William F. Messner, 72, said goodbye to Holyoke Community College Friday, Aug. 5, retiring after 12 years as the school's third president.
Before he left, Messner sat down for an interview, during which he talked about his time at HCC as well as his career in higher education. He talked about how he got his start as a teacher and college administrator, about the importance of open access to higher education and the mission of community colleges, and what he's learned about the people he's worked with at HCC. He talked about his problems learning to read as a child, and he explained the origins of a childhood nickname few people who work with him knew he had.
But first, it's worth noting just a few of the major accomplishments for which Messner will be remembered, which were highlighted in a commendation he received June 14 from the state Department of Higher Education:
On June 16, President Messner received an award from the Council for Human Understanding for his contributions to education and the community. More specifically, he was recognized for extending the HCC campus and its programs to downtown Holyoke through the creation of PAFEC and for his participation in numerous community organizations.
In 2012, he received a Difference Maker Award from Business West, which cited his efforts to improve access to education to underserved groups, particularly Latinos. During Messner's tenure, the percentage of Latinos among HCC's study body has risen from 14 percent to 25 percent.
Messner announced his plan to retire in February. Bill Fogarty, vice president of Administration and Finance, will serve as the interim president until a new president is hired.
You were invited last spring to give the keynote speech at the HCC Foundation Scholarship reception. In your talk you mentioned that your nickname growing up was Rusty.
MESSNER: Yea, that's not one we bandy about. That's a family name.
I thought maybe you were going to say you grew up with a shock of red hair.
MESSNER: Well, I did. That's how I got it. My grandmother, who was big on giving nicknames to everybody, gave that to me. For my family, they still call me that. Nobody else.
You grew up in the Bronx.
MESSNER: Grew up in the Bronx. Born there, raised there on the mean streets. I always got lost when I went to Queens.
When did you realize you wanted to be a teacher?
MESSNER: Probably around the first grade. That same grandmother was a teacher. She used to take me down to her classroom in Manhattan, and, I don't know, I just got the bug.
Where did she teach?
MESSNER: P.S. something. A public school in Manhattan. She was married to a New York City cop who passed away suddenly, and she had three little girls, 1920s I guess it must have been. So, back in the 1920s, there was no safety net, so she got her certificate or whatever and taught, I don't know, maybe first or second grade in New York City schools for 30 years. She raised three girls, one of whom was my mother, and I remember I had problems with reading when I was in first grade, so she would take me to her classroom and then after school she'd take me — she lived around the block from us — every day I'd go around the block and she'd sit me at the table. After teaching a full day in Manhattan, she'd run me through my paces with Dick and Jane or whatever the heck it was. After a year, I was reading pretty well.
It sounds like she had a big impact on you.
MESSNER: Yea, she did. She did, certainly in that regard.
When did you figure out what kind of teacher you wanted to be?
MESSNER: By the time I got to fourth or fifth grade, I knew I wanted to teach history. Used to go up to the local library and bury myself in the stacks and read history books. My dad was a big on history. He should have been an academic. But he in fact went through Manhattan College and had the bad luck to graduate as an engineer in the depths of the Depression when there weren't nobody hiring engineers. So he never engineered a day in his life but he always had this yen for history so there were always history books around the house.
What did he wind up doing?
MESSNER: He wound up being a salesman for a variety of firms and then in the mid-50s he caught on with Merrill Lynch, and he ultimate became a vice president at Merrill Lynch, although he didn't have a damn thing to do with stocks. He did this. (He knocks on the desk). You need a desk for your office? I'm the guy to see. He was in charge of what was called purchasing for Merrill Lynch.
When did you decide to go into academic administration?
MESSNER: I didn't have a clue. I was a young faculty member at an invisible institution called Keystone in northeast Pennsylvania. Non-tenured. Never had done anything administratively. And the president got run out of town, and when the president got run out of town — they didn't have vice presidents in those days; you had deans — the academic dean up and left too, and the new interim president, who was a board member — he had been the president of the telephone company, so he wasn't really an academic in that sense — so he moved into the president's chair, and he puts out a call. Who would be interested in being interim dean? I put my hand up, and there all these veteran division heads and department chairs. For some reason, only one of them put their hand up. So it was just me and this other guy who had like 20 years of administrative experience, and he picked me. I didn't have a clue.
