New LCC president takes the rudder in a storm


Steve Robinson says Lansing Community College changed his life.

And now it’s his turn to change LCC.

“LCC is where my community college career started,” said Robinson, who takes over as LCC’s seventh president Monday.

“Halfway through my master’s degree in English, I tagged along with someone who was teaching at LCC and just fell in love with community college teaching.”

Robinson, 52, moved to East Lansing at 18 to attend Michigan State University, where he earned three degrees. He lived here for a dozen years — even commuting to Flint for a few years for his first full-time teaching job, at Mott Community College.

The internship at LCC opened Robinson’s eyes to a classroom setting far more diverse than his suburban Detroit high school and MSU. Some students were younger than he was, while others were older than his parents. “There were students from every socioeconomic walk of life, diversity in terms of race. I just fell in love with the exciting energy in the classroom.”

He remembers returning to East Lansing after his first day at LCC knowing what he wanted to do with his career.

“It was really one of these light bulb moments,” he said. On his wall is a master’s degree in community college teaching from MSU. “It was the great relationship between LCC and MSU that launched my career. It’s been my professional passion ever since.”

Robinson comes to Lansing as LCC’s seventh president after serving as the seventh president of Owens Community College, in Perrysburg, Ohio, near Toledo, a school with about half the enrollment of LCC’s 16,000. He will be paid $250,000 a year at LCC, the same as his predecessor, Brent Knight, who retires Friday, and will live on campus in the Herrmann House, on Capitol Avenue, a 5,000-square-foot, Tudor-style home built in 1893 that Knight restored as a presidential residence. Robinson’s wife ,Kathryn, who is human resources director at the Toledo Museum of Art, will stay in Ohio this year while their 17-year-old daughter finishes high school. Their 19-year-old son will be a freshman at MSU.

LCC’s Board of Trustees announced its choice of Robinson on May 18. The board split, 4-3, between Robinson and LCC Executive Vice President Lisa Webb Sharpe. Longtime board member Larry Meyer voted for Webb Sharpe — whom he called “extraordinarily qualified” — because he believes promoting from within is “better in terms of continuity and the velocity of progress you are making.” But Meyer expressed the “highest regard” for Robinson. He called the four finalists “an incredible group of talented people.” The other two finalists were Northern Vermont University President Elaine Collins and Muskegon Community College President Dale K. Nesbary.

Besides his stint at Owens Community College, Robinson has worked as the executive dean of planning and research at Mott Community College in Flint, a graduate faculty member in English at University of Michigan-Flint and faculty adviser and chairman in the Doctorate in Community College Leadership program at Ferris State University.

At LCC, Robinson will face the same immediate and related challenges at LCC as he has on his way out the door at Owens Community College: budget and enrollment in the age of COVID-19. In Ohio, he said he put together a “respectable budget,” given an anticipated 20% cut in state funding, and expects he will oversee further cuts to the budget that he will inherit at LCC for the new fiscal year, which began July 1.

“And then the other piece that every higher education organization is working on is how to safely get back to face to face instruction, given the public health crisis with COVID,” he said. “It’s a challenge for everyone, even for community colleges that don’t have residence life.”

Robinson said he expects “some real volatility” in revenue because of uncertainties over state funding and student enrollment, which, along with property taxes, make up the school’s three prime money sources. He said enrollment normally increases as the economy sours, but no one knows whether an influx of out-of-work and underemployed workers will boost enrollment at LCC this time around. The so-called counter-cyclical relationship between higher education enrollment and the economy may not hold up “in this incredibly disruptive time of the coronavirus,” he said.

“The colleges that are nimble and innovative are the ones that are going to be able to adapt,” he said. “There are 28 community colleges in Michigan, and I think Lansing is poised to weather this storm through resilience and a lot of great planning. But it’s going to be a challenge — and it’s challenged by things that could turn on a dime.”

Robinson expressed admiration for the return-to-school plan LCC executives have put together, which he called “thoughtful and, in many ways, conservative. It’s primarily an online semester in the fall with some notable exceptions, and I think that’s prudent.”

He said the pandemic exacerbates what he referred to as unequal educational outcomes for students, depending on race and financial need.

“Students of color and from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are not retained and do not complete at the same rate,” he said. “Good community colleges, including Lansing Community College, have been working on this equity issue for some time because, frankly, it’s just not an acceptable outcome. Community colleges exist to provide educational opportunities, and if those opportunities aren’t realized at the same rate among demographic groups of students, we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do.”

He said LCC’s trustees have adopted “a very thoughtful resolution on racial injustice. What I love about that document is it’s not just a posture, or a position. Built into it is some action.” One of his first tasks will be to assemble a team to develop an equity action plan — “not just words, but the things that we do to address what we’re seeing with systemic racism and the disparate outcomes in our community. Community colleges are this great democratizing force in our country. That’s why I love community colleges, and so I think that will be a huge issue for community colleges going forward.”

Add that to budgetary, enrollment and pandemic-related uncertainties that Robinson faces and it’s clear he will have a short honeymoon, if any, in his new post.

But he has at least one outlet to deal with the stress: the banjo.

While still a student, he helped support himself working at Elderly Instruments, just north of LCC in Old Town, where he picked up the banjo. He ended up teaching it to himself on lunch breaks. That led to an eight-year stint playing in a string band that had a weekly gig at the old Traveler’s Club and Tuba Museum restaurant in Okemos.

So, when he needed a break last week while in town to prep with his predecessor, where did he go?

To Elderly Instruments to check out the banjos.


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