Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Kay McClenney

Kay McClenney is retiring today.  For some of us, this is quietly devastating.

Kay is known in the community college world for many reasons.  She has been an active leader in the University of Texas community college leadership program, along with her husband, Byron.  She has been the director of CCSSE, the country's largest and most influential survey of community college student engagement, for over a decade.  She coined a phrase -- "students don't do optional" -- that has become foundational wisdom for academic leaders everywhere, even if most of us secretly wish it wasn't true.

In my world, though, she stood out early as the single best director of conference panels I have ever seen.  She's the master of the form.  I take notes watching her work.

Anyone who has seen panels of presidents knows well the dangers of the format.  Conference panelists generally are known for running over time limits; presidents in particular can sometimes get a bit windy.  And relevance can be a real problem when people have every incentive to make themselves look as good as possible, even in the context of addressing difficult issues.

At every single panel I ever saw her run -- probably a half-dozen over the last several years -- Kay managed the impressive feat of simultaneously keeping the discussion moving, keeping people on point, calling out evasions, elevating the discourse, and managing the crowd.  Even more impressive, she did it all gracefully.  I have never seen anyone do it as well as her, even once; she pulls it off every single time.  

A few years ago, I mustered the courage after one of her panels to introduce myself.  I was still writing as "Dean Dad" at that point, and initially she had no idea who I was.  I was just some fanboy trying to catch her attention while she wrestled with her bag.  Even then, though, she was generous with her time, gracious with the unknown stranger, and personally kind.  When I mentioned that I was "Dean Dad," she laughed, and we started a periodic correspondence that did me far more good than it did her.  When my publisher asked who I wanted to write the foreward to my book, hers was the only name I submitted.  True to form, she was gracious, on-point, and bracingly smart.  

I don't have a habit of writing retirement tributes.  But some people leave the field so much better than they found it that failing to mark the moment just wouldn't be right.  Thank you, Kay, for your work, but thank you, too, for setting such a wonderful example of how to do engaged scholarship the right way.  Conferences won't be the same without you.