A TWO WAY STREET: A CONVERSATION ABOUT COMMUNICATION WITH COGSWELL PRESIDENT & CAO BRIAN SHEPARD
Cogswell Chronicle: Last year, the Cogswell community welcomed you as our new President and Chief Academic Officer. What drew you to Cogswell College?
Brian Shepard: I was the Associate Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs at the USC Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. In many ways that USC program and Cogswell are quite similar, but two things really stood out for me when I was approached about being the President and Chief Academic Officer for Cogswell. One, the program at USC is quite small and the opportunity to develop a similar type of curriculum on a much larger scale at Cogswell was really attractive for me. Two, working within the confines of a large university can be quite limiting and restrictive when trying to develop new programs. Large universities tend to evolve at a glacial pace, while the small, independent nature of Cogswell allows us to be much more nimble in developing new programs.
CC: What kind of new programs?
BKS: When you start developing new programs, you want to make sure that what you are thinking of doing is actually a good thing to do. In my experience, I’ve seen many programs developed because the people developing them thought they were a good thing to do. They ended up not being successful. A big part of what I am trying to do is make sure I fully understand what’s actually in demand out there. You kind of have to do some “crystal ball” work because things change so rapidly. It’s not so much that we’re going to add something like “medicine” to Cogswell. But I am looking at things like artificial intelligence or multimedia. Something that fits in our wheelhouse.
CC: Are we talking about brand new programs or developing the existing programs?
BKS: Both. Every program we have, in order to be viable, we need to spend time asking “Is this program still relevant?” or “Is it still doing things we need to do?” We look at those kind of things. We also ask “Are there things we’re not doing?” or the reverse of that, “Are there things no longer needed?” Sometimes we need to say, it was fun while it lasted, but we need to do something different now.
CC: How do you think Cogswell has changed or evolved this past year?
BKS: That’s a really difficult question to answer. Having been here only 10 months, I have to ask myself if it’s Cogswell that has changed, or is it me? Honestly, some things that feel like changes to me may have already been here and I’ve just gotten comfortable enough to notice them. I’m the type of person who likes to come into a new environment and really get to know and understand it before I start trying to change things.
CC: How important do you think it is for someone coming in to Cogswell with a highly respected position such as yours to understand things first?
BKS: You can’t say that any kind of process or program is a one-size-fits all. When I got here, there were things that we would do in a certain way. And so part of what I have to do is find out why we do it that way. There are things that are specific to a particular environment that should be done a certain way. What I don’t want to do is come here and say, “this is the way I’ve done it, and this is what we’re going to do here.” You can’t know these things unless you spend some time in the ground.
CC: Last fall, you came to ASB’s first all-student meeting. We remember a very full Dragon’s Den where you met many students. You are very open to working with students. Do you enjoy teaching?
BKS: I was a professional musician for thirty something years. In 2005, for a variety of issues, I needed to make a choice. I was teaching full-time and performing full-time. I gave up performing. Teaching is that important to me. I can’t imagine my life without it. It’s my passion and the reason why I get up in the morning! Even when it comes to things that you and I, and others have been talking about over the past few days. This is a part of teaching. It’s a part of learning on every side.
CC: When someone makes it known that they came to help students first, I think that really helps navigate through problems easier.
BKS: I hope so. Part of this job involves making difficult decisions.
CC: And also getting to know the students and listening to what they have to say.
BKS: Yeah. My hope is when difficult decisions have to be made, I want to have built that trust. I want people to understand that this was not done other than with the attitude of “I think this will make things better.”
CC: Do you think students have responded more positively or negatively about such changes or evolution?
BKS: Change is never easy. Whether things are getting better or worse, change tends to make people uncomfortable. I think the changes that are happening at Cogswell are for the better, but that’s often difficult for people to see while the change is actually happening.
CC: When changes are made, many students recognized that they were made aware, but it was disseminated in a way where students feel like they don’t matter. I think that’s why there are many students expressing their dissatisfactions. Do you think that the approach should be giving the students the information of “why” right away or do you think it’s important for students to ask “why” first?
BKS: I think it’s absolutely fine to explain why. What I’m learning is perhaps I didn’t that do very well.
CC: I think that the medium you chose is via email. Unfortunately, many students don’t check their email regularly.
BKS: You’re absolutely right. I think this is something that we all tend to be guilty of. We assume that other people respond and interpret things the same way we do. When I send something like that via email to my colleagues, boom it’s done. I freely admit, that was not a great communicative tool on my behalf. It’s something I have to look at and be better.
