The Future of LBCC

Photo courtesy: Soderstrom Architects

By Erika Donner

I first met Danny Aynes a couple of weeks ago in a Zoom video conference call. Dressed in a suit and tie while working remotely, he spoke of the new normal that exists within college life during a worldwide pandemic. Across the nation, institutions of higher education are managing discussions centered around how to move forward given many unknowns. There remain challenges and opportunities. As the associate dean of Academic Foundations, Aynes holds a large role in the operations of Linn-Benton Community College, where over 18,000 students attend class each year. Seventeen community colleges are located throughout Oregon and LBCC is the sixth largest.

“My hope is that we’ll definitely be coming together, being able to get somewhere close to normal. We just don’t know when.”

Danny Aynes

What are your responsibilities at Linn-Benton Community College and how long have you worked here? 

I became the Associate Dean of Academic Foundations a year ago, and that includes admissions, registration, graduation, and Adult Basic Skills, which is the English Language Acquisition and GED program. Prior to this, I was the director of Enrollment Services and registrar for 11 1/2 years.

Tell us a bit about your own education and background.

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications from Arkansas Tech University and received my master’s degree in college student services administration at Oregon State University. Before joining the team at LBCC, I worked at Eastern Oregon University and at Southern Oregon University. My wife and I live in Philomath with our two sons.

This is a big time right now, historically speaking. What did you think of the impact moving forward with how the coronavirus pandemic would affect students?

It was coming at the end of winter term and I wasn’t too connected to the news so I didn’t think it would be as big as it was. I wasn’t resistant to what I was hearing, but just assumed in a couple weeks we’d be back to normal. Then it got bigger and bigger. I was surprised at how fast everything happened.

We haven’t lived through something like this before. We’re all in reactive mode. 

It’s caused us to change really fast and to go with the flow in a way we’re not used to. It requires lots of teamwork and being comfortable with change.

LBCC was very responsive from the beginning by sending out communication to the community, the staff and the students while keeping everyone up-to-date as the information was coming in. Did you experience any difficulties while sharing the news regarding the closure of LBCC and the subsequent reopening?

It’s great to hear that a student feels we were communicating well. An interesting thing that came up during this time is what qualifies as “all-student communication.” It caused us to discuss and question whether something merits being sent out to everybody, or should an announcement just be on social media? How should we communicate? Is this an email? Is this a text message? That type of thing. We used to send out items that were announcements for the good of the order. The type that are informational; but we worried about sending too many emails and over-communicating — when things that are sent out now are so much bigger.

How has the pandemic affected transitions in maintaining curriculum standards in regards to collaboration with high school partnerships through the College Now program? High schools shut down for two to three weeks at the beginning of the pandemic, and there are many schools with whom LBCC partners (over fifty).

Our high school partnerships director, Virginia Mallory, has done a great job working hard and communicating with all of the partners. The enrollment has stayed pretty steady. We were worried about that. But I think with so much time at home, students have stayed interested. We have been flexible with drop dates. The partnerships program is doing well with enrollment.

I noticed that the grading scale this term has changed to a “pass/no pass” mode by many high schools who partner with College Now. How might this translate into standards for certain courses? For instance, with Math 111, Math 112, and Writing 121? Have there been adjustments?

Yes. We have not changed all classes to “pass/no pass” because it wasn’t an option when the course was created. So, we’ve opened up where students can change the grade mode, but not all courses have the same grade modes. It’s caused us to do a lot of questioning about our system and how things are built and discussions for a catalog and how we would do things moving forward. What will a “pass” do for transfer students? It is hard to say. How will every school take it? Every school is so different. A “pass” — what will they bring it in as? And a “no pass?” A “no pass” versus a “D.” A “D” will count in some places and a “no pass” won’t. It’s all tough.

What is your student enrollment for spring term? Did you see a huge drop?

We are down about 11 percent in our credit and degree-seeking programs. There was a time during the quarantine where Community Education was put on hold until we figured out what we could do. A lot of those courses were canceled, so they came back with a smaller offering of online courses which meant they took a big enrollment hit.  With the Career Technical Education programs, some of their courses have to be in person.

That’s probably one of the biggest concerns right now — well, there are lots of big concerns — figuring out some of the programs, like nursing. How do they finish? That is a question I don’t know the answer to. The community colleges are asking the governor:  could certain programs have social distance classes that are considered end points, where they could finish this summer? I don’t know if they have an answer for that yet. Otherwise enrollment hasn’t dropped as much as we thought.

That stands to reason. People still have time and were enrolled already. What is the impact of moving to an online format this term?

