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The Right Stuff

As community colleges face a vast number of retirements, these institutions are searching for leaders who can guide them through a new era of visibility and accountability.
University Business, Sep 2007

AT EASE IN THE PUBLIC SPOTLIGHT? CHECK. ADEPT AT RAISING funds? Got it. Comfortable with politics? Uh-huh. Able to build relationships with trustees? Yep.

Sure, presidents and high-level administrators at four-year colleges and universities have long needed to satisfy these job requirements. But community college chiefs? Not so much. Now that's changing, as two-year institutions take in ever larger numbers of students and become increasingly accountable and transparent to business partners, government entities, and communities. "The expectations are higher," says Jan Greenwood, who performs higher ed executive searches and provides consulting and training as president of Miramar Beach, Fla.-based Greenwood & Associates

It's not that community college leaders didn't face challenges before. It's that the nature of their jobs-the day-in and day-out responsibilities that are most pressing on their agendas-have changed. Leaders of two-year institutions now need skills, qualities, and experiences that stray from the traditional internal, classroom oriented leadership. They need to be able to communicate with multiple constituencies. They need to be keen on partnerships. They need fundraising acumen, political sensibilities, and adeptness with data. In short, they need to be more things to more people.

One who has experienced these job requirements firsthand (albeit, ones that really light his fire) is Brian Johnson, who has been president of the two-year institution Montgomery College, located in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., since February. "There is more of a need these days for presidents to have strong connectivity to their legislative delegation, more of a finger on the pulse of evolving and changing workforce propositions. Presidents are more external these days than I think they needed to be 15 or 20 years ago," says Johnson. "I think the community visibility aspect is an increasingly more important part of the job."

As the top spots at community colleges are changing, these institutions are also approaching a surge of retirements. There are so many top-level administrators of retirement age at the country's 1,200- plus community colleges that it might start to feel like someone pulled the drain out from the human capital tub.

"You are going to see a fairly mass exodus over the next 10 years, like what happened in the late 1970s and early '80s in higher education," says Greenwood. "At that point, a lot of people were leaving at one time, because a lot of them were tracking at retirement age together. Now we are seeing the same thing about to recycle itself." While she believes all of higher ed must prepare for a retirement wave, community colleges will experience vacancies at the presidential level in particular.

To Eduardo Padron, who occupies one of the more influential community college roles as president of Miami Dade College, the two-year higher ed sector is approaching a bit of a worrisome time. "I think the leadership crisis is not overblown; I think it is real. It's not that there is a lack of candidates-there is a lack of qualified candidates," he says.

'There used to be just one pipeline [to the community college presidency], primarily overwhelmingly from inside the house.'
-Margaret Rivera, American Association of Community Colleges

Not everyone sees a crisis in play, though. George B. Vaughan, a professor of higher education at North Carolina State University and a former community college president, as well as editor of the Community College Review, has researched the state of community college leadership in the United States. While Vaughan acknowledges the large number of impending retirements, he questions the lack of candidates. "Well-qualified people are literally lined up to fill presidential vacancies," he says. "You can advertise a presidential vacancy in the most remote areas of the nation and often get 50 to 75 (in many cases more) qualified applicants. The so-called 'leadership crisis' has, to my knowledge, never been documented."

Whether or not there will be a shortage of qualified applicants, there will undoubtedly be open positions. According to Vaughan's research, 56 percent of community college presidents plan to retire within the next six years. Smart institutional leaders and their boards must make time now to think about what type of leader they will need to bring on board and where they might find these future stars.

The traditional career path for the community college leader-start as a professor, become a department head and then dean, take on a vice presidency, and then enter the presidency-has fallen to the wayside.

Marilyn Amey, a professor of educational administration at Michigan State University, and Kim VanDerLinden, a doctoral student at the university, surveyed the leadership landscape for a research brief titled "Career Paths for Community College Leaders" (American Association of Community Colleges, 2002). The survey of 1,700 administrators provided illuminating data on where these leaders started out. Less than a quarter (22 percent) of presidents were promoted from within, while 66 percent came from other institutions. The survey also uncovered two emerging steppingstones to the presidency: through occupation and vocational education positions and through business and industry liaison positions such as workforce development.

'There is more of a need these days for presidents to have strong connectivity to their legislative delegation, more of a finger on the pulse of evolving and changing workforce propositions.'
-Brian Johnson, Montgomery College

"There used to be just one pipeline, primarily overwhelmingly from inside the house," says Margaret Rivera, who administers two leadership training programs through the American Association of Community Colleges and helps oversee the association's Leading Forward initiative to address the community college leadership gap. "Faculty would move into deans into vice presidents into presidents. But that's not the case anymore."

