Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Three Years?

I couldn’t make it to the League for Innovation conference this year, but I’ve kept on eye on folks tweeting from it.  One in particular caught my eye: Anne Kress, the president of Monroe Community College, tweeted that the latest League Trends Report shows that in the last 18 years, the modal time of service for a community college president has dropped from 13 years to three.

Three years.  

That’s a remarkable number, given the non-trivial learning curve for someone coming to a new campus.  

I don’t know exactly how the number was calculated, so I don’t know whether it included “acting” and “interim” positions.  But whether it did or didn’t, as long as the choice was the same over those 18 years, we’re probably seeing something real.

I doubt that it’s a function of the reduced caliber of presidents.  Some of the founding generation of community colleges rode tailwinds that don’t exist anymore, and quickly achieved heights for which they wouldn’t necessarily be competitive today.  Judging by the cohort of Aspen fellows, the rising group is pretty impressive.  I don’t think it’s about a reduction of talent.

Kress tweeted a few possible contributing factors: “time demands of [the] job, seemingly permanent funding decreases, internal/external stakeholder disagreements, political challenges.”  I’d guess that all of those were true 18 years ago, as well, but I could imagine that several of them have intensified.

I suspect a disconnect between expectations based in the pre-2008 era and funding levels of the post-2008 era (or enrollment levels of the post-2010 era).  Growth forgives many sins; as long as the funding is there and enrollment is climbing, you can get away with a lot.  When the funding goes away and enrollment drops, though, suddenly the range of options shifts.  Instead of deciding what to expand, you’re deciding what to cut.  People who were around for the good years may blame the current president for the cuts, not noticing that the conditions under which decisions are made have fundamentally changed.

Last week I heard someone on campus say that the college “is under siege, from forces internal and external.”  I objected strongly, both to the notion of an organized cabal and to the implicit idea that incumbent employees are pure and right and good, while anyone who denies them something they want must be evil and/or corrupt.  That’s just not how the world works.*  But I understand the impulse.  It comes from frustration at increasing demands and decreasing resources.  Scapegoating doesn’t solve the underlying issue, though, and raises issues of its own.

Part of the reason that Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book Lower Ed has been as well-received as it has, beyond its own considerable merits, is that it connects some important dots.  Colleges are blamed for disappointing labor market outcomes, but colleges don’t control labor markets.  Over the last few decades, companies have largely outsourced training to colleges and to students or employees themselves.  That happened for a host of reasons, but it happened.  Colleges were able to cope with that reasonably well when funding and enrollment routinely increased.  In parts of the country where those conditions have changed, which is most parts, the job has become harder.

A rapid turfing-out of presidents may feel like decisiveness or accountability, but it can be self-defeating.  A newbie from the outside will need time to learn the new place.  If a college is reeling, moving quickly from one president to the next means spending a lot of precious time in the high-effort, low-result part of the learning curve.  And it will necessarily mean a certain sameness in what gets done, since there will be limited time for context.

I’m not arguing for presidents-for-life, heaven knows.  But a national modal time of three years is a far cry from that.  Some changes take years to bear fruit.  Hitting the reset button too soon means cutting them off.  Josh Wyner commented once that most of the Aspen prize winning presidents have been in office ten years or more.  Part of that is probably a result of them being very good at what they do, but part of it is the ability to follow through over time.  Lose the time, and you lose that ability.

I’m suggesting instead that Boards may need to reflect on the nature of the current environment, and on what’s actually needed.  If the issues are long-term and structural, quick fixes may not be the way to go.  Local context matters.

* Points to whomever can find the source of the quote, but one of my favorite lines claims that what the serious study of history can impart is a sense of how the world doesn’t work, of how things don’t happen.

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