An influence that will continue for decades: Farewell to Dean Jennifer Ernst
HFC Dean of the School of Liberal Arts (SOLA) Dr. Jennifer Ernst recalled that her foray into administration was supposed to be a temporary one.
“When Associate Dean Katherine Grahl, who was an amazing administrator, retired, we needed somebody who could step in and do that job temporarily,” recalled Ernst, laughing.
To her surprise, she discovered she enjoyed the administrative role because of its opportunities to influence systems and people toward good outcomes.
“What I found is I really loved working with my colleagues, mentoring people, helping them solve problems, helping them dream big dreams, and figuring out all the mechanisms that needed to be in place to make those big dreams come true,” she said. “I found it to be really rewarding, so I stayed.”
Ernst joined HFC in 2006. Until 2014, she was an English instructor. From 2014 to 2017, she was Associate Dean of the Communications Division. When HFC underwent an academic reorganization in 2017, she became the founding dean of SOLA.
The first choice to lead the School of Liberal Arts
"When the College sought to appoint its inaugural Dean of (SOLA), we knew we need not look further than to Dr. Jennifer Ernst,” said Dr. Michael Nealon, HFC Vice President of Academic Affairs. “Jennifer brought to this position her central commitments to student success, excellence in teaching and learning, and the quality of academic programming – especially as the liberal arts contribute in so many meaningful ways to the education of the whole person."
Oct. 5 marks Ernst’s final day at the College. Her family is moving to Indiana, where her husband accepted a new position.
“I’ll miss my colleagues,” she said. “I have had the opportunity to work with some of the most fabulous people in higher education. I couldn’t begin to name them all. We have tremendous staff and faculty. It’s been a pleasure to work with our union leadership. Dr. Michael Nealon has been an absolute delight to work with, and I’ve learned tons from him as well. He’s a fabulous, compassionate, wonderful leader.
"I can’t say enough about our new president," she continued. "Russ Kavalhuna has been a tremendous breath of fresh air. He has really revitalized people’s commitment to the work that we do here at HFC. So it’s really the people I will miss the most.”
Her colleagues will miss her just as much. She leaves a big gap at the College.
"Jennifer is a true advocate for faculty and students. I've watched her interactions with students and admired her capacity to listen and lift individuals, even those who came to her with a complaint about a class or instructor. On a personal note, she was incredibly generous and kind to me during the lowest point in my life. I will miss her," said English instructor Pamela Stewart.
First-generation college student
A native of California and the eldest of two, Ernst is a first-generation student in her family to attend college. After graduating from Ironwood High School in Glendale, AZ, she began her education at Glendale Community College.
“My parents didn’t have a lot to offer in terms of guidance with college decisions, so I just stumbled through the doors at (GCC). I had some sense that college was what I needed to create a good future, but I didn’t know how to accomplish it. I never took the ACT; I never took the SAT. I just somehow stumbled in there, and it’s become everything to me,” said Ernst.
Transferring to the University of Pittsburgh, Ernst earned her bachelor’s degree in English Literature. From there, she earned her master’s degree in English Literature at Duquesne University, one of the nation’s top Catholic universities, in Pittsburgh. In 2017, she earned her doctorate in community college leadership from Ferris State University in Big Rapids. She also completed doctoral work at Wayne State University.
“I’ve always loved working with students and had a real passion for helping people write and communicate better,” said Ernst.
At first, Ernst thought about teaching high school. But she decided to teach at the college level because it gave her the opportunity to have intellectual conversations about writing and literature that would be less likely at the high school level. Also, faculty had a lot more authority and autonomy over their curriculum and classes at the college level.
Directing career success to starting out at a community college
Ernst says she owes her success in her career to starting at a community college, which gives her a unique perspective as a teacher and an administrator.
“I will tell you straight-up that every opportunity I’ve had since my early college days is rooted in that one chance, that one moment, that one opportunity,” said Ernst. “Though everybody’s journey through higher education is very different, and their paths to their professional life are very different, I know for the vast majority of our students, we are their starting point, and is the one thing that will help them get to the end point.”
