BRCC’s problem solver

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Baton Rouge Community College Chancellor Andrea Miller marks her one-year anniversary at the school this month. The Memphis, Tenn., native has faced a number of challenges since taking the job, but said she's optimistic the college is on the verge of rapid growth. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Baton Rouge Community College Chancellor Andrea Miller marks her one-year anniversary at the school this month. The Memphis, Tenn., native has faced a number of challenges since taking the job, but said she's optimistic the college is on the verge of rapid growth.

On any day during the workweek, Andrea Miller is responsible for resolving crises that pop up unexpectedly on a college campus. As Baton Rouge Community College’s chancellor, she is responsible for more than 9,000 students and about 300 faculty and staff.

The Memphis, Tenn., native swept into town nearly a year ago after spending five years as chancellor in Lake Charles at SOWELA Technical Community College.

During her time in Lake Charles, Miller is credited with steadying a campus badly damaged by Hurricane Rita and leading the school’s transition from a technical school to a full community college.

In her short time in Baton Rouge, Miller has dealt with a computer glitch that prevented some staff from using their prescription drug benefit cards; a widespread power outage that delayed the start of the spring semester; and a miscalculation by personnel that resulted in several faculty members being overpaid last year.

On campus, Miller was the one who had to calm the raw emotions that resulted when about 95 faculty were informed they had to repay roughly $500,000 in extra salary they received through no fault of their own.

“We were understaffed, and we were going through some software changes,” Miller said Friday. “Mistakes were made. We acknowledge that, but I think our faculty handled that, in my opinion, with unusual grace.”

Louisiana Community and Technical College system President Joe May recommended Miller for the top BRCC job in late 2011. Last week, May called her “a strong leader” and said he’s been impressed with her handling of several “sensitive” campus issues.

“She’s practical, she’s engaged and she really understands the issues and the burdens that people have to deal with,” May said.

After spending 14 years as a vice president at different schools in Tennessee, Miller’s jump to campus leader coincides with the state’s slashing of funding for higher education — $625 million since 2008, according to the state Board of Regents.

Miller said BRCC has been fortunate in the sense that there were several unfilled positions they could leave vacant, but she acknowledges that budget cuts have hurt the school’s ability to connect with students in certain ways.

“I would like to have more recruiters, they are the people who help students understand that we’re a place that offers them a lot of opportunities. I would also love to have more people in enrollment, financial aid and in the registrar’s office and those areas where we have a lot of contact with students,” she said.

Contact with students is key, she added. Just like at every other school in the state, administrators at BRCC fret over how to increase their student retention rate.

Miller said it’s especially challenging for community colleges, which typically cater to older students, first generation students and working parents.

“Retention is one of my top priorities,” Miller said. “We’ve got to meet students where they are. If we see them on the brink of dropping out, we have to provide that support. We also have to do a good job in assessing our students when they come to us, and identify potential problems as early as possible and provide the assistance they need.”

The issue of retention takes on even greater importance, Miller said, as BRCC is evolving from a school for students who couldn’t immediately get into a four-year college, to an institution that prepares students to enter the workforce in highly specialized fields including Aviation Technology, Nursing, Veterinarian Technology and the medical diagnostic field known as Sonography.

“We have to make sure students see us as a viable option; show them that we can provide them the enrichment they need to be successful,” Miller said.

She added that BRCC could realistically grow to 15,000 students within the next five years as they step up outreach efforts.

BRCC could grow in other ways, she added, if the Legislature goes along with a plan to merge the school with Capital Area Technical College. Miller said a merger would benefit students looking to enroll in a broad range of courses, and would make both schools more efficient through the sharing of resources.

“We could do a better job together than we can do independently,” Miller said.

When talking about BRCC, Miller often calls the school “a well-kept secret.” On Friday, she said she wants the surrounding neighborhood to keep it that way.

“We have a theater where people can come see a play or attend youth and women’s conferences; we have a beautiful library people could use,” Miller said. “We feel like we are secret, but we don’t want to be.”