here. And I didn't even mention Upstate Medical, you know, so, you know, those are some, just benefits to being in central New York.

GR: And you didn't mention Wegmans either, by the way. (laughter)

WH: Well, you know, that’s a place that I frequent quite, quite often. So yeah.

GR: You mentioned you mentioned eating, so that made me think of Wegman’.

WH: I think I think at least three times a week I'm in Wegmans, at least.

GR: I'll look for you there. Last question, as you've already spoken to a little bit but, it's not like you're a stranger to winter, but nonetheless, you've spent your career in warmer climes. Any thoughts about the winter so far here? You've gotten it easy so far but that's about to change.

WH: Yes. So, you know, I spent time in the Lehigh Valley, in Pennsylvania and in western Pennsylvania. So I'm no stranger to snow in the wintertime and inclement weather. I think the benefit here in central New York is that we can move, that we move the snow and so life does not shut down. Very similar to when I was in western Pennsylvania. Life doesn't shut down because it snows, right? And that's a beautiful thing. So I'm looking forward to a little snow here and there. And, you know, I know last winter they said we got it easy and we'll see how it goes this winter. But we're excited about being in central New York and OCC is doing some really, really fabulous things and the partnerships that we're developing is great. So, more to come.

GR: That's great. Well, by the time this airs, I think we'll have quite a bit more snow on the ground then right now as you and I are speaking. That was Warren Hilton. President Hilton, I want to just thank you again for taking the time to talk with me.

WH: Grant thank you for having me.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public Interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.