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Leadership at All Levels of Higher Ed

Leadership at All Levels of Higher Ed

A Conversation With Casey Sacks, President of BridgeValley Community and Technical College

Most leaders that we meet through the University Innovation Alliance (UIA) arrived at their jobs by moving upward or laterally. However, in this episode of the Weekly Wisdom Series, we spoke with President Casey Sacks, who began working at West Virginia’s BridgeValley Community and Technical College after serving two years as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Colleges at the U.S. Department of Education. President Sacks talked to us about the view on the ground versus the big picture, her personal leadership journey, some of her proudest accomplishments, strategies for decision making, and the power of both information and knowledge.

Bringing Federal-Level Higher Ed Experience Back to the Community

President Sacks’ shared how federal-level experience gave her a different perspective as a college president:

“I understand federal grants better than many of my colleagues. Working at ED gave me insight about how policy's actually made, and one thing I keep seeing is that higher ed doesn't advocate for itself the same way that other sectors do. Most industry lobbies have PACs and do things differently than we do in higher education.”

Quote: higher ed doesn't advocate for itself the same way that other sectors do. Most industry lobbies have PACs and do things differently than we do in higher education.

She noted that local leaders, while advocating for their own institutions and responding to community needs, might benefit from understanding regional- and state-level dynamics:

“I learned at the federal level that when states compete internally for grant money, everyone loses the award. But if you come together and say, ‘This is a community college project,’ and half of the community colleges in the state are all doing one application, you're more likely to find success.

“When I came back to West Virginia, I wrote a Strengthening Community Colleges project in collaboration with colleagues in Parkersburg. We submitted it under Parkersburg, not under BridgeValley, because we could see how the Feds would evaluate it, and we knew we'd earn three extra points by submitting as Parkersburg. And that got us the grant. Sometimes that collaborative approach will be more successful.”

Even so, President Sacks acknowledged that leaders must also tend their own garden:

“I recognized that we needed serious facilities upgrades in nursing. I went to our governor and said, ‘We need $9 million for a nursing project.’ And what I got told was, ‘How about I give you three?’ We got $3 million that none of the other colleges got. Would I have loved to have said, ‘There's nine of us and we all need $9 million?’ For sure. But that day, I had the opportunity to advocate for my own institution, and we ended up with a great result.”

Personal Paths to Educational Leadership

We like asking about what informed our guests’ leadership style, and President Sacks offered this wonderful anecdote:

“My family did not have horses. They don't even like horses. But when I was eight, I was in the car with my mom, and there was a story on public radio about a kids’ drill team on horseback. I wrote the phone number on my arm and called when I got home and signed myself up for it. And then told my parents, ‘Next Wednesday, you're going to take me so I can sign up for this horseback riding group.’ I did that from eight until I was 18, and I still to this day ride horses. They're incredible because, while horses can't talk, it is absolutely a partnership. And that's something you learn early on: how do I lead with this horse who I'm now partnered with? But the drill team part meant that I was with a lot of other kids, riding at speed, running around arenas, and safety and listening to each other was an immediate issue. That was formative.”

In her professional life, President Sacks collects mentors whose leadership skills or strengths have impressed her and whom she can always count on for advice. She also admitted that sometimes her own lived experience is the best leadership teacher:

“In leadership development and training, there's certain core aspects of being a college president that people prepare you for. No one prepared me for inheriting 300,000 vacant square feet and that I’d become a quick expert about construction and trying to get rid of vacant buildings. We toured one building and thought there might be a meth lab in there, and so had to bring in the drug dogs and bomb squad to make sure that it wasn't true. That day I felt like I was probably the only president in the country who could definitively say that I did not have a meth lab on campus. Certainly no one told me to prepare for that. My colleagues who have been at this a while say that you’ll always have those ‘no one could have told me this was going to happen’ kinds of things.”

Landmark Leadership Results

As a leader who learns how to do things and get results, President Sacks shared some favorite accomplishments at both federal and local levels:

“I'm really proud of the way we leveraged CARES funds when I was at the Department of Education. When the coronavirus hit and we got CARES, Secretary DeVos was likely to spend all the discretionary funding on charter schools because that's so much of the focus of her work. I was able to advocate for workforce development and workforce programming, and we ended up spending half of the discretionary dollars on workforce programming. That happened because I was able to be in the room and say how important this was.

“As a president, I'm incredibly proud of my campus and this community. Being brave enough to open a charter school and figure out how to get more high school students early college experiences has been tremendous, and it's been so much fun to see students and parents get access to that kind of programming. North Carolina has completely scaled early college, so we're not creating something new, but it's novel in West Virginia. It's tremendous that this community has trusted me enough to come along and say, ‘Yes, this is the right thing for our students.’”