Ernst has been in higher education since 2001. She started as a graduate assistant (G.A.) at Duquesne. She was a G.A. and adjunct faculty member at Wayne State. From there, she served as an adjunct faculty member at Oakland University in Rochester before coming to HFC (then Henry Ford Community College) in 2006.
“I was really looking for something that was teaching-focused,” she said. “When I interviewed at the College, I was so impressed by how focused and committed to teaching my colleagues were. I knew this is where I really wanted to be.”
A gifted student advocate and faculty advocate
English professors Dr. Michael Hill and Ruth Ann Schmitt remember Ernst when she was still in the classroom. In fact, Hill chaired her dissertation committee.
“Jennifer was one of my first friends and first allies at the College,” said Hill. “I have been honored as a colleague to watch Jennifer’s career develop and gratified as a friend to watch her life grow and flourish. We have shared many stories, many pains, many joys over the years, and I am so sad to see my friend leave even as I understand and support her reasons for doing so.”
Hill continued: “I have long appreciated and learned from Jennifer's passion for student success and her insight into how curriculum and policy help students develop into professionals. Jennifer has been essential as an administrative force behind many of our College’s best programs. The effort and ideas Jennifer put into that work, while also serving as a dean, as a citizen, and as a parent has never ceased to astound me. The College is suffering a great loss as Jennifer departs, and so am I, but her influence on students’ lives, on our College, and on me personally will continue for decades.”
Added Schmitt: “I have been a longtime friend and colleague of Jennifer’s, and I am deeply saddened that she’s leaving HFC. As a professor, she was rigorous and engaging. As a Dean and Associate Dean, she kept her focus on being present for her faculty. She never doubted their ability to deliver the best lessons in complicated situations. And, more importantly, she understood the complicated situations and dynamics of our work and our mission at HFC. She supported her professors with smart and wise decisions. Her ability to do this impressed me so much.”
In her 16 years at HFC, Ernst has made significant contributions to the College’s mission. A few highlights of her accomplishments include:
- Assisting displaced ITT students when their school closed abruptly in 2016, a collaborative effort that won the MCCA Outstanding Team/Collaboration Education Award in 2019.
- Serving on the Exploration of International Students to Improve Services and Increase Enrollment CPI Team in the Winter 2016 Semester.
- Co-writing and directing the Mellon Foundation Grant that created the Transfer Bridges to the Humanities at HFC and the University of Michigan (U-M) in Ann Arbor.
- Supporting the creation of a new Public Speaking Lab led by instructors Doris Toney and Vinita Parekh.
- Supporting the creation of a new Writing Center led by instructor Chelsea Lonsdale.
- Co-chairing the Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) Team at HFC – an effort that led to the first enrollment gain in eight years – in 2019.
- Co-presenting, with Chardin Claybourne, HFC Learning Lab Director, and Holly Diamond, HFC Executive Director of Enrollment/Registrar, about the SEM Team’s efforts at the National League of Innovation Conference in Seattle in early 2020 (before the pandemic).
“I enjoyed working with Jennifer,” said Claybourne. “I had the opportunity to sit on several search committees with her and, for a brief time, she was my direct supervisor. During that period, I felt supported and respected as a professional and colleague. Working with her on our presentation at the National League of Innovation Conference (in March 2020) was a very positive experience. She represented HFC well, and will be missed.”
Tearing down silos between academics and student services
“The SEM (Strategic Enrollment Management) Team has been a really exciting development at the College,” said Ernst. “It has been a real pleasure and privilege to work with Holly Diamond, who is one of the most knowledgeable people in higher education. Our focus was to tear down the silos between academics and student services, as well as really focus on bringing in students, helping them understand what we do, how our programs can benefit them, and successfully retaining those students to help them reach their goals. We were taking a multi-faceted look at enrollment, well beyond just recruitment.”
