Monday, June 24, 2013


Achieving the Dream and the Aspen Institute have issued a report saying that the pipeline of potential successors to all of the community college presidents who are likely to retire in the next few years is looking thin.  It’s looking at revamping Ed.D. programs to make candidates more appealing and/or prepared.


A few thoughts.

First, if you limit the focus to Ed.D. programs, you’re already ruling out those of us (hi!) who already have doctorates.  Some of us got doctorates in academic fields and worked as faculty for a while before moving into administration.  I’d think that would be seen as a positive.  I don’t believe that classroom experience is enough to move into a presidency, but I do see it as relevant.  There’s a reality check that comes with grading piles of papers from intro classes.  

Second, and related, the issue of pipelines goes much farther than presidencies.  The traditional ladder went from full-time faculty to department chair to dean to vp to president.  To the extent that colleges skipped a generation of full-time faculty in the move to adjuncts, that demographic hole is working its way up the ladder.  (Yes, I said a hole is climbing a ladder.  Don’t judge.)  

Of course, to the extent that the tasks presidents do are disconnected from traditional academics, the academic pipeline matters less.  At this point, community college presidencies tend to involve much more than that.  They’ve always involved Board relations, as well as the “face of the college” ceremonial role.  But now they tend to have higher demands for government relations, on the one side, and donor cultivation on the other.  Since the Great Recession set in, it’s no longer possible to assume -- to the extent that it ever was -- that you could just take care of the college and the legislature would take care of itself.  Legislatures have moved in two seemingly contradictory directions at once: less funding, but more mandates.  Now heaven help the president who ignores graduation rates, job placements, or whatever other performance criteria a particular state decides to enforce.

In many states, legislatures are pushing a centralization agenda.  The idea seems to be to treat colleges less as independent entities, and more as agencies of the state.  (My neighboring state of Connecticut is an easy example.)  To the extent that colleges’ agendas become more externally dictated, presidents’ jobs become harder.  That’s because internal audiences are frequently far enough removed from those agendas that they effectively discount them, acting as if they had the standing to override the outside world.  That basic disconnect, I think, is behind much of the recent angst around shared governance.  Classic shared governance assumes that a given decision is the college’s to make.  With legislatures increasingly taking those decisions upon themselves, the room for shared governance shrinks.  Presidents make easy targets for that frustration.

Finally, there’s the basic fact that most presidents are hired by Boards of Trustees.  Boards have varying levels of understanding of the dilemmas that colleges face.  Even well-meaning trustees from outside of higher education may inadvertently apply criteria from other sectors that may not make sense here.  (“Executive presence.”)  In many ways, running a community college is closer to municipal government than it is to corporate management, but people from outside the industry often don’t know that.  

Leadership planning is a serious issue, but I’d start with educating the folks who pick the next leaders.  If they don’t know what to look for, they probably won’t find it.  If you want to prepare the candidates who actually exist, you’ll have to go well beyond Ed.D. programs.  Look at incumbent administrators who have actually helped to improve student success, and fill in their gaps as needed.  Presidencies aren’t getting any easier; better to find people who’ve shown real strength and prepare them.  They may or may not look like their predecessors.