CC: Though some may argue that students should be checking their email more often.
BKS: Part of my job is to help students prepare for their professional lives. Communicating is a big part of it, and, in many cases, that will be done through email. But nonetheless, I understand.
CC: Word of mouth is how a lot of students find out about [things] because of lack of information or communication. I think some events have lead to writing their own narrative. When leaders don’t communicate as efficient as they should be, I think it opens a Pandora’s Box of miscommunication.
BKS: You’re absolutely right. Look, I don’t want to keep things a secret. I believe in sharing information. In this particular case, I shared it the way I was comfortable sharing it, but what ways would be more efficient?
CC: Cogswell’s “for profit” status tells its own narrative. Lots of people are asking, “are we here because people care about us as students or are we here so people can make a profit?” That, combined with a lack of information going around, make many students feel like they are just statistics.
BKS: I hope some of my answers clarify some things. Just because an institution has a “for profit” tax status doesn’t mean it’s making any profit. Likewise, just because an institution is a “non-profit” doesn’t mean it’s not making money.
I want to be very, very clear: we are not in financial trouble. But we’re also not to the point where income is covering expenses. We are still requiring investor infusion. I think we’re very close. But part of it is that we have to balance our books. I think in the past years, we’ve been overspending the bank account.
CC: This semester, the loss of 24 hour access, the situation in the parking lot, and effects of the Whisper Room’s relocation became a prominent topic in the student body.
24/7 access was introduced this year as a response to many students feeling like they don’t have enough time to work on projects. This is especially true for students who work 9-to-5 jobs on weekends, when the campus is only open from 9am to 9pm. The decision to open the campus 24/7 was revoked this semester, causing many students to feel upset. What was the decision process about this? Are we likely to have such privileges restored, or extended access to campus?
BKS: When the decision was made to open up the campus last spring for 24/7 access, I honestly don’t think it was fully thought out. The extra costs for security, increased utilities, and liability caused our expenses to shoot up. In order to get a sense of how many students were using the extra hours, we started taking a count throughout the night. We soon realized that our substantially increased costs were for a pretty small number of students. The only way we could afford to continue the extended hours being used by a few students would be by raising tuition for all students. Our decision, then, was to reduce the number of hours rather than increase tuition. We are looking at several options to give students increased access to the campus, including the possibility of extending the weekend hours, but any solution has to be within our budget.
CC: There was a lot of demand for 24/7 access. Your statistics say that only a “small amount of students” utilize these hours. The difficult decision was made to remove the 24/7 access rather than raising tuition to accommodate this. Would that have increased tuition above the 2% we already jumped?
BKS: Understand that the tuition increase didn’t even keep up with the rate of inflation. It [inflation] was almost double what our tuition increase was. We had utility bills, insurance liability, and cost for security guards to cover. I think there was an attitude of people wanting to do something really nice for the students because of demand and trying to figure out how to make it work. When we factored in all the liabilities and extra expenses, we realized it didn’t really work.
There are also more issues. For example, there are open cubicles here that have stuff that people shouldn’t be getting into. I would go to bed every night worrying if this is the night when I receive the phone call that someone got assaulted. I came from USC. We didn’t have 24/7 access at USC.
CC: So this is where expanding weekend hours fits in?
BKS: I understand the access problem. I want to find a way to do this that is effective and fiscally responsible. I’ve been asking people what would work for them. One of the responses is extending hours on weekends. We looked into that and implemented it a few weeks ago.
There are other possibilities also. I know that there are in some cases, the ability to set up server farms for remote access. You wouldn’t have to come here anymore. You can reach it remotely. You’d be able to have 24/7 access from your home. It’s the future of computer use.
We absolutely want to everyone to have access. But I also want to keep people safe and pay our bills.
CC: In the past, what we’ve been made aware is that staff, faculty, and administration was asked to park in an adjacent parking lot in an effort to give more students more parking spaces. That changed this year. Students have voiced concerns about the lack of parking spots at Cogswell. What was the decision process about this? Does the college hope to address this issue?
