Essay on leading community colleges during times of transition
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Community colleges are often acclaimed for their agility, dedication to mission, and passion in supporting local needs. Notwithstanding past achievements, most community colleges face serious threats to their historic educational and business models. And the burden of sustaining financial stability is shifting to students, often in the form of growing debt. Perpetuation of this model is untenable.
Leaders of community colleges must react to growing calls for systemic reform, in part by focusing more on the kinds of skills they will need in this challenging environment. It is axiomatic that complex problems require comprehensive, thoughtful, focused, strategic and results-driven leadership able to incubate cultures of increasing financial self-reliance.
The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) convened a task force in 2011, the 21st-Century Commission, consisting of outstanding community college presidents, former CEOs, and experts from leading graduate school higher education management programs to examine contemporary challenges and develop recommendations. Their report, "Reclaiming the American Dream," calls for a paradigm shift of skill sets at senior levels of administration by observing: “community colleges have been developing leaders to maintain inherited design [and] need now to develop leaders to transform the design.” Closer examination of the factors underlying such a bold conclusion is in order.
Yet the construct for traditional leadership selection will endure unless boards of trustees and college leaders break with past practices. If transformational leaders are desired, more attention should be afforded the mix of behaviors, values, and proven experiences of the candidates. Someone with little evidence of leading change is unlikely to manifest that talent upon being given more responsibility. Similarly, one who is indecisive or risk-averse is unlikely to suddenly act with bravado.
Boards and college presidents are obliged to examine leadership potential, and the qualities requisite to lead institutional change. How can one assess behavioral attributes when hiring or promoting senior administrators? Thoughtful discussion guides are integral to the search process. Candidates should exhibit a demonstrated propensity for respectful discourse, asking probing questions, listening attentively, thinking reflectively about information gathered, and making timely decisions. If a candidate has a history of making impulsive decisions independent of consultation with others, search committees should be wary. Candidates predisposed to fixate on collaborative processes to a fault may be reluctant to make difficult decisions. Introducing simulations around hypothetical events into interviews with candidates may inform the assessment of a candidates’ ability to deal with crises. Attention should be paid to the track record of accomplishments. Candidates should be asked to relate circumstances surrounding challenges they had to overcome, the processes utilized, choices available, actions taken and the consequences of those actions. In short, if community colleges need leaders who “transform the design,” then search committees and presidents need to decide upon ways to incubate and recruit professionals able to do so.
Performance expectations of educational and student services expectations have risen, as have enrollment numbers. Meanwhile, public funding has declined and lack predictability. Public officials unable to adequately fund community colleges further exacerbate tensions through demands for open access, affordable tuition, accountability and transparency.
The prevailing educational model of community college embraces the traditional two-year liberal arts degree, workforce and career development programs, community education and remedial or developmental courses for students