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Community Colleges

Making the Switch

Community colleges are benefiting from leaders with a four-year background.
University Business, Sep 2007

THE LEAGUE FOR INNOVA-tion in the Community College hasn't heard much about it. The American Association of Community Colleges says it's not a trend. The American Council on Education knows of one person who did it 10 years ago. It doesn't happen often, but leaders do move from the four-year to the two-year sector. And once they do, they often find that things they learned working at a university can be helpfully applied at a community college.

When William Harmon first became president of Houston Community College Central College (Texas) two years ago, there was an issue with extreme turnover of first- year students. The school had been addressing it as an admissions issue, but it turned out to be a matter of retention. "[Being at a four-year college] brought me to discuss aspects the community college didn't consider, such as orientation and retention strategies," he says. Harmon was in the four-year sector for 20 years when he decided to move to Houston to be near his daughter and her new family. He received job offers from HCC and a four-year IHE. "It was a conscious decision to choose the community college," he says.

"Community colleges are going through a maturation and evolutionary process," explains Steven Ender, president of Westmoreland County Community College (Pa.). "Institutional research, fundraising-those are new for community colleges, and people from four year institutions can offer a lot." Ender accepted his position after talking to his twin brother Kenneth, president of Cumberland County College (N.J.), and realizing the opportunities available. "I spent time at universities doing things not related to education," Steven says. Now he is excited by how nimble his new college is and shares how they began offering a course in radiological technology 12 months after realizing there was a high need in the region.

'You can't make assumptions that you would make based on a four-year institution.'
-William Shields, University of Pittsburgh at Titusville

"I don't think the skill sets are all that different," says Kenneth Ender, listing abilities such as relating to a wide range of people, multitasking, future planning, proper delegating, and fundraising. For 10 years he has been president of Cumberland County College, making the switch after completing an ACE fellowship. "I can't underscore enough how important it is to find the right fit," he says. "Most successful presidents, regardless of sector, will say the fit is good." The focus on students at community colleges is what sold him.

"When you see [a student's] whole family is in the audience [at graduation], you realize they changed the destiny of the entire family," Kenneth says.

"In some instances [students] see this as their last opportunity for education and it becomes a family affair," Harmon says. But the difference in the makeup of the student body can be one challenge new leaders aren't expecting. "If you don't create a smooth transition from high school or work during the registration process, it is easier for them to walk away than fight barriers," Harmon adds.

"You can't make assumptions that you would make based on a four-year institution," says William Shields, president of University of Pittsburgh at Titusville (Pa.), a two-year regional campus associated with the University of Pittsburgh. During his career, Shields has been president or interim president at five different institutions. He says it's easier to get to know the students at Titusville because the school is smaller.

The relationship with faculty, and the type of faculty hired, is also different. "You try to hire and retain good faculty depending on what kinds of teachers they are rather than their publishing history," Shields explains. And the research that faculty pursue is usually related to "the art of teaching," Kenneth says.

And don't forget the local community. "There is much less separation between town and gown at community colleges," points out Norma Kent, AACC vice president for communications. Just as Westmoreland responded to a local need by adding a new program, community college leaders have to be integrated in civic, workforce, service, and other activities, she says. Shields calls it "friend-raising." "We have to be good corporate partners," he says.

"Those of us from four-years typically don't have a good understanding of the community piece," Steven Ender cautions, adding that there are different political implications when college board members are elected or appointed.

Having the support of both the community and the board is very important, he says. "At a community college, you have to provide a quick local response to the community," Kenneth Ender says. He suggests state colleges could benefit from replicating the community relationship found at two-year institutions.

Still, the degree of control community college presidents might have can be beneficial. Steven says he can manage the budget more effectively than when he was at a university: "I negotiate with the collective bargaining units, I set tuition, I go out for the bond funding," and then he sells the ideas to the board.

Kay McClenney, director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, says attempting to make community colleges more like universities would be off track and potentially harmful.

However, McClenney suggests that for someone inspired by the "prospect of actually being able to make a serious difference through leadership initiatives," having a background in a four-year school brings something new to the table.

One area in which AACC's Kent suggests a university perspective could be beneficial is in helping students navigate the process of transferring to baccalaureate programs. Having come from "the other side," they know what is expected of both students and two-year institutions.

'Fundraising was not initially on the horizon with any consistency.'
-William Harmon, Houston Community College Central College

Harmon says his prior experience helped in another area in which community colleges are beginning to venture. "Fundraising was not initially on the horizon with any consistency," he says. He didn't take all the credit, but did say the college foundation has developed a better capital campaign in the past two years.

"There are people who want to give, but no one asked before," Steven says. He got involved in WCCC's golf outing and helped raise $70,000 rather than the usual $13,000.

Maintaining focus on the college's mission of educating students and preparing them for either a career or additional degrees is also important to keep in mind. Harmon established an honors college, based on the model at Miami Dade College (Fla.), that will require a 3.7 GPA. He says some people were concerned he would move away from HCC's open enrollment process, but he believes there is no reason quality academics and open enrollment should be mutually exclusive. "I have a whole staff full of mentors," he says with a laugh. "They are the first to identify where I was not in concert with the mission of a community college."

For all the positives of leading a community college-working closely with students and faculty, seeing the immediate benefit in the community-some people still question an administrator's desire to switch. "Some people think going to a community college is a step backward," says Steven. "I don't think I'd ever go back to a four- year." He says the people who have questioned his decision are attracted to the "bells and whistles" associated with universities, like football teams and fancy offices. "That has nothing to do with what is going on in the classroom."

Harmon echoes the sentiment. "Community colleges are designed to fulfill dreams; four-year institutions fulfill expectations," he explains, adding that universities working with students who scored 1400 on the SAT and have a 3.8 GPA are "making apple pie out of apples" because those students are more prepared to succeed. The value added to human capital at a community college is more significant, and the graduate will be making a contribution to the local community.

"I don't think [people considering the switch] should be afraid of the comparison," Shields says. "If they have skills and talents that can be brought to bear, that is the important thing."

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