Q&A / Change is in the air at ECC
A conversation with new president, Dan Hocoy
Dan Hocoy had already spent a good part of his childhood visiting Buffalo when he signed on as Erie Community College’s new president last summer. The native Trinidadian’s family immigrated to Toronto when he was a young boy, and that’s where he grew up. Hocoy spoke no English at first, but did watch a lot of TV, much of it broadcast from Buffalo. Commander Tom, Irv Weinstein, Bowling for Dollars—longtime Buffalonians know the list. For Hocoy, it provided cultural as well as linguistic indoctrination. He went on to earn a psychology degree from the University of Toronto and a master’s and doctorate in the subject from Queen’s University in Kingston, eventually taking a series of academic postings, including associate vice chancellor of advancement for Antioch University System after a stint as president of Antioch University in Seattle. An advocate for diversity and interdisciplinary pollination, Hocoy is known as an innovator in academic circles, having published research and created programs to improve student success and foster new directions in teaching and community partnerships. He has already rebranded ECC (which some have dubbed Easy Credit College) as SUNY-ERIE (with ERIE standing for Efficiency, Relevance, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship).
How do you see the role of a community college?
This is my first time at a public institution. I am learning more about how the college fits into the community at the county level, in Western New York, and at the state level. Dealing with government is the difference, the complexities of the funding formula—one third of our funding is from the county and another third from the state. In the private sector, funding was mostly based on tuition. I will be frank; I think the current business model for our system is broken. My job includes trying to increase nontuition revenues—for example, through corporate sponsorships. They get the publicity and access to a workforce trained to meet their needs. It’s where the future is: more creative entrepreneurship, workforce development, and internship and training opportunities for our students. My priority as president is to train our students for future jobs—nanotechnology, for example, where you make solar panels instead of steel girders. Because that talent pipeline, that trained workforce, is how we ensure, as the number one community college in Western New York, that we are creating an environment that attracts the likes of Amazon, for instance, to want to come here. That’s my job, steward into the future.
Are you finding support among students, faculty, fellow administrators?
Coming from the West Coast, I can see that New York State is more traditional. And yet, there is definitely a recognition that change is needed for us to be relevant, and it is important for us to innovate. But change is hard; unless you are a baby in wet diapers, you don’t want to change! It’s a major endeavor to implement change among so many stakeholders, some of whom have a vested interest in keeping things as they are. I am impatient; I want change now. People’s fear of change is my biggest hurdle right now. Look at WNY history, from three generations back—what has change meant? Loss of jobs, loss of income, lost of a home—it is understandable why people resist change. So, the immediate past here is a major obstacle. We need to inspire the courage to recognize there are opportunities that come with change. In Western New York, so much potential is unrealized because of learned local history. For us to be competitive, we have to encourage thinking and openness, and finding solutions as obstacles present themselves. People are learning in different ways now.
Tell us about the course you developed using Facebook as a platform.
Most institutions of higher learning have some sort of online learning platform in response to student demand. The college has to pay for these platforms, which are offered by private companies. One day, I was traveling on the Bay Area Rapid Transit from Oakland to San Francisco, noticing that two-thirds of my fellow passengers had faces buried in their individual devices, and probably half of them were on Facebook. Why can’t we offer courses via Facebook, I thought—after all, it’s free. Senior faculty, who were resistant to online programs, were OK with this. We started using Facebook, and there was immediate engagement. If a professor saw a TED Talk he liked, he could link the students to it. Students were also contributing content, as peer instructors, not passive learners. The point is this innovation helps us offer more choices. We can work with multi-disciplinary teams, no longer a linear top-down hierarchy, but ideas generated from all around the world, from people of all different backgrounds. Students are driving the higher-ed market today, and the average student at SUNY-ERIE works three-quarters of the time outside of class, thirty hours a week. We have a daycare center here; we understand people have lives outside of this place! Unless we learn to use the technology that is here, we won’t continue to have award-winning programs, and our students will go elsewhere.
How do you maintain your equanimity—we notice a faithful canine friend in your office.
That’s Bear, and he is a therapy dog. I trained him myself with some psychological techniques. I have a heart condition, and he will lick my face until I wake up if I suddenly faint, or bark for help if I lose consciousness. He’s always with me. I am at our three campus locations at least weekly; my schedule is packed, and I spend a lot of time with students, at football games, and other activities. My parents and sister still live in Toronto, so I am glad to be back in this part of the country.
Maria Scrivani writes about local history and people who make a difference.