From all sides, it caused everyone to change and move online whether they thought they could or couldn’t, everybody had to do it. And there are benefits — everyone is learning Moodle and other different technologies … figuring out what’s possible when we have to change.

Do you see this might be a model for the future? For non-traditional students who have perhaps an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. type of job? Many in our community may benefit greatly from online courses offered through LBCC.

This is causing colleges to go another layer deep into defining what an online course is. I do think it will result in more of our classes having different options versus campus or distance. The academic program I’m involved with for scheduling is the ELA and GED. They had never done an online format before and they hope to continue it moving forward, because it is a flexible option for people.  I do think some instructors are finding they really like it, and I do think some things will continue. It’s led to three definitions of online courses:  virtual, hybrid, and fully online. Instructors have asked for specific times when students know they have to do something online (such as in Zoom meetings). They’re working right now with getting this type of information added to the class schedule where students can know what type of online course they’re signing up for.

For fall term?

For fall term, yes.

That’s exciting to hear! Community colleges seizing an opportunity to build upon the accessibility, affordability, and equity for members of our community.

Community colleges are a great model. Things we’re hearing is that the state budget issues are coming up. And so, preparing and trying to figure out what that looks like for us… typically when there’s a budget crisis, our budget goes down and we have more students, like when we’ve had an increase in the past. For example, when the statewide budget is bad and there’s a recession, and more people are going to community colleges — it makes it a tough time.

There may be many individuals who will need to reinvent themselves.

I could imagine, based on my time at community colleges, that when we do come out of this if certain jobs don’t come back, there will be some kind of fund or benefit for people in those jobs to go to school. Sometimes there are benefits for people to go to school.

LBCC raised a large amount of funds with the Day of Caring which coincided with the Federal CARES Act. Could you share a bit about both of those?

Yes. I was involved in one challenge that if we raised $600 I would wear a suit to all Zoom meetings for the rest of the week. So we did, and now I’ve had to do this. The best challenge was a guy in the business office who said if we raise a certain amount he would shave his beard and he had a beard probably like, down to here. He definitely looks like a new person! It added some fun to it.

So, you don’t always wear a suit and tie while working from home?

No, I don’t. Usually shorts and a t-shirt.

Or, I thought you were dressing up for our interview.

I could have let you think that the whole time… 

The Federal CARES Act has started to be implemented. The money was given and then different criteria kept being added. It has taken a while to shift into “This is what this is.” There are guidelines the government has given us, and there have been changes as the days have gone by.

Were the guidelines not clear from the federal government or from the state government?

I think the money might have come as they were developing guidelines. And so each college had to put together a process — there was some freedom in how each college has been able to handle it. The criteria is it can benefit all eligible students. If you qualify, you get something, and it looks at categories such as expected family contribution. There are three different criteria for level:  most, medium, and then least need. Those funds just started going out.

To supplement the Federal CARES Act, the LBCC Day of Caring collaborated with the LBCC Foundation to help pool together funds, is this correct?

Yes, and that is a type of emergency fund for students. Over the years the fund has grown. Each year it helps with items such as car repairs, bikes, rent — basically a short-term crisis fund to help students.

That is great support. Let’s talk a little about your plan for this year’s commencement ceremony.

We are working on a keepsake mailing to go to students that will have caps and tassels and some other things, such as a letter from the college. There is a lot we can’t do that we’d like to, which would be having people come to campus, but we just can’t do that yet. So, along with a package that goes to students, there will be a website that honors graduates and has a message from the college. Also, this year’s graduates will be involved in next year’s graduation. It will be a double commencement ceremony.

What is one college course you wish you would have taken?

I was going to be a football coach, but then I decided I wanted to go into higher education, so I changed to communication. I ended up working in a position at a school where I had to have technical skills. So, I wish there was a college course that was called something like “Workplace Technical Skills,” and for me, it’d involve something like SQL (SQL is a domain-specific language used in programming and designed for managing data). Something else that would be helpful would be basic website editing, and also tools and tricks with Excel. There are things that are helpful and useful for everybody. But they probably all wouldn’t be contained in the same course!

Rather, you have to learn on the job.

You have to teach yourself and use YouTube to figure it out.

What does LBCC’s future look like? We know summer term classes will be online.

Yes, and I think face to face is still an option for fall. The assumption that I’ve heard is that some sort of distancing would be in place. If we expect to be face to face, there would be certain criteria, but we don’t know about that yet. My hope is that we’ll definitely be coming together, being able to get somewhere close to normal. We just don’t know when.