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Hartnell College President Michael Gutierrez on accelerating equity for Latinx students and communities

Stories & Case Studies
September 1, 2023
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Michael Gutierrez is president and superintendent of Hartnell College, one of 10 institutions to join the Achieving the Dream Network in 2023 as part of the Accelerating Equitable Outcomes (AEO) cohort. AEO is a nationwide initiative to help colleges build vibrant communities through intentional support of racially minoritized students.

Alongside his peers at 12 other Network colleges, President Gutierrez attended the ATD Kickoff Institute in June. He spoke with us about his experience at Kickoff, Hartnell’s transformation goals, and the role of leadership in advancing equitable colleges and vibrant communities.

Hartnell College President Michael Gutierrez

Building strong relationships and strong teams

President Gutierrez began his role at Hartnell College in July 2022, less than a year before the college applied to participate in the AEO initiative. His focus at that time was building relationships with college leaders and stakeholders, but when he approached constituency groups with the opportunity, they were eager to apply. With enthusiastic buy-in across the board, Hartnell joined the AEO cohort and sent a team to Milwaukee for the Kickoff Institute in June 2023.

President Gutierrez missed the first couple days of Kickoff to attend his daughter’s high school graduation but said that there were some benefits to his absence. “It allowed the team to develop some camaraderie without me, and it also created a very honest environment for them to have a good discussion with their coaches when I wasn’t present,” he stated. Both with and without him, he believes the team at Kickoff took the first few important steps on a three-year journey to improve student success and close equity gaps at Hartnell.

Focusing on data, equity, and accountability

As Hartnell looks ahead to the work it will take on through the Foundations of Transformation program, President Gutierrez highlighted data and technology as an area of focus. The college experienced a ransomware attack in October of 2022, which devastated the institutional research department. But he’s trying to look at this setback as an opportunity.

“In some ways it allows us to almost start from scratch in terms of developing our business practices and our dashboarding system,” he said. “While we’re establishing this culture of data democratization, it’s a good time to be working with Achieving the Dream.”

He’s eager for faculty to not only explore information at the division level but also examine data disaggregated by section. “There are going to be instances where people haven’t seen their own data the entire time they’ve been working at this institution,” he said. He expressed his hope this kind of reflection will build collegiality and understanding across campus: “We’re going to use this information to establish equity plans so that we can, indeed, close the equity gap.”

“Seeing how people are trying to accomplish similar goals and coming at it in different ways allows your own institution to look at things creatively.”

President Gutierrez was previously president of Sacramento City College, which joined the Network during his tenure in 2019, so he was already familiar with the role ATD can play in institutional transformation. He mentioned dedicated coaching as a significant asset that will serve the college in the next few years.

“I think the coaching will keep us honest and really help us focus — keeping the end in mind and then working backwards from there. That’s super exciting to me,” he shared.

Belonging to a network not only allows institutions to learn from each other but also to celebrate their own successes. “Institutions can be very hard on themselves,” he said. But “seeing how people are trying to accomplish similar goals and coming at it in different ways allows your own institution to look at things creatively.”

Investing in community vibrancy

At the heart of the AEO initiative is an intentional focus on improving equitable outcomes for students of color. Hartnell College is a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) and about 75% of the student body identifies as Latinx. That aligns with the population of Salinas, California, which has the highest proportion of Latinx residents in the state.

President Gutierrez said that Hartnell’s close relationship with its community is not only reflected in its student body, but also its history: “Our institution is about 102 years old, so the relationships and the connection between the college and the community is really strong. It’s a true community college.”

To support higher educational attainment in the area, Hartnell runs a program called Panther Prep that helps high school seniors get college-ready. In the spring, the main campus hosts about 1,000 incoming students and their families for informational sessions and to set students up with their course schedules for the upcoming semester.

“[Students] want a job or they want a bachelor’s degree. Our job is to make sure they’re successful at both of those things. Because if we get our students to graduate and they don’t transfer, we didn’t do our job completely.”

Hartnell also focuses on developing its faculty through MAESTROs (Making Accessible and Effective Systems for Teacher Readiness Outcomes), a “grow your own” program for local educators funded through a Title V grant. Hartnell works in partnership with regional high schools and California State University, Monterey Bay, to provide mentorship, professional development, and direct support to students pursuing a career in education.

“It’s been highly supported and transformational for the area,” President Gutierrez said. “This is an effort to try and reduce the housing shortage and reduce traffic that may exist. These are people who already want to be here; they don’t want to move away. And this gives them access and options to do that.”

When it comes to building community vibrancy, he believes that college leaders need to prioritize students’ long-term success. “People don’t come in saying, ‘I want an associate degree,’ he explained. “They either want a job or they want a bachelor’s degree. Our job is to make sure they’re successful at both of those things. Because if we get our students to graduate and they don’t transfer, we didn’t do our job completely.”

Leading by influence

Looking more broadly at the higher education field, President Gutierrez highlighted examples of institutions that are “doing the job correctly” when it comes to supporting minoritized students. Imperial Valley College in Southern California, a winner of the 2023 Aspen Prize, has developed strong partnerships with high school partners to ensure students have a plan when they start college. San Antonio college, part of the Alamo Colleges District in Texas, cultivates a sense of belonging by creating a welcoming environment for the community. Both are examples, he believes, Hartnell can emulate as the college continues to advance equity in its community.

“There are things that people leave us … wisdom comes in many ways.”

He also talked about educational leaders who have affected his own professional trajectory. Dr. Maria Harper-Marinick, former chancellor of the Maricopa Community College District, was a fellow with Dr. Gutierrez in the National Community College Hispanic Council in 2003. She later mentored him in the Aspen Rising Presidents Fellowship — President Gutierrez was a member of the inaugural cohort — a program for which he now serves as a mentor. “So it’s kind of come full circle,” he said.

Sometimes the smallest actions from mentors can have lasting impacts on future leaders, President Gutierrez said. He recalled that when he worked in the Dallas County Community College District, then-chancellor Dr. Bill Wenrich once singled him out and said, “Hey, look at that guy, he’s going to be a college president one day.”

“I’m sure he didn’t remember that later, but I remember,” said President Gutierrez. “There are things that people leave us. And what I’ve taken from that is that wisdom comes in many ways.”

Recognizing that wisdom and good ideas can come from many directions, he often gives the same advice to leaders who are hiring new faculty or staff: Ask candidates to demonstrate that they’ve been leaders for people who didn’t report directly to them.

President Gutierrez noted that many college initiatives require cross-department collaboration, where the role of supervisor can be less clearly defined. “So how are you going to lead?” he asked rhetorically. His answer: “By influence.”

“As we’re trying to do things at scale, whether it’s guided pathways or moving to eight-week terms, you’re going to have to be able to lead by influence,” he stated.

With this mindset, President Gutierrez is building a team of strong leaders at Hartnell who are dedicated to pursuing the best outcomes for the students and communities they serve.

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