Didn't have a clue, so I spent a year as interim dean, he spent a year as interim president, and then the board chose him to be permanent president, and he said, Bill I like ya. We seem to work well together. I said, ok, I'll become dean, so I became dean.
Spent 10 years doing that. Then he retired, and they brought in some lunatic to be president. He was psycho, and I said, I'm outta here, so I went to a large community college next door in the next state over, New York. Got there, three months later the president who hired me got run out of town on a rail. They brought in some veteran interim president. He was great. We worked together for a year, they did a search for a permanent president. I put my hand up. They couldn't find anybody, so they said, we'll take the tall guy.
So I became president. I spent 10 years doing that. Went up to Albany for a year-and-a-half for a system job at SUNY. That was crazy. Republicans took over. I said, uh-uh. I am not working for these people, so went off to Wisconsin, ran a system out there for seven years and then, back here.
Why did you want to come to HCC?
MESSNER: It was, number one, location. We wanted to get back to the Northeast. When I went out to Wisconsin I went out there for a few reasons: It was my alma mater. I always loved Madison. I always loved the university, despite what Mr. Walker is doing out there now. That was one reason. I went out for a second reason, because the people out there, my boss who was head of the university of Wisconsin, she was just wonderful, and it was an interesting job, 13 campuses all over the state, and they were in shambles. They needed somebody to pull things together.
But when I went out I told them, I'll give you five years and we're coming back, and my boss said, that's fine. In fact, I gave them seven years.
So, it was location number one; number two, it was an interesting fit. HCC was a lot like the place I had done my first presidency at over in New York. Transfer focus, liberal arts, general education. You know, it wasn't STCC. I didn't want a technical institution. Quite frankly, it was the most interesting opportunity around at that moment in time. Kids were getting married, and we felt we needed to get back.
After you got the job at HCC you initiated a professional development day called "Into Holyoke," where faculty and staff went downtown to learn about the city. What was that about?
MESSNER: Oh, yea, that was sort of early on, to get everybody down into town where half the people had never been and get 'em around the city of Holyoke. I remember one of the stops we made — I didn't put it together; Marvin (Weaver, former dean of Resource Development) was here and there were probably others — I remember we went into a housing complex down in the Flats, and these people were good enough to let us into their apartments, and that was an eye-opener, and we went into a school down in the Flats; we went into Nuestras Raices in the Flats. I mean, it was all pretty much focused on the Flats, which of course, even if you go down into the town you don't tend to go into the Flats, so it was a good day for everybody, myself included.
Did the day accomplish what you hoped it would?
MESSNER: I think so. Get to know the city a bit and get to get a better sense of the city and the city's residents. I mean, walking into these folks' apartments, they were lovely apartments. Modest, but lovely. This ain't the ghetto. People live here and even though they may not speak English very well they seemingly are people like us. Who woulda thunk it?
That was part of your mission when you came, to make the college look more like the community?
MESSNER: In a way. The sense I got of the place. It was a great place, great academics that had been somewhat divorced from some of the things that were going on outside of it. Some of that, like the workforce stuff, we were terrible. The folks who were heading that up back in those days wouldn't like hearing that, but it's true. We sucked. But there were other things in terms of just connecting to community organizations and community groups and making ourselves more visible to people who are in need of higher ed. There were just more needs out there than we were addressing.
The needs we were addressing we did a great job with, but the notion of a community college, in terms of everything that community colleges are supposed to be doing, we had taken sort of a narrow view.
This is a question we commonly ask students: Do you have a favorite course or program here at HCC?
MESSNER: Yea, I do, but I can't tell ya.
You seem to have a particular fondness for Gateway to College. You gave the keynote speech at their most recent graduation.
MESSNER: Yea, I do have a fondness for Gateway cause it tends to encapsulize everything we should be doing both on the front end, in terms of being accessible and accessible to people, many of whom never thought they'd be able to access a college education, some of whom never thought they'd get a high school education. But we're also doing it in a way that demonstrates rigor and emphasis on students being successful. It's not just, here's the open door, but here's the open door, now shape up. If you don't shape up, we're gonna help you shape up. We're gonna grab you by the back of the neck until you do shape up. So that whole notion of tough love, which I think the staff over there do a wonderful job of.
