A new correspondent writes:
work at a comprehensive community college. The president has announced
his retirement and a search committee is being formed. Several of the
faculty and staff have mentioned nominating a candidate who might be a great
fit for the position, but he has no graduate degree and limited direct
experience in higher education. His
experience in other areas, however, makes him attractive. He has served
in elected state offices and on a number of educational boards and
committees and has a history of supportive relationships with higher education
in general and the college in particular. He certainly possesses
some of the managerial skills necessary to do the job and brings some unique
qualifications to the table. While his lack of driect experience is
certain to be objectionable to some, his pro higher education history and
reputation are likely to favorably influence others. Is
it critical that a president come from the academic ranks? What problems
might we expect to encounter during the hiring process? What issues
have others encountered working for a president from outside the profession?
I’ll open by noting that region matters. In my neck of the woods, a candidate without
a graduate degree of some sort would be a non-starter. That may or may not hold in your area,
depending on regional accreditation requirements and local culture.
Assuming no bright-line rule from the accreditors, the
trustees, or the state, the question would be what the likely challenges are.
Community college presidencies are at an inflection
point. The average age of a community
college president in the US is 61 and climbing.
The cohort that moved into community colleges during the great growth
period is aging out, but the bench behind them is often thin. Historically, the most common “feeder” job
for new presidents was chief academic officer – usually called either an
academic vice president or a provost – but the average age there is climbing,
too, and surveys suggest that fewer CAO’s want presidencies than was once the
case. Those two developments suggest
that more presidents will come from other places.
And that’s not necessarily bad. Presidents’ jobs have become much more about
external relations – community, philanthropic, and political – than they once
were. (That’s a major reason that fewer
CAO’s see the appeal.) Someone who can
work those relationships well, such as your preferred candidate, stands a
decent chance of being successful at the role as it has evolved.
The major issue will be with the faculty on academic
issues. It’s one thing to be broadly
supportive of education; it’s quite another to understand academic culture and
the needs and fears of faculty. Many
faculty will fear – with some warrant – that a president whose major focus is
financial or political will neglect academic matters, or sell them out to the
highest bidder with the best of intentions.
(That’s remarkably easy to do.)
My advice to a candidate who fits the profile of your
candidate would be to establish, quickly, a strong provost system. Keep or appoint a provost with unimpeachable
academic credentials and a solid sense of academic culture, and then back the
provost fully. If the entire college
understands the president/provost relationship as similar to a CEO/COO
relationship, and they trust the provost, it could work. But a non-academic president who isn’t humble
or self-aware enough to hire his weakness will run aground quickly through
tone-deafness. Faculty culture is a
creature unto itself; at some level, either you get it or you don’t. And even if you do, lacking the credentials
will mean you start with a strike against you.
That’s my sense of it, though I can’t claim to have seen
every case. Wise and worldly readers,
have you seen cases where this kind of president has succeeded? Or is this ultimately a fool’s errand?
Have a question? Ask
the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.