Shared Leadership Wisdom

The UIA is about sharing experience and advice, and our Weekly Wisdom guests frequently pass along what they’ve learned and how they implement it. Recalling her time in the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, President Sacks told us:

Bob Templin said, ‘Being a leader, being a college president is just making decisions over and over again. That's the whole job.’ I think his idea is make a decision and make it right. There's no perfect decision. There's no perfect way of doing it. And once you've decided, then make that be the right decision and move forward, because you can't keep worrying about it for forever.”

She added that executive decision-making is often collaborative:

“If it's a college-level decision, it's bringing my leadership council together and saying, ‘Here's the problem we're dealing with as an institution. How do we fix it?’ If it's a legislative problem, it might be other college presidents in the state and probably our state chancellor. My board is phenomenal, so often it's calling on them for their expertise. I have some incredibly supportive board members who care deeply about this community. And they say, ‘You know how to president, but we know how to do all these other things.’ They're lawyers, businesspeople, and professional advocates. And so that's been so lucky.”

Advice for Future Higher Ed Leaders

Another side of sharing experience and advice is what we tell younger people interested in leadership. President Sacks advises them:

“Read. I'm always sending my leadership team things to read. And it's not just higher ed, although that is my first expectation. After that, we can talk about whatever else is in the news, because those are the things that affect us: the stock market, and the fact that we have a company in town building electric vehicles, and how an EPA decision about electric buses is going to affect legislation that's going to happen here in town, and the 600 people who we're training for that particular facility. It's just connecting those dots and helping other people connect those dots. That's incredibly important.”

She also urges others to read books as well as news stories:

“There is a book called The College Administrator’s Survival Guide that's actually quite good. The books that I find myself recommending most right now are often classic literature. I think classic literature is classic for a reason. Depending on what you tell me is going on with you, I will come back with, ‘Have you read Tolstoy? Do you know about this Dickens novel?’ So often, we're really practical in community colleges. I'm teaching people welding and diesel mechanics and electrical engineering, and those things are wonderful, but those students aren't reading a lot of classic literature. And so, my advice often is around something that would expand what you're thinking about to give you a different or more perspective.”

Note: This interview in the Weekly Wisdom Series originally aired on February 26, 2024 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together Podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Linked Mentioned in this Episode

Bios of Guest and Co-Hosts

Sacks, headshot

Guest: Casey Sacks, President, BridgeValley Community and Technical College Dr. Casey K. Sacks is President at BridgeValley Community and Technical College. Prior to this position, and because of her long-time advocacy for creating structures that help students complete college and move into jobs that allow them to sustain their families and support their communities, Dr. Sacks served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education from December 2018 to January 2021. She was also Interim Vice Chancellor at the Community and Technical College System of West Virginia from January 2021 to June 2021, and Vice Chancellor at the Community and Technical College System of West Virginia from December 2016 to November 2018, during which she started a Deans’ Academy to help support mid- level managers. Prior to these positions, she was Assistant Provost at Colorado Community College System from January 2009 to December 2016. Dr. Sacks holds a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from Bowling Green State University, a Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology from the University of Colorado - Colorado Springs, and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Colorado State University. She is certified by The Ohio State University in DACUM (Develop A Curriculum) and by the Community College of Aurora in Mediation. She is an active Rotarian, avid equestrian, and travel enthusiast.

Co-Host: Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founding Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). For the past decade, she has advised university presidents, system chancellors, and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs, and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. The UIA was developed during Bridget’s tenure as an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellowship at Arizona State University. She held multiple roles within the Oregon University System, including serving as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, where she won the national award for innovation in higher education government relations. She was a National Associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and has served on several statewide governing boards including ones governing higher education institutions, financial aid policy, and policy areas impacting children and families.

Co-Host: Doug Lederman, Editor and Co-Founder, Inside Higher Ed
Doug Lederman is editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. With Scott Jaschik, he leads the site's editorial operations, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Doug speaks widely about higher education, including on C-Span and National Public Radio and at meetings and on campuses around the country. His work has appeared in The New York Times and USA Today, among other publications. Doug was managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003, after working at The Chronicle since 1986 in a variety of roles. He has won three National Awards for Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association, including one for a 2009 series of Inside Higher Ed articles on college rankings. He began his career as a news clerk at The New York Times. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated in 1984 from Princeton University. Doug and his wife, Kate Scharff, live in Bethesda, MD.

About Weekly Wisdom
Weekly Wisdom is an event series that happens live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also becomes a podcast episode. Every week, we join forces with Inside Higher Ed and talk with a sitting college president or chancellor about how they're specifically navigating the challenges of this moment. These conversations will be filled with practicable things you can do right now by unpacking how and why college leaders are making decisions within higher education. Hopefully, these episodes will also leave you with a sense of optimism and a bit of inspiration.

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