BKS: As you know, we have a limited number of parking spaces. In San Jose, as in most communities, commercial real estate is zoned for a specific number of parking spaces based on the square-footage of the building(s). If you look at most colleges and universities, you will find that student parking—if it exists at all—is often a substantial distance away AND the students pay a pretty steep price to use it. We don’t charge for parking, but we feel that the faculty and staff, some of whom have contributed their service to the college for decades, deserve at least as much of an opportunity to park nearby as the students do. Thus, we implemented a first-come-first-served parking status. The City of San Jose has restricted parking on the street in front of the school, and the people who own the nearby parking lots have been unwilling to let us use them. The lot at Palmer Chiropractic College, although inconvenient, is available to us, and it’s free. Given our current size and location, I don’t think there’s much we can do about the parking lot anytime soon, but we’re always looking for options. In the meantime, I would encourage people who don’t really need to drive to consider alternate modes of transportation. Many people live within a mile or so of campus and could easily walk or ride a bike most days. We also provide VTA passes for everyone.
CC: Many students expressed their dissatisfaction about the Whisper Room’s relocation. In the past, students used this room as a place to work on projects (especially sculpting) and network with other students. What’s the story behind this?
BKS: Like the number of parking spaces, the square-footage of the building is fixed. Because of the way our lease works, moving walls within the building is quite costly, so we try to always work within the walls that currently exist. The Chief Executive Officer of the college needs an appropriate office to conduct the business of the college. He/She also needs to be alongside the rest of the administrative staff. If you ever get the opportunity to see the CEO suite at most colleges, I think you’ll see that our office is actually pretty humble. By the way, the current CEO office is the same space as used by the previous CEO, Debra Snyder. I know that moving the Whisper Room to the back of the campus has not been popular, but we only have so many available rooms. We are looking at ways to make the space more attractive and conducive to quiet study and work.
CC: I’m seeing a theme. Like the CEO’s office becoming the Whisper Room then reverting back, we limited access, 24/7 access, then limited access again. It feels like we’re given things to lose them sooner than later.
BKS: And I can understand why it might seem that way, but that is never the intent. Cogswell went two years without a CEO. Part of the issue was that they wanted to do something for the big room [when it was empty] so we let the students use it. I don’t think that that space as the CEO’s office ever went away. I get it. We have the tendency to think history begins when we first observe it. There was some of that associated with it.
CC: And when things are given and taken away . . .
BKS: It’s tough. But if you overspend your bank account, you have to cut away from things.
CC: The new Whisper Room had a lot of history. It’s been the Career Services office, a media room, and Johnny Cisneros’ office. A lot of students weren’t here in the summer to find out. When they came back in the fall, they feel like they didn’t matter.
BKS: It’s a pretty crappy room!
CS: It is! The Green Screen wasn’t painted. The increase in tuition and lack of information, plus the room feeling a significant step down made students feel disheartened.
BKS: It’s not the space we have upfront. It won’t be the space we have upfront. Interesting fact, the day we decided to paint the wall, Marvin goes back there, and it was completely filled with people using it. The space is the size that it is. What I am looking at is that whether or not there are other spaces, like three or four smaller spaces rather than one large space, that are conducive to making a collaborative or quiet working areas.
CC: A lot of people aren’t happy about what it is but at least people are using it now. When we make decisions about the Whisper Room, for example, is there kind of process where we can communicate and ask students in a “focus group” about what’s going on? Is there a process like that?
BKS: Is there? No. Should there be? Probably.
CC: The upcoming town hall is a 100% student operated student-activity. It’s not from admin, ASB, or Chronicle. It’s formed by students who want to voice their concerns. Many might argue that regular meetings like this are important so that there’s something other than the Suggestion Boxes to bring up concerns
BKS: We get a lot of questions about forks . . .
CC: So do we! But just like the fork situation, a lot of the problems brought up to us and published in the newspaper are things we feel you already know about.
BKS: Communication is one of the easiest things to not do when we get busy. We know exactly what we mean and why it needs to happen this way, but we don’t always share that.. Then people don’t talk for awhile . . . It’s a problem. We just did a rather comprehensive satisfaction survey thing within the faculty and staff. The number one issue is communication.
CC: I think that when we have meetings like this, face to face, we’re both able to understand where we’re coming from. What about an open thing like this for students [and administration]?
BKS: I am open to anything. Communication has been and continues to be a problem. Anything we can do to do it better, absolutely. I’m all about that. If a large meeting is what helps, I’m all for it.
CC: When we were developing ideas about Vol. 5 and asking students what they wanted to read about, it became apparent that many students wanted to use the Chronicle as a means to expressing their concerns about Cogswell. They feel as if many channels of communication have failed to produce results. Aside from the Chronicle, how else can students voice their thoughts? How are these thoughts reviewed?
