Linn-Benton Community College President Lisa Avery has been on the job for seven months, but instead of shaking hands and sitting in fundraising banquets, she’s made the rounds of Benton and Linn counties via Zoom.
“I got here in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “The challenge is that we’re doing most of our work by remote right now, and the president’s job is a people job. It’s my job to be out in the community at Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club meetings and meeting with industry partners.”
The challenges of COVID-19 have, as in nearly every other industry, compounded existing issues.
For LBCC, budget problems have loomed large, with programs and staffing being cut over the last two cycles.
“Budget shortfalls are just part of higher education administration,” Avery said, noting that it was on her list of things to tackle prior to arriving in Albany — back when she was admiring LBCC’s reputation from afar.
“It has a great national reputation,” she said, noting the school’s partnerships with the local metals industry. “I jumped at the chance to replace President (Greg) Hamann.”
Hamann announced his retirement in 2019.
Avery was serving as the president of Portland Community College’s Sylvania campus since 2015 after serving in administrative roles in Washington.
“From the moment I walked into a college class, I wanted to be a professor,” she said of her path into higher education administration.
As a first-generation college student, Avery said she channeled her efforts into eventually leading the class as a professor of research methods and statistics. She taught a diversity class as well.
“I liked the challenge of helping the lightbulb come on,” she said of her students. “I liked tricking them into getting good at research and statistics.”
Avery hasn’t been in the classroom much at LBCC because classes are being held, for the most part, remotely.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t decisions to be made and a future to map out — without the benefit of traditional patterns.
“I was surprised,” Avery said, “that enrollment was a challenge we were facing. Usually, in a recession, more students come back to college. That had not been the case with the current recession prior to COVID-19.”
Avery also has to contend with the needs of two counties that cover a vast array of experiences and lifestyles.
“We have very small towns and rural communities that had fewer impacts (from COVID-19), and then Albany and Corvallis with higher case loads,” she said.
Currently, Avery said, LBCC is using the resources it has to help people weather the COVID-19 crisis, just as it did during last fall's wildfires, when culinary students helped feed displaced residents. Now nursing students are helping to vaccinate people against the virus.
It’s difficult to build relationships in a crisis, Avery said, but those community outreach and engagement efforts have helped. Along with Zoom meetings and socially distanced face-to-face conversations, she’s looking towards the future and beyond the pandemic.
It’s a future that includes helping to bolster the teaching pipeline for K-12 instructors and offering a pathway to living wage jobs.
“The second year, we’ll be able to move toward a longer-term visioning for post-pandemic at LBCC,” Avery said of her next year as president. “Coming to LBCC felt like coming home to me. Community college has been the economic equalizer, and we’re looking for ways to get people to work quickly with solid wages.”