Now, they're not the only program. You know, the moment I say I like Gateway, it's oh, what are we chopped liver? There's many others: the STRIVE program has done a wonderful job. Maureen Conroy (director of the Office for Students with Disabilities and Deaf Services) and the whole group in disabilities. You know, you could just go on and on, but Gateway tends to stand out because it is of a different character, a little bit different character. High school kids? We had a rough go of it the first couple of years. Part of that was our fault. We didn't make real good choices in terms of staffing. After a couple of years, we got it right. But it also took the campus a little while to put its arms around it, but over time I think most folks have come to embrace the program.
You also seem to be very fond of our adult basic education programs and the ABE students who move on to HCC.
MESSNER: Yea. You know you can't get involved with those programs and even on a very superficial level come into contact with the folks who are immersed in them without leaving and saying, my god, that's a very rewarding activity, not only for the students but for the staff and the faculty and the campus as a whole.
Seven years I spent at the University of Wisconsin. The campuses I was responsible for were . . . they weren't community colleges but they had some of the flavor of it. But I also did a lot of rubbing of shoulders of the universities. My office was right at the university of Madison, and so you get caught up in that scene. And it's a great scene. But at the end of the day, these are students at these selective places that . . . they're going to succeed irrespective of what you do. If you just leave 'em alone, they're probably going to do fine and if you can add some value, that's great. But they're not going to sink or swim, most of those students, based on what you or a faculty member or a staff member do. They've got all sorts of family support systems in place, and they've had all sorts of experiences in education that have fully prepared them.
That ain't the case with many of our students, in particular the students in those adult programs who come from god knows. So very often the critical element is the support that the institution can bring to those students, and that's not to give short shrift to the students themselves because they've overcome all sorts of stuff just to get there, but then getting from there to whatever the goal of the program is without the support of a lot of folks for many of those students, it ain't going to happen.
You were asked to speak at this year's HCC Foundation Scholarship reception as a donor. You talked about the scholarships you received yourself as a college student and advised this year's recipients to pay it forward, which you're doing. You and your wife Ellie endowed a scholarship that each year benefits a student at HCC who earned a high school equivalency degree.
MESSNER: It's a reflection of A. what we believe in, and B. what the focus of the institution overall should be.
Here's another question we often ask students: What's been your most memorable or meaningful moment at HCC?
MESSNER: I dunno. There's been a lot of them. There's been a lot of good stuff. There's been a lot of, you know, not a lot but some stuff that in the moment at least didn't appear all that good. All that craziness around the anti-war. In '05, my first year here, when all hell broke loose on campus. That was pretty damn memorable and what I remember about that was, a couple of things. Number one, some faculty and staff really stepping up when it wasn't a very popular thing, stepping up and trying to counsel people to do the right thing.
I remember one person, I won't mention any names, who came to the defense of one of the campus police officers who had taken an appropriate but very unpopular action in the middle of the melee, and some people said, you know, oh, that was terrible what that police officer did. I remember this one person sent out an email to the campus saying, I know that police officer and he's committed to the institution, he's committed to students, and what he did was entirely appropriate. It wasn't a very popular thing to say. And then coming out of that, irrespective of people's perceptions of that melee, was a sort of coming together around . . . we've got to do a better job of working with students and having students find positive ways of expressing differences, because that had been the root cause of it, groups of students who couldn't express political opinions without engaging in pretty outrageous behavior.
That's one of our jobs as an institution. You can have your political opinions but you need to be able to express them in some civil and hopefully positive way as opposed to having a near riot.
A lot of good stuff has gone on over the years, but, generally speaking, it's revolved around students and students or community members who have seen this place as a way to improve their lives. Again, a lot of the more selective institutions, they tend to be, this is a credential. I need to have that degree from Harvard, and it's not so much about adding value cause I went to Andover or you know, whatever. Here is really about adding value. People may not express it in quite that way but at the end of the day, that's what happens.
What's been your proudest achievement at HCC?