BKS: I very much understand and appreciate the fact that students want, and need, an effective way to communicate their concerns. However, a newspaper—even a student one—has certain journalistic obligations to seek out the full spectrum of a story by examining, interviewing, and researching all sides of that story. I hope that the Chronicle will continue to do that. We have suggestion boxes located around campus and conduct annual student surveys to solicit concerns and feedback. I can assure you that every one of those submissions is read and considered. The fact is though, many of the suggestions we receive are either impossible given our current facility, or impractical due to their cost. I can assure you that everyone in the faculty, staff, and administration wants to do things that make life better. Whenever we can, we do that, but resources are tight, and we’re trying to focus the use of those resources to make sure that the education students receive—the main reason we’re all here—is the best we can make it.
CC: During our interview process, a student told us that they believe Cogswell’s campus is not able to support our growing student population. Many also shared that they feel as if there are less resources despite the increase of tuition. What do you think of this?
BKS: Perceptions are a tricky thing. Given the exact same circumstances, two people can have completely different perceptions and both believe they are correct. There are certainly times where the campus feels crowded. However, there are also times when it seems almost empty. That sense of crowded or empty also varies depending on which part of the campus you are in at a given time. As our student population grows, we will have to take greater advantage of those empty times and areas and be more efficient in our use of space. Obviously, space is not unlimited, but I think we’ve still got some room to grow.
We understand that tuition increases are never popular. If you go to the grocery store and buy a carton of milk, in all likelihood, you will pay more for that exact same carton of milk than you did the year before—nothing has improved or changed with that milk, it just costs more. That’s what inflation is. Last spring, we raised tuition by 2%, which was considerably less than the 3+% rate of inflation for this area. Just like everyone else, our costs go up. We work really hard to keep the tuition rate as low as we can. But like that carton of milk, things cost more over time and we have to charge more to pay our bills. Now, if we were to do a tuition increase that was substantially larger than the rate of inflation, it would be perfectly reasonable to expect substantial improvements, but we’re trying to keep tuition as low as we can and still be fiscally responsible while we focus on our mission of providing a great education.
CC: A growing concern, for example, is the lack of a designated, “quiet” workspaces to work on campus. The Dragon’s Den is not an option, and the library has grown to be quite loud, especially in the absence of a librarian. Is this something the college hopes to address?
BKS: We are aware of this problem and working to address it. We only have so much space. We have recently hired a librarian who will be starting after Thanksgiving. We are also looking at ways to improve some of our other spaces to make them more conducive to quiet work.
When the [Sunnyvale] campus was forced to move . . . and I hope people understand, Cogswell was forced to move because of a little company you might have heard of, Google, essentially said they were taking all that land. We were negotiating another property in Santa Clara. It was nicer, large, and had plenty of parking. Unfortunately, there was a nasty hiccup regarding earthquake retrofit. This happened several years before I came here so I am telling this from what people have told me.
At that point, we were about four months until the fall semester, and we didn’t have a building. If what I was told is correct, Cogswell took possession of this building early in the summer and had it open in September. It was crazy, insane, but available on short notice. I don’t think anybody thinks this is the ideal footprint for this school. I think we all aspire to something better. Whether it’s this building with other buildings, or another location, none of us know.
CC: Silicon Valley life is expensive.
BKS: I can’t believe it. I moved here from LA and I had sticker shock.
CC: We pride ourselves for the location, though. Certain programs have students who feel like they are not receiving what was advertised to them before coming here. There are also many students who believe the school is advertised a certain way, but they come here to see something different. We had that problem with the use of stock photos last year. What is the approach when it comes to being more transparent for prospective students and how do we improve the quality of education for students already here?
BKS: Great questions. I think there was quite a bit of problems with things like using stock imagery that we put to a stop to that. I also think we have to be careful when we equate facilities with quality. Some of my best classes were in some of the world’s worst classrooms. Don’t get me wrong, the quality of facilities is very important and we’re doing all that we can do to make sure we have those, but the primary factor in the quality of a class is really the interaction between the students and the professor. One of the things I am trying to do is create a program strongly built on the idea of teamwork, project-based learning, and the entrepreneurial mindset. I want to be careful using the word “entrepreneur” because a lot of people think it has to do with business but I think it has to do with a self-starter attitude and making things happen.
I mentioned that I want to see how things are before making changes. Those changes are now happening. We are working now on getting more of that kind of learning in essentially everything that we do. In fact, we are starting a new freshman course in the spring I will be teaching called “Disruptive Imagination.” The entire course is about teamwork and project based things which will actually count as a Humanities [General Education Course] and will be taken by all freshmen.
