The trajectory of Michael Baston’s working life began changing one day in 1998. The New York City native, an attorney representing higher education, nonprofit and religious institutions at a Manhattan firm, took a client-offered opportunity to teach a paralegal studies survey course at Berkeley College, a small, private school with eight campuses in New York City and New Jersey.
“I really, truly enjoyed it — and found out that I was pretty good at it,” Baston, now 50, recalls. His evaluations were so high that the school offered him a job as assistant dean of student affairs the following year. For a time, he continued practicing law part time. But higher education proved to be the socially conscious adjunct lecturer’s true calling.
“I could do, I thought, more to advance the community, to advance those students,” he explains. “I’m seeing them as those future attorneys, paralegals — those folks who are going to really change our country in so many powerful ways.”
Two-plus decades later, Baston maintains that passion as he assumes the presidency of Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C). He’s driven to make continuing education more accessible by cutting red tape and implementing interventions that help students stay in school and finish their degrees. As he begins leading an institution with more than 26,700 students enrolled on four major campuses and numerous training centers across Northeast Ohio, he credits his former students for his success.
“People think maybe I’m the pied piper,” he says. “My students were the pied pipers. I followed them to help them get to the places they wanted to be.”
Door to Opportunity
In 2009, Baston followed his students from Berkeley College to nearby LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, New York. For years — the last seven of which he spent as dean of student development and campus life for Berkeley’s New York campuses — he sent students who couldn’t afford to complete their degrees at Berkeley to the more affordable LaGuardia.
When he received a call that the school was looking to fill the position of associate dean for student affairs and enrollment management, he decided to apply for it. LaGuardia was much bigger and one of the most diverse community colleges in the country, with 50,000 students from 163 countries. Plus, his family was from the area.
“The community college space is certainly a place that really aligns with my social justice mission,” he adds. “I see community colleges as democracy’s colleges — we are those institutions that truly open the door to opportunity for all.”
Eight months later, Baston advanced to acting vice president for student affairs and enrollment. He went on to serve as acting provost and vice president for academic and student affairs, associate provost and vice president for student affairs and enrollment.
During his time at LaGuardia, he learned about the many reasons why students didn’t finish their studies and scaled initiatives, such as a program that accelerated success by providing students with public transportation passes, book vouchers and counselors who monitored their progress and intervened before an issue could derail it.
“It’s not enough to see the train off the track,” he says. “You’ve got to understand when the train starts wobbling.”
Implementing a Vision
In 2017, Baston applied for and landed the president’s post at Rockland Community College in Suffern, New York. This time, the move was inspired not by students but his own experience in the inaugural class of the Aspen Institute and Stanford University’s yearlong College Excellence Program — what he calls “president’s school.”
“I spent years, whether it was at Berkeley or whether it was at LaGuardia, implementing someone else’s vision — when you are working for someone else, it’s their vision, their point of view, what they know,” he says. “I felt like I had my own vision.”
Baston’s vision was of a community college where education and experiences were not just available, but truly accessible. The changes he spearheaded ranged from recreating an orientation he describes as an overload of rules, regulations and other documents to reorganizing Rockland’s dozens of departments into five schools, each of which paired its students with a peer mentor, academic adviser/career counselor and personal adviser. The reorganization reflected the college’s sharpened focus: turning out students who were real-world ready.
“All of our students would have some practical experiences while they were in college,” he says. “That practical experience would make them more competitive as a candidate for a four-year institution or as a worker.”
A Good Match
Even as Baston worked to transform Rockland into an institution that better met its students’ needs, he watched the developments at Tri-C. When others in the world of higher education encouraged him to apply for the president’s post being vacated by a retiring Alex Johnson, he didn’t hesitate.
“I thought it was a really good match,” he says. But to make sure, he and his wife, Tasha, visited Tri-C’s four campuses posing as a prospective student’s parents. They talked to faculty, other staff members and students, checked out classrooms and drove around neighborhoods.
“We found that the students really do love their faculty members, that the community really respects the institution and is supportive of the institution,” he says.
The community’s economic challenges actually were a draw.
“This is a big, vibrant city,” he observes. “But you also — like many cities in the country — have a have-and-have-not scenario, a tale of two cities. I hope that the work that I can do through Tri-C [will] be able to bridge that gap a little bit.”
Baston’s first task as president is to perform what he calls a “landscape analysis of collaboration in the community” that begins with meeting community leaders.
“If we’re going to move a community, we have to look at every player who is in the process of moving that community and every strategy currently being employed,” he says. “How can we integrate strategies? How can we reduce redundancies? How can we be most effective doing what we do well?”
He plans on being a “practitioner president” who teaches a course or two, just as he did at Berkeley, LaGuardia and Rockland. Doing so provides a degree of insight into student, institutional and community issues not available to a typical office-bound administrator.
“It is that work that continues to motivate me, to make sure I’m staying relevant and current,” he says.