MESSNER: I think we've broadened the definition of what it means to be a community college. I think we've focused on community. So I think we've done a good job with that. I think a lot of people here have focused on that. I think the next guy or gal in the door is probably going to have to focus on the measurables in regard to student success, and that's a good thing and a bad thing, in my estimation. It's a good thing because obviously you not only want students to come in the front door but you want them to be successful leaving. No doubt about that. My fear is putting too much of an emphasis on those measurables — What's your graduation rate? What's your retention rate? — you know, will lead to less of an emphasis on keeping the door open.
Because, by becoming more selective and squeezing the number you let in the front door you can artificially boost your "success" rate?
MESSNER: Yea. Exactly. And the fact of the matter is, if you're dealing with a lot of students who have a lot of challenges, the unfortunate fact is you're not going to be successful with everyone, cause life gets in the way. But being successful with 50 percent of those folks is far more important than being successful with 70 to 80 percent of a more select population, cause that population is going to be successful anyway whether they go here or not.
What was the biggest challenge you've had to overcome at HCC?
MESSNER: Just getting people focused on this process of outreach, getting them to accept — and again Gateway was the best example of that, but there are other examples ... . the ICE Program and others of that sort — that all of this is part of our mission. And it may not be what you thought you were buying into when you were in graduate school when the notion was you deal with students who would spend four years in high school who were coming directly to college and then gonna spend four years in college and go directly to graduate school. That's part of our population but it's not the totality of our population by any stretch. Some people accept that gladly and some people have problems with that.
What do you see as HCC's biggest challenge going forward?
MESSNER: The biggest challenge going forward is to continue to embrace that as our mission while at the same time doing it within this context of accountability and balancing those two in such a way that you can be more accessible, more successful without eroding the mission of access. And that's gonna be tough. It's going to be very tough in my estimation because we don't exclusively control that process and people out there pay lip service to it, but I'm not sure they completely understand the meaning of that tension between access and accountability. Politicians will say, oh, yea, we want you to be accessible. You need to go out there and serve, and you've got to be accountable. And what's the problem?
Is there anything you wish you had done differently at HCC?
MESSNER: Sure. Lots of things. Hey, I (expletive) up all the time. That's part of the process. If you're afraid of (expletive) up you shouldn't be sitting there. You learn from your mistakes and hopefully you don't keep making the same mistake over and over again. You make new mistakes. But, that's okay. I don't beat myself up about it.
What are you going to miss most about HCC?
MESSNER: Oh, the people. The challenge. You know, I'm fond of saying, it's a great job if it wasn't for the people, but it's not true at all. People are what make it. It's a people business. If you can't deal with people you shouldn't be in the business. There's a certain element to that interpersonal stuff that can wear on ya, sometimes, but at the end of the day you can't take it too personally. If you do, again, you shouldn't be in the business, but you can't become jaded either.
I'll miss seeing the students and the students evolving and growing. That's always a kick.
Do you have any advice for your successor?
MESSNER: No. No advice. No. It's a good place, you know. People wear their emotions close to the skin here. More so than any place I've been. But I think that's a function that they care just a hell of a lot about what goes on. They're invested in the place and the students and so you need to appreciate that, even at times it's difficult to appreciate it. There aren't very many people here who are coming from the wrong place. My sense is most everybody's coming from the right place. And there are differences of opinion about where we're going, how we're going to get there, and you need to be able to deal with folks in such as way that they at least feel that they're being heard and being appreciated, even if you're not agreeing with them.
You've been working in education for five decades. How are you going to keep yourself busy now?
MESSNER: I don't know. We're moving to a new place. If we were staying here I'd say, I'll continue to be involved with that organization and that one and that one. Yea, I don't know. It's going to an interesting ride, and we'll see how it all develops. We'll be on the Chesapeake side of the Delmar peninsula, and I really like the ocean. We're gonna get over there a lot.
How would you like to be remembered at Holyoke Community College?
MESSNER: I think, when I left New York, the guy who headed up the chamber of commerce in Orange County, which is where the community college was, says, Bill Messner put the community in community college.
That's pretty good.
INTERVIEW and PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Left) A misty-eyed president Bill Messner says farewell at a May gathering. His hat says, "El Presidente." (Right) Retiring president Bill Messner holds a artificial rose given to him by math professor and engineering program coordinator Ileana Vasu on his last day of work. The rose was made using a 3-D printer at HCC. (Thumbnail) President Messner, with his daughter Kerin and wife Eleanor, at a farewell party last May.