Demetra T. Overton decided it was time to make a career switch when her job as an auditor for a pharmaceutical company became too stressful. When her employer offered her a severance package in 2005, Ms. Overton took it. Then she spent a year trying to figure out what she really wanted to do.
She found the answer at Wake Technical Community College, where she began working as chemistry lab technician four years ago. "I was so excited when I heard the job duties," says Ms. Overton, a former high-school chemistry teacher. "I instantly knew that Wake Tech was the place for me to be. After all this time, I'm back in the lab."
Ms. Overton is one of about 840 full-time employees (453 of those are faculty members) at a college where faculty and staff members say they can openly discuss job issues and concerns with administrators.
MORE ON THE ACADEMIC WORKPLACE: Buy The Chronicle's Special Report
Wake Tech employees who responded to The Chronicle's third annual Great Colleges to Work For survey cited that openness as one of the college's positive workplace features. College officials invite employees at every level to propose problem-solving ideas. Ms. Overton recalls one of the first times she heard Wake Tech's president, Stephen C. Scott, speak at a college event: "He told us that his idea of leadership was to foster an environment that people want to be a part of, not just a place to work for," says Ms. Overton, who was promoted in May to coordinator of science labs.
"I feel like these are my labs, and what I say about them makes a difference. If you have an idea about how to make something better, there's a way to be heard here."
And that's just the way Mr. Scott wants it. He has served as a community-college president before, at two other North Carolina institutions, and was executive vice president of the state's 58-institution community-college system. During the task of leading a former institution through some challenging times, Mr. Scott began to see faculty and staff members in a different light. "I just thought, the president needs to focus on the employees, and they can then focus on the students," says Mr. Scott, who first entered the community-college arena more than 30 years ago as an adjunct instructor. "I came to the conclusion that I needed to remove the barriers."
Mr. Scott brought that mind-set to Wake Tech when he arrived in 2003. One of the first things on his to-do list was to meet as many faculty and staff members as possible. At the gatherings, "I just let people talk," says Mr. Scott, who continues to meet regularly with the college's faculty association and its staff council.
When instructors on full-time, temporary contracts told the president that not being paid during instruction breaks (such as spring vacation) created a financial hardship, Mr. Scott acted. Using money from enrollment growth, he converted those 115 positions to regular, full-time faculty slots, giving those instructors an extra month's pay once all the break weeks were factored in. And when Mr. Scott learned that employees were frustrated with the institution's out-of-date computers and limited Internet access, the college added more than 2,000 new computers and expanded and upgraded its Internet service, from 2005 to 2008. (The college used money allocated for new equipment, along with money from a technology fee, to pay the cost.)
Another request from faculty members: Create a leadership program to help them advance in their careers. College officials did that in 2004. The three-year employee-leadership program meets in five phases. During the first three years more than 60 faculty and staff members were promoted as a result of training, which includes sessions on the history and philosophy of community colleges, conflict resolution, and decision making.
Dianne B. Hinson, dean of the college's Health Sciences Campus, remembers how seriously Mr. Scott took those meetings with faculty and staff members when he first arrived. "He answered questions, and he took lots and lots of notes." So when a statewide change in the nursing curriculum for community colleges threatened to throw Wake Tech's nursing program for a loop in 2009, Ms. Hinson knew where to go. The curriculum change meant a large number of students would need clinical experience at the same time, but there weren't enough spots to accommodate them. Ms. Hinson met with Mr. Scott and suggested delaying clinicals for one group of students for a semester until slots were freed up. Mr. Scott agreed and students took a certified-nursing-assistant course in the interim.
"I don't think I had another job prior to here where your opinion was sought after and acted on," says Ms. Hinson, who came to Wake Tech in 1993 as a biology instructor.
One way to help maintain a healthy workplace is to talk with employees on a regular basis to hear issues before they become serious complaints, says Gerald A. Mitchell, Wake Tech's executive vice president. He works at the college's main campus but visits other Wake Tech locations weekly. The college has five campuses and two centers that serve about 23,000 degree-seeking students and about 46,000 continuing-education students.
"I call it management by walking around," Mr. Mitchell says. "If people feel you're approachable, then they'll pass on information to you."
The rapport that Mr. Mitchell and others administrators work so hard to build with faculty and staff members appeared to have paid off in the last academic year when budget cuts brought about some austerity measures. The college hired fewer adjuncts than in previous years and asked the faculty to offer extra classes to meet demand. Some faculty members were asked to add an extra course to their teaching load (that meant seven classes per semester for instructors who teach business courses and certain classes needed for college transfer), for which they were compensated. The college's English instructors, for example, agreed to add students to existing online courses only, but they increased the cap for such courses by one student, to 21.
"At first there was widespread panic when they first started talking about increasing class size," says Rebecca L. Neagle, an instructor who became head of the English department in April. "We were very apprehensive until we got a better sense of how it would all work."
Meanwhile, some staff members and administrators also taught course sections but did not receive extra pay. Among them was the college's vice president for curriculum education, Bryan K. Ryan, who taught English composition. "I think it made the faculty feel good to see that administrators were stepping up and taking on extra responsibility and they weren't getting compensated," Ms. Neagle says. "That showed we were all in this together."
In return, the college was able to avoid layoffs, allowing Mr. Scott to keep a promise he made at a college convocation in the fall of 2008.
MORE ON THE ACADEMIC WORKPLACE: Buy The Chronicle's Special Report
"We basically said, If you help us, we'll help you," Mr. Scott says. "We said if they'll go the extra mile for the students, we'll go the extra mile for them."
Going that extra mile means the college handed out bigger paychecks—even as the effects of the recession dragged on. State officials had given the college permission to tap state funds to give raises only to faculty members. But Mr. Scott was concerned that leaving staff members out would cause a rift between the two groups. So Wake Tech tapped its reserves to give staff members a 3-percent bonus. "We're a team here," Mr. Scott says.
The college's newest campus, with about 250 full-time faculty and staff members, has most recently reaped the benefits of Mr. Scott's management style. Gayle Greene, associate vice president of the Northern Wake campus, has been busy carving out a niche in the Wake Tech family for the LEED-certified campus complex that opened in 2007.
Ms. Greene, of course, has sought the suggestions of employees. Focus groups early on resulted in a long list of goals and improvement projects, such as purchasing updated projectors for classrooms. She keeps those lists, on sheets of lined paper, tucked in a desk drawer in her office—a sizable space bathed in natural light—and crosses items off once they have been resolved. "I think the best ideas should rule," she says.
At Wake Tech, employees say administrators seem to understand that faculty and staff members sometimes really do know what's best—especially in their areas of expertise. Richard D. Moore, an instructor in electronics technology, enjoys a level of autonomy that he says befits his 19-year tenure as an instructor and many years as an electrician. "They know I know what I'm doing, and they let me do my job," he says.
Steven R. Harless, a full-time English instructor, agrees. "They recognize the level of skill we bring to our work," says Mr. Harless, who was first hired 12 years ago as a part-timer.
Another unexpected perk, Mr. Moore says, is the satisfaction he gets from steering students into their chosen professions. Like many community colleges, Wake Tech attracts students fresh out of high school, seasoned workers looking to hone their skills for a new career, and many other students who fall somewhere in between. "I get to work with students who don't know anything" about becoming an electrician "and turn them into an employable person," says Mr. Moore, as his students worked earnestly in a lab class last month.
As for Ms. Overton, she has added cheerleading coach to her duties, a job she volunteered to take on a year ago.
"The people that I serve are often changing their lives, and I was changing my life, too," Ms. Overton says about her arrival on the campus. "The people who work here, we're not here because we have to be but because we want to be."