During a recent session with the Times-Union editorial board, Florida State College at Jacksonville President Cynthia Bioteau offered a blunt description of the challenges she’s faced since taking over.
Bioteau said when she took charge of FSCJ in January, it was like walking into a chaotic surgical triage unit and becoming immediately consumed with “stopping the bleeding” going on everywhere.
The comparison was apt.
Prior to Bioteau’s arrival, FSCJ had become bloodied by dysfunctional leadership, complacent oversight, poor transparency, lack of accountability, low employee morale and a financial aid program so poorly administered that it led the U.S. Department of Education to demand the college repay millions in student grant and loan money that had been improperly distributed.
“We’ve had to tackle quite a few things,” Bioteau said regarding her first six months at FSCJ.
And she’s tackled them well.
FINANCIAL AID CRISIS
Bioteau’s major early accomplishment has been addressing FSCJ’s financial aid crisis, which potentially threatened the school’s accreditation.
Thankfully, that didn’t happened: FSCJ has been re-accredited for 10 years by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
The school has repaid nearly $5 million in Pell Grant funds that were given to students who shouldn’t have received the money.
FSCJ’s internal 39-member financial aid office has been effectively eliminated and the task of handling student aid given to ProEducation Solutions, an outside consulting firm.
And the president has instituted, for now, a “no appeal” policy for students once decisions have been made regarding their financial aid. That has removed a loophole that was often abused and enabled students to keep getting money they shouldn’t have received.
Bioteau rightly acknowledged that FSCJ can’t become a heavy-handed institution that’s excessively stingy in providing financial aid.
After all, 74 percent of FSCJ’s students require it to attend.
But financial aid absolutely can and should be administered in a competent way.
FSCJ has made obvious progress in that area since Bioteau’s arrival.
Bioteau’s leadership style has also had a stabilizing influence on FSCJ.
It certainly differs from that of Steve Wallace, the former longtime FSCJ president.
Wallace’s reign was tainted by a relentless aura of self-entitlement and secrecy.
That led to Wallace leaving FSCJ in 2012, driven out by a controversy over his lavish expense spending.
But under Bioteau, FSCJ has sought feedback from community leaders during an all-day strategic-planning session — one that also included a contingent of faculty and students.
The public is actually encouraged to offer comments during board of trustees meetings.
And Bioteau has met with faculty members, staffers and students at the school’s multiple campuses.
“Give them pizza and they will come,” said a chuckling Bioteau about recruiting students for sit-down sessions.
The evidence suggests FSCJ no longer has a president who dismisses words like inclusion, transparency and openness.
It now has a president who embraces these words.
During her first six months as president, Bioteau has also done a good job of setting the bar high for accountability and ethics across FSCJ.
She’s replaced campus presidents and eliminated some programs that, while worthwhile, didn’t fit FSCJ’s main core mission of educating students in a way that gives them relevant, real-world skills.
She’s restructured and improved FSCJ’s hiring process, one that had been rife with cronyism.
She streamlined the college’s workforce and sent a clear message to FSCJ’s existing employees: Hard work comes with their jobs.
Most importantly, Bioteau has left no doubt that FSCJ will hold itself to a higher ethical standard.
“You can’t be ethical part of the time,” Bioteau said.
“We’re following the rules from here on out. (In fact) I don’t think there’s a school that needs to follow the rules more than FSCJ does right now.”
Setting a clear path and following the rules have been hallmarks of Bioteau’s first months as FSCJ’s president.
It’s been a promising start.
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