SNC Tahoe’s next president committed to expanding college’s core values | SierraSun.com

SNC Tahoe’s next president committed to expanding college’s core values

Josh Staab
jstaab@sierrasun.com
Dr. Alan Walker is getting to know his new campus as Sierra Nevada College's newest president.
Courtesy Sierra Nevada College |

About Sierra Nevada College

Founded in 1969, Sierra Nevada College is the only private college in Nevada, boasting an enrollment of approximately 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students. In addition to its Incline Village campus, the college also has locations in Reno and Las Vegas/Henderson.

SNC Tahoe, as the college has come to be known, offers 30 undergraduate majors and concentrations organized in five departments (Business, Fine Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences, Science & Technology and Interdisciplinary Studies).

Its newest president, Alan Walker, replaces former president Lynn Gillette, who resigned in December 2014.

Visit sierranevada.edu to learn more about the college.

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — The walls in the office of the newest president of Sierra Nevada College lay bare.

With the exception of a few odds and ends here and there, the office looks like it was quickly adorned with the bare necessities a new college president would presumably require: a computer, a phone, a calendar, a constantly-buzzing iPhone and stacks of papers strewn about.

Alan Walker rode into Incline Village from Ohio on his Harley Davidson just two weeks ago, and he said he still has a lot of unpacking to do.

The recently appointed president of SNC Tahoe hasn’t had time for much outside of learning about his new college, which has, he said, included spending time getting to know his student body by going on scientific research camping trips, and even wandering the halls incognito and striking up conversations with whomever wants to chat.

The Washington state native is no stranger to higher education. He has about 30 years working in higher education and postsecondary institutions. Most recently, Walker was the interim provost at Shawnee State University, and before that was president of Upper Iowa University for eight years.

A former director of fire service training at the Idaho State Division of Vocational Education, Walker holds degrees in fire science, trade and industrial technical education and adult/vocational education, and a Ph.D. in higher education policy and administration.

In a time when college graduates are outpacing the number of jobs available, mounting student loan debt, and the fact a degree doesn’t guarantee gainful employment, Walker acknowledges colleges need to do more to prepare students for an evolving post-college life.

And when you’re president of one of the most expensive four-year colleges in Nevada (an average semester at SNC can cost $28,764, according the most recent data compiled by collegefactual.com, an education technology guide and database of more than 550 undergraduate and graduate colleges and universities), that means changing perceptions and developing new strategies to prepare students for a world after college — even if that plan isn’t fully formed.

At least not yet, anyway, said Walker, who began his new role on Sept. 21.

In an interview Monday with the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, the self-proclaimed avid outdoorsman and Harley Davidson enthusiast said he is committed to expanding upon SNC’s core values, while also committing to do what he can to lower the financial burden higher education places on students.

Below is a summary of an extended Q-and-A with Walker.

Question: Why come to Sierra Nevada College?

Answer: I’ve always enjoyed the smaller campus atmosphere — the same reason students who come here enjoy it. You get to know people on a personal level very quickly. If you’re the president of a school with 40,000 students on campus, you’re not going to get to know a very big percentage of those students. Here, I already know a ton of students — probably because I was living with them for a while. I’ve always had a passion for growing organizations and organizations that were right on the cusp of their development. And there are not that many institutions of higher education that are located in an environment like Lake Tahoe. A lot of the culture here revolves around the outdoors … it revolves around the environment. It’s a rich part of the history here. It is all about the degree to which you find people who value those same kinds of things.

Q: How do you marry that interest for growth while maintaining the college’s identity?

A: It’s one of the challenges. I’m not interested in growth for growth’s sake. That sense of personal experience with staff and faculty — we want to maintain all of that and we will. But for practical and other reasons, we also need to grow the institution in terms of resources and I’m not just talking about enrollment growth or the size of the campus. I’m talking about growth as defined by academic reputation.

Q: There is a national discussion going on over the cost of higher education. How do you address college growth while also acknowledging SNC is one of the most expensive four-year colleges in Nevada?

A: There’s a huge difference between the retail cost you see advertised and actual out-of-pocket costs after anything from PELL grants and scholarships and so forth. Sometimes numbers that get cited don’t reflect the actual out-of-pocket (costs). There are challenges here, and I wouldn’t be here if there weren’t. In the case of Sierra Nevada, it’s not inexpensive depending on the resources available to students and families, and I recognize that. It really boils down to what’s the value proposition; what are they getting here that they can’t at other institutions, regardless of the price? They’re getting extremely small class sizes, excellent faculty that get to know their students on a first name basis. The location, opportunities, and experiences outside of the classroom are unique. The academic approach itself is unique and that concept of using experiential learning and flipped classrooms, which other institutions are sort of only dabbling with.

Q: With two weeks on the job, have you started formulating your vision for the college’s success?

A: There are four points I tend to focus on when I’m making plans: The first is you have to have a strong team — strong staff, faculty. It really is a team effort. I’m looking at that team and I’ll be doing some things to strengthen that team. We’re talking about culture. The second thing is you have to have a plan that has been grown from the ground up that people want to embrace and a way to execute that plan and a way to resource that plan. It’s one thing to say we want to be X in our plan, it’s another thing to take action on it. The third thing is being student-centered. It’s about providing a unique experience that has a lot of value. One of the things I’ve always loved about being in this profession, we’re actually changing lives. I can’t think of anything more satisfying than that. The fourth key to success is to have a passion for improvement, for excellence, for getting better at whatever you’re doing. Even in the first two weeks, I’m already laying the groundwork for those points.

Q: Is there any priority for one versus another?

A: I don’t know if there is a specific priority, and there probably isn’t. Any president I’ve ever known has to be good at multitasking. At any given time, we’ll be moving the needles on all four of those points.

Q: College isn’t cheap, and there is no guarantee a degree will earn a graduate a job right out of college. What can your institution do to address those concerns?

A: Our goal is to give students skills and abilities so they can graduate and get a job and survive a recession and get another job and survive another recession, because the set of skills they have are more universal than a set of skills in one area. When you think of what it takes to be successful, there is a core set of skills that and it goes back to skills I know employers look for: creativity, critical thinking, ability to work in groups, leadership skills, etc. I think that’s what carries the day and helps people get through not just the current recession but also the one after that and after that.

Q: Are you committed to reducing the amount of debt students will incur attending to SNC?

A: I have been committed to that in the past and I am still committed to that. I went through college and I had to work my way through school. I went part-time most of the time as an undergrad. I know what it takes to have to do that and how long it takes and how tough it is. I didn’t come from a family that is wealthy, so I have an appreciation for that. Don’t be surprised if you see a similar sort of emphasis here that I ended up concluding was going to be important at my prior institutions. It’s always an applicable goal to drive that number down. Certainly one of those ways is to build up our endowment (calculated at approximately $4.7 million, according to collegefactual.com), build up scholarship opportunities. There is no doubt that will be a focus — it has to be. There’s no doubt that is the right thing to do.