Coming to academia from the world of banking, Kurt Buttleman felt he wanted to make a difference — and now he’s doing just that in his role as Vice Chancellor for Finance and Technology at Seattle Colleges. In our ‘Five Minutes With…..’ feature, Kurt describes how the Seattle Colleges are meeting the demands of a rapidly changing local economy, the need to both support students and challenge them, and why he’s giving himself two years to brush up on his golf game.
What was your first job?
I started my career in banking initially, but as I reflected on what I could do with my skill set, and what might energize me and really make a difference, I became more attracted to academia. I received a Doctorate in Education Administration and became a Research Director at North Carolina State University, before progressing into the community college system here in Seattle.
How do you describe your current role at Seattle Colleges?
Formally, I’m Vice Chancellor for Finance and Technology, so the non-academic shorthand of that might be that I serve both as CFO and CIO of the Seattle Colleges, with oversight of the majority of the operational aspects of the colleges here.
What do you think most characterizes the schools that comprise Seattle Colleges?
There are three community colleges in Seattle (Seattle Central College, North Seattle College and South Seattle College), in addition to the Vocational Institute. Each of them serves a different part of the community in a different way, so the offerings are tailored to that part of town: At Seattle Central, there’s more of an IT presence, for example, while South Seattle serves a large apprenticeship community, primarily in the construction trades. Seattle has become a high-tech area, with employers often hiring outside of the community, so we’re thinking about how we can best respond to those kinds of changing demographics. We now, for example, offer a dozen bachelor degrees, whereas ten years ago we didn’t have any. We’re offering more and more IT programs for entry-level jobs, and we’re focusing on the construction trades because of the building boom happening here. We’re trying to focus our efforts on the places that are in high demand in the Seattle workforce.
What are you working on right now?
The effects of what I’ve just described is causing us to internally look at how we’re organized, both as individual colleges and as a system, and it’s exciting to now be working through a significant change in how the Seattle Colleges can serve their communities. With the soaring cost of living, students who typically come here can’t afford to live here, so we’re having to think about how we can serve them in a different way. Related to that, there’s currently a lot of activity with our real estate holdings and how we can best utilize those facilities as Seattle changes — and transportation alternatives continue to evolve.
What are some of the major changes you’ve noticed happening in higher education?
Well, a major change has been dwindling state support — and in some under-informed policies. There’s a move towards performance-based funding, and the effects of that are not well understood and can be detrimental to those populations most in need of support at the community college level. Another change is that our program offerings continue to evolve quickly — healthcare programs are in high demand, as are IT programs — and that change in the program mix continues to be pretty dramatic here.
Where do you think the biggest challenges and opportunities for student success lie?
I think there’s some tension right now in community colleges, and in higher ed in general, as to how we can provide a supportive environment for students, but also one that challenges them. In my life, I learned the most when I was challenged, and I think one of the best things we can do is give students the tools, along with the room to use those tools, as they go through their higher education process.
What makes for a great campus partnership in your view?
We’ve worked with Barnes & Noble College for more than 15 years now, and one of the features of that partnership is that it’s seamless to the student and to the customer. I would maintain that most people don’t have an awareness of any difference between the colleges and the bookstores in terms of who’s operating it. Responsiveness is also important to the partnership, and as we’ve approached Barnes & Noble College with challenges that we thought might be opportunities, I can’t think of a time when they haven’t been eager to explore that with us.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
The career I never had was being an architect. I’m always intrigued by spaces and spatial design, and how that influences education. Although what I’d really like to be doing is playing on a professional golf tour — but I think I may have missed that opportunity. I have two more years before I can qualify for a Senior Tour, so I may have to brush up on my game a bit.
Do you have a favorite part of the store?
I usually find myself in the general merchandise and spirit gear section. I like to see the new product lines and what’s available in the store, and I have quite a collection of shirts, hats and sweatshirts from our colleges.
What’s a characteristic you find most prevalent in Barnes & Noble College people?
They care about the student experience, and there’s always the sense that they’re constantly working to improve their processes and the store experience to make it more useable for students. We’re always engaged in store management decisions, and it’s clear that in their people, there is always the sense that they really care about the relationship, how the store supports the college and how it relates to students.
Favorite book or book you’re currently reading?
I just finished The Baseball Codes, last week. It’s the unwritten rules of professional baseball and it’s intriguing to me because it’s about the social dynamics of how baseball is supposed to work. I coach Little League baseball every spring and summer, so it’s fun to be able to relate to that.
Most valuable thing you’ve learned working in higher education?
I think I always knew that higher education had the ability to make an impact on a person’s life, but I don’t think it was until I came here that I realized how that impact can be transformative, not only for that student, but for their families and for generations to come. Many of our students are first-generation college students, and I’ve seen many instances where those individuals go on to have a really positive influence on their families and sometimes on their communities.
Your best day at Seattle Colleges (so far)?
Well, of course, the best days are when Kim Otte, Russell Markman and Lori Schmit from Barnes & Noble College come to visit! Also, I think we all look forward to graduation and watching the students we’ve served, directly or indirectly, go on to the next phase of their lives. So, the best day for me is in the spring, where we can see the work we do here in the changed lives of our students, crossing the stage.