CC: Will this be replacing Cogswell 101?
BKS: Yes. It will cover a lot of things covered by Cogswell 101 but in a different kind of way. One of the things we’ve talked about as a faculty is that we have all these project ideas we want to do, but students take classes like Project X and MediaWorks very late in their college career. I want to start this on day one. There are two elements here:
One, you have to learn how to be a part of a team. Working with other people, critiquing your work, critiquing their work, sharing your ideas openly without worrying . . . these are sophisticated skills. The problem is that we put students in these project classes with very little teamwork training at all. My hope is that by starting out the first trimester that they’re here, they learn the fundamentals of being in a team-group project.
CC: You shared with us what it was the drew you to Cogswell. Since then, have these factors changed? What are you most passionate about today when it comes to working with the students?
BKS: Not really. I’m still passionate about the idea of bringing an entrepreneurially-inspired foundation to the creative-tech curriculum we offer. We’re in the heart of Silicon Valley, and the center of the “gig” economy. I think our curriculum needs to not only offer the kinds of tech skills that are needed, but the so-called “soft” skills that are so in-demand by the thriving companies that surround us.
CC: What do you have to say to students who feel like they are only part of a statistic someone can profit from to reassure them that everyone who works at Cogswell is here for students?
BKS: Nobody does this for the money. I am sorry if students feel that way. I understand where some of it comes from. I know my colleagues, faculty, staff, and administration. I know where their hearts are. They care passionately about students. They really do. I think sometimes we get so caught up doing our jobs that we don’t communicate that fact very well.
We have to do a better job with communication. We, as faculty, staff, and administration have to. But we need help. I can’t respond to something I don’t know about. There are some things I can’t change. I can’t change the size of the parking lot. But there are things that maybe I can. I know that for a variety of reasons, it could seem hard to talk to us. My door is always open if I am not in a meeting with somebody. Where I can, I will do what I can. It might surprise people that I read every single one of the suggestions from the Suggestion Box. If there’s something we can do, we do.
We all care passionately about the students. I realize that it might not always come across that way, but it’s the truth.
CC: What do you think makes Cogswell a unique place to learn?
BKS: The ability to work so closely with such an incredibly talented and creative faculty here is amazing! You often don’t find that sort of interaction at other schools and colleges.
CC: How can we work together, as students and administration, to pave the way for an improved Cogswell College?
BKS: I think talking to each other is always a great place to start. My hope is that this interview is just the beginning of an open and productive dialogue. It’s amazing how when you analyze most of the major failures in the history of the world that you soon realize how many of them were not a result of some fatal flaw, but miscommunication. We’re all busy, and sometimes in that busyness, we just forget to talk to each other. Then, when we haven’t talked in a while, we start to mistrust each other, and then . . . We haven’t always done the best job of communicating with students. However, communication requires both sides to participate, and we need students to make the effort to communicate with us as well. I hope that’s what we’re doing here.
CC: Are there any other changes we should expect in the near future?
BKS: We’re working on plans to create more of a gallery/showcase for student work in the lobby area. I’ve already mentioned that we’re working on ways to improve the quiet spaces. We’re also looking at improved and new curricular programs to keep pace with the constant change of the creative-technology industries. As I mentioned earlier, change can be hard, but we hope it’s always for the better.
CC: If in one year, we were to celebrate a successful year at Cogswell as a community, what would we be celebrating? Five years from now? Ten years from now?
BKS: In one year, I hope we’re celebrating a balanced budget for the college. When Cogswell was purchased a few years ago, it was in considerable debt and about to go under. Like most “turn-arounds” it takes some time to get back on a solid financial footing. We have been incredibly fortunate to have an owner that believes so strongly in the mission of Cogswell that he has invested millions of dollars of his own money to keep us going while we get back on track. I know that many people, when they hear the phrase “for-profit” assume we’re actually making a profit, but in our case, that’s not the case—yet. We’re getting really close, though. I hope we reach that point by next year. The wonderful part is that our owner has promised to reinvest those profits back into the school. When that happens, we’ll really start seeing some exciting changes happen!
In five years, I’d like to see us celebrating a new campus location and perhaps a few satellite locations. The kind of education we provide at Cogswell offers great opportunities for people, and I’d love to bring Cogswell to a much larger segment of the population.
In ten years, WORLD DOMINATION!!! Okay, I’m kind of kidding about that last part, but wouldn’t it be cool if people all over the world had access to the creative-technology types of programs we offer?