A number of viable routes to the top have become now bona fide highways. More presidents are coming from the business side of institutions. More are coming from other presidencies. Still others are reaching the top ranks through grow-your-own initiatives or leadership programs.

Whatever the path, community colleges now require a longer list of targeted skill sets from administrators.

"There is a much stronger emphasis on database decision-making inside the institution, and really using evidence-based decisions," says Amey. Community colleges face constrained budgets, as well as increased calls for accountability from both within the higher ed world and from outside sources such as government.

While the chief of a community college will not likely be the person compiling data on, say, how many students of color complete degree requirements, being comfortable analyzing the data and conversing about it with key advisors is crucial.

"The resources at a community college are typically so constrained that there needs to be a better rationale for planning and decision-making than, 'This is a great idea' or 'Our students need it,'" Amey notes. Even if the presidents themselves aren't doing it- which they probably aren't-they will be the ones to whom those arguments are being made, "so they need to be very comfortable with weighing the data and helping their staff and faculty make decisions," she adds.

Translating accountability measures into terms that are meaningful to the community or to government officials is essential, points out John Roueche, director of the Community College Leadership Program at The University of Texas at Austin. "All future leaders, presidents, vice presidents in administration, are going to have to deal with increased public demand for greater transparency in what we do," says Roueche, who also holds the Sid W. Richardson Regents Chair, the first endowed faculty position in the field of community college education. "So tomorrow's leaders, and in fact today's leaders, are going to have to have a terrific skill set in terms of caring about what happens to students, and the ability to ask the right questions regarding the effectiveness of our colleges."

Strong communication skills are not necessarily new requirements for leaders, but the ability to use these skills with a variety of constituencies is more important than in years past. Community college presidents find themselves more in the public spotlight than their predecessors did. "I think the overall expectation of the president as the external representative of the college is aligned with the realities of the day," says Johnson of Montgomery College.

'As long as there is trust among the trustees and president, things go well. But when the trust disappears, trustees begin to question everything. That is how things go wrong.'
-Eduardo Padron, Miami Dade College

As president of Anne Arundel Community College (Md.), Martha Smith has had to speak powerfully about the impact of her institution in order to build productive partnerships and garner support for AACC. "Telling the stories of our successful students and their contributions and showing the figures that underscore the community college's role as an economic driver will tell our story best," she says.

Boards of trustees have access to more information than ever before and are demanding more from institutional leaders. The ability to maintain a solid connection with the board is vital for presidents as well as for administrators working toward the top job.

Padron of Miami Dade believes in communicating with trustees on a regular basis to ensure they hear of campus developments from him, not from the newspaper. He involves trustees in policy decisions while gently encouraging them to stay out of operational aspects of his job. "As long as there is trust among the trustees and president, things go well," he says. "But when the trust disappears, trustees begin to question everything. That is how things go wrong. This becomes more and more complex every day."

Despite the importance of working with boards, many presidents do not necessarily come into their positions with much experience on that front. "It's probably one of the areas that people have the least experience in when they move into the presidency," says Amey. To bolster administrators' skills, the American Association of Community Colleges provides training and resources on developing successful relationships with boards of trustees.

During the 2006 annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges, community college presidents were surveyed about their most pressing concerns. Eighty-six percent of respondents named lack of state and local funding as a top issue facing their institution.

Several factors are putting on the financial squeeze, says Roueche: Community college enrollments have been increasing faster than state appropriations. States are providing less money per full-time student. And today's students often need more support.

"What that means for leaders is that they've got to be better entrepreneurs," Roueche notes. Partnering with businesses in the community, raising funds, and reaching out to alumni are just some of the tasks on today's presidential to-do list. "We are going to have to be more collaborative than we have in the past," Roueche says. "Our future is very much tied to the kind of skill that college administrators, particularly the president and CFO, have in identifying areas of support."

Deborah George Wright, vice president for workforce development at Thomas Nelson Community College (Va.), believes institutional leaders need to seek out partners who can work together on securing funding sources. "Develop your priorities with your partners at the table, and then watch for the appropriate funding and write those proposals. Most foundations are no longer funding single operators in higher ed. They are looking for strategic partnerships."

Community colleges undoubtedly have bright times ahead-but strong leadership will be required. Guided by leaders who bring broad skill sets and are prepared for the realities of leadership today, two-year institutions can take the challenges of limited budgets, increased accountability, and growing student populations in stride.

Caryn Meyers Fliegler is a contributing writer and former associate editor for University Business.

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