The College has benefitted from the SEM Team’s efforts. For instance, in the last few semesters, several colleges around the region were down in terms of enrollment, whereas HFC’s enrollment was trending up.
“I think SEM has helped us survive the pandemic when we had some disruptions in our enrollment patterns,” she said. “We are really blessed that our colleagues have totally bought into this concept that enrollment is everybody’s business. It’s opened all kinds of different ways to tackle enrollment issues and to make sure we’re doing the best we can for our students – when they walk in the door and all the way through their whole education.”
Diamond saw the partnership in much the same way. "I have had the honor and privilege to work and collaborate with Jennifer Ernst on a number of initiatives, with one of the largest being SEM. I am continually in awe of her intelligence, talent, and ability to build bridges. In addition to her role of Dean of the School of Liberal Arts, she was called upon to co-chair the SEM team with me. Through her creativity and ability to lead and empower others, I learned so much from her, including how to bring different constituents from across the College together to have a voice and be a part of the enrollment solutions we have been seeking. Through her character, leadership, and wisdom, I have become a better administrator and a better person. I will eternally be grateful and indebted to her for helping me grow individually and accomplish goals for the SEM Team and College."
Diamond couldn't resist adding a punctuation note: "I would be remiss if I don’t mention that the concept of the Oxford comma is engraved in my brain for all eternity because of her!"
Going far beyond the call of duty
What has always excited Ernst was seeing her colleagues working together and developing programs for HFC students.
“Starting SOLA really allowed us to engage with the Transfer Bridges program. It allowed different areas that hadn’t worked together before to work together under that umbrella. I think that’s a primary example of what can be accomplished when people from different departments are working together,” said Ernst.
“As our Dean, Jennifer has led with grace, fairness, and a sparkling sense of humor, while maintaining accessibility and a willingness to stand up for every member of our team. I've learned and benefitted from her leadership and compassion, and truly admired the unwavering commitment she displayed every day to make our school shine,” said Chair of Communication and Media/WHFR General Manager Susan McGraw.
Kavalhuna also praised Ernst, stating her most important contribution to HFC is her constant and unwavering support for students.
“Jennifer has taught, mentored, and helped countless HFC students over the years, often going far beyond the call of duty to make sure an individual student’s needs were met,” he said. “As one example, she spent untold hours working to place each of our students in the very few available programs after we had to close down our American Sign Language (ASL) associate degree program in 2018. The students whom Jennifer has influenced will continue to benefit from those influences throughout their lives.”
Incredibly focused on our students and our community
Ernst was also active in the HFC community beyond her duties as a professor and an administrator. For six years, she played flute as part of the HFC Metropolitan Symphony Band, led by Rick L. Goward, HFC Big Band founder/director – in the President’s Collage Concert. For two of those years, Ernst was joined by her daughter, Carolyn, now a freshman at the University of Oregon.
“Rick is a tremendous musician and a wonderful conductor,” praised Ernst. “I enjoy working with the community members and the high school students – it’s a nice, diverse mix of people. We play in near-perfect instrumentation because we’re able to bring in so many different folks from several colleges and universities, area high schools, and the community at large – that’s exciting.”
As she gets ready to take the next step in her life, Ernst looks back on her years at HFC. Instead of talking about how it’s changed, she would rather talk about the important ways it hasn’t changed.
“We are still incredibly focused on our students and our community and making sure we offer our very best to those folks every single day – that has not changed,” explained Ernst. “Some of the things we’re doing better happen because we are using a lot more data to inform our decisions. I think we are focusing so much more on student support than we were when I first came in. We’re making sure we’re providing the support to turn it into an opportunity for our students to succeed. I think people are very committed to that, and it’s something I’ll miss being a part of. I don’t think that happens everywhere. I think HFC is unique in how much they care about students.”
As President Kavalhuna noted when reflecting on Ernst's contributions, "As they say in my old line of work (an airline pilot), I wish her nothing but tailwinds and clear skies."