Go to enough panels, and you start to detect themes.
Quick quiz: Community colleges are
A daring and audacious bet on democracy
An established sector of higher education
As a Gen X’er, I think the answer is c. I don’t remember a world without community
colleges. Yes, they’ve grown over the
last decade, but the growth was from an already-existing base. Most of the growth that has happened has
happened at campuses that were built decades before.
The founding generation – the Terry O’Banions of the world –
prefers answer a, and sometimes b.
(Their evil twins give answer d.)
They believe that community colleges are insurgents, shaking up the
world of higher education with their open-door, democratic idealism. To be fair, that was true at one time. It just isn’t anymore.
I saw the clash bluntly at a presentation on “Community
Colleges as Disruptive Innovations.”
From the title and the hook, it sounded like the presentation would be a
discussion of community colleges as disruptive innovators, which would put it
into camps a and b. But the bulk of the
discussion was about the unsustainability of the community college model, which
put it somewhere between c and d. You could
tell that the presenter – Debbie Sydow, president of Onondaga Community College
-- really, really wanted to make the claim that they were the wave of the
future, but her evidence wouldn’t let her.
I actually felt bad for her, since I’ve been there; sometimes your
evidence just doesn’t prove what you want it to. The audience seemed perplexed, which seemed
In his keynote, Terry O’Banion tried the old-time religion,
referring repeatedly to “the community college movement.” But revealingly, he structured his keynote
like a valedictory. He opened with stories
of innovations he pioneered in 1962 – I’m not kidding – and referred a couple
of times to the focus on student success having “brought [him] back to where
[he] started.” The sense of closure,
while poignant, didn’t jibe well with the posture of insurgency. Yes, he enunciated several principles by
which we were all supposed to go forth and bring about change, but it’s hard to
sound insurgent when you have peer-reviewed studies and six-point plans, and it’s
hard to be simultaneously rousing and elegiac.
Moving from the swan song to the cattle call, two panels
addressed recruitment of future leaders, and the difference was striking. There, I didn’t hear a single mention of the
community college movement or disruptive innovation. I heard discussion of dilemmas,
best-available solutions, complexity, mentoring, and training programs; in
other words, the kinds of things that ‘mature’ organizations handle. The first was presented by the Community
College of Baltimore County, and I have to say I was impressed. A dean there has developed a management
training program to expose faculty to the realities of academic administration;
the dean and three alumni of the program discussed it. The theme the faculty kept coming back to was
the unexpected reality of shades of gray.
(I was especially taken with one presenter’s characterization of the
difference between a “right” decision and a “right now” decision, and the need
to make peace with the fact that with partial information, sometimes you have
to settle for the latter.)
The second panel was geared towards future presidents. It featured a self-assessment, which was
revealing in its own way, and some helpful hints about ways to fill in
experiential gaps. (Annoyingly, “experience
blogging” wasn’t on the list. My gaps
were fundraising, managing construction, fundraising, risk management, and
fundraising.) There, too, the tone was
not about insurgency or disruption or challenge; it was about the need for
well-prepared people to step up to handle the increasingly difficult challenges
facing a mature sector.
(As with yesterday, there was also one panel that could only
be called a clear miss. It happens.)
I’m happy to acknowledge a debt to the movement that the
founding generation started so many years ago.
Without the work they did, community colleges would not be the
established force that they are now. But
they are an established force now, and if anything, they’re facing harsher threats
than they have ever faced before.
Celebrate the achievements of the O’Banions, who have earned respect for
what they have wrought, but recruit people who know how to run, and reform,