Maybe this downside to Acadiana’s community college wasn’t made plain to Natalie Harder when she first applied for the chancellor’s job in 2012. Maybe she just overlooked it.

Fact was, only 6 percent of first-time students at South Louisiana Community College back then had the good fortune to graduate within three years, which is considered to be “on time.” Did she know things were that bad academically?

“Nope. As a matter of fact, I thought it was typo,” she said Wednesday, while she was making preparations for her May 29 departure from SLCC.

Unsatisfactory student outcomes weren’t the only challenge for the new chancellor, who’d left an administrative position at a two-year school in Virginia in 2012 to lead SLCC. There was a marketing and public relations challenge, too.

While shopping for a new home, she said, her real estate agent asked where she worked. South Louisiana Community College, Harder replied. The agent said she had never heard of the two-year campus, which had operated in Lafayette since 1999, with an enrollment of about 6,000.

There was a merger underway, too, as if the other challenges weren’t imposing enough: SLCC and the seven campuses of the Acadiana Technical College merged by legislative direction in summer 2012. That brought two distinct educational cultures together with an out-of-towner — Harder, a native New Yorker — to sell the merger to both camps and to calm employee fears about the future.

“Probably it was a good thing that I was a stranger,” she said. “We had issues that had to be addressed quickly. It might have been more difficult if they knew me. I didn’t have any good or bad biases from having a history here.”

She had no biases, but she had problems. Financials were declining, she said. So was enrollment.

Did she have fair warning about all that coming in? In a word, she replied, no.

“I clearly didn’t pick up on any of the signs about the financial situation or the severity of the enrollment.”

Eight years later, Harder’s leaving behind an eight-campus, 18,000-student institution with improved graduation rates and solid community support. SLCC encompasses eight campuses around Acadiana and teaches at 50 sites. Student outcomes have improved to about 30 percent on-time-graduation, above average nationally and second or third in the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, and academic and workforce training components of SLCC have melded within a fully functioning community college.

“I don’t think I knew what needed to be done,” Harder said of her first days on campus. But she knew she had to fully accomplish the merger and change people’s thinking about the two-fold mission of teaching both academics and workforce preparation.

“Both sides thought the other would not respect what they did. But no matter who you are or what you do, everyone works with their heads and their hands both. Once folks came to realize that, then we were all in it together.”

Thus, a clash in cultures: academic programs vs. job training. That was the mountain to climb.

“Look at the history of higher education in Louisiana,” she said. “Like in many states, folks believe working with your hands did not have as much merit as keeping your hands clean. But that’s so untrue in this state.”

Success came incrementally and isn’t complete, she said. But faculty and staff buy-in made the difference. Of the college’s four pillars — student success, people, sustainability and community — it is the people who spell the difference, forming the “secret sauce” that encourages student achievement and inspires the community’s embrace.

“I learned so much here, the chief thing how important the culture is to an organization. I could have all the great ideas in the world, but if the team isn’t committed to each other it will never work.”

But in preparing for her new job — she’ll start as president of Coker University, a private institution in South Carolina, on June 1 — she doesn’t believe she’s leaving any unfinished business behind her.

“I’ve been inspired by the SLCC family,” she said. “Two mergers, all the budget cuts, regulatory changes, politics and now a pandemic? Yet I don’t think the institution could be stronger. If you build around people, the good work happens.”

She’s been packing up her office, located in the still gleaming Health and Sciences Building, and preparing to take mementos with her. She’ll pack up what she’s learned in Acadiana and take that, too.

“The most important people in the institution is everyone else,” she said: staff and faculty. “They serve students or take care of someone who serves students. The real work happens not within my office but the day-to-day work of everything else.”

And this: “When you allow people to be successful and help them see what success is, boy do they rise to the occasion. Don’t set the bar too low. The college will continue to do great things. It’s an important part of the community. It hasn’t realized its full potential.”

3 major moments

We asked Harder to name three important moments for the college during her eight-year tenure. She chose these:

1. Lafayette Economic Development Authority, Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Lafayette General Hospital and Our Lady of Lourdes invested $500,000 to start a registered nursing program at SLCC. “Gregg Gothreaux of LEDA jumped right in with funds to start the RN program and Kathy Bobbs was instrumental in LGH and OLOL investing in the program. That investment told me that when it mattered to the community, politics could be put aside.”

2. The 10th state budget cut the college had to manage through. “I didn't know how many times we could innovate, but college employees figured out how to continue to excel and serve students. We endured another six cuts, but I knew at No. 10 the SLCC family was the most resilient and committed group of people with which I had ever worked."

3. The recent announcement by LHC Group and The Myers Family Foundation to create a home health education program. “If you think about the hundreds of colleges that could have received such an investment of trust to further home health care education, it is a truly humbling commitment. Private sector decisions like these result from a college's excellence and integrity — I know SLCC has these in spades, but I was so glad it was showcased to the world.”

Acadiana Business Today: Most Louisiana movie theaters remain closed despite eased restrictions; here's why; Downtown Chicken Sandwich Snackdown to boost Lafayette restaurants facing lost income


Email Ken Stickney at kstickney@theadvocate.com.