Case Studies

Highland Community College: “People didn’t seek to understand. We needed accountability.”

As the incoming president of Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois, Chris Kuberski met challenges right off the bat. Surveys and other internal data indicated trust and accountability issues. A culture challenged by little active listening and respect for differing perspectives had taken hold over time. It was time for a change.

Kuberski knew that rooting out negative culture was a challenge HCC needed to take on quickly in order to successfully strengthen and support its student culture. She saw that centering and fostering a strong student culture would stabilize the institution – setting it up for enrollment growth. But Kuberski could not accomplish this long-term goal until the deeper cultural work began. “If we have conflict between ourselves, our students pick up on that,” she notes. “They sense it in how we respond to them which leads to a less positive experience.”

The journey to accountability

Prior to stepping up as president, Kuberski served for five years as executive vice president at the college, which gave her a front-row seat to underlying cultural issues. With goodwill and the fresh energy driving her new role, she was able to articulate what was negative and engage Culture Partners in a process of transparency and accountability with HCC.

“People didn’t seek to understand,” Kuberski notes about the cultural temperature at HCC prior to its cultural transformation. “Often people didn’t productively deal with differences of opinion.  Instead of collaborating or taking a more professional approach to difficulty, they became defensive or shut down.”

Out of this painful recognition of the negative, Kuberski and stakeholders at Highland Community College began the hard work of creating accountability and rebuilding trust. This took time and collaborative, constructive conversation. Out of these conversations, HCC saw to its goals and laid out new positive cultural beliefs.  Utilizing faculty/staff partnerships for training purposes also helped strengthen trust across the institution.

One Highland

Highland developed the following core beliefs to hold administration, staff, and faculty together as one culture supporting its students:

  • Rise Up
    I actively participate in constructive and representative decision-making processes and support the outcome.
  • Open Up
    I listen with an open mind, seek to understand, share honestly, and communicate respectfully.
  • Own It
    I proudly contribute to the achievement of our goals.
  • Be Bold
    I embrace transformation, big or small.
  • One HCC
    I trust and collaborate because we are better together.

The crux of the culture work

Not long before the college began its culture work, it faced an accreditation issue. Accreditation notices are about academic quality, and HCC faced a challenge in academic assessment.

Kuberski is first to admit that the accreditation notice created an internal panic. However, she notes that the campus community, working within the cultural beliefs of rising up and being bold, transformed the gathering storm into a passing cloud. “Everyone stepped up and showed what we can do when we work collaboratively,” says Kuberski. “We took an all-hands-on-deck approach, surpassed the expectation, and were commended.”

Even bolder

Empowered by its positive culture shift, Highland Community College reset the bar and achieved momentous results in the past few years:

  • Secured a $10K CampusWorks grant for its continuing culture work
  • Weathered the transition to online learning and the transition back to an in-person/online hybrid model during the pandemic
  • Created Campus Connection: a weekly communication forum to share about institutional issues and goals – and how to meet them together  

“By focusing on ‘Be Bold,’ I see less hesitation to take risks and try new things,” says Kuberski. “I don’t see people throwing caution to the wind, but they are reframing the question to ‘How do we do that?’” The shift from a mindset of hesitation to asking “how” has emboldened HCC and will benefit students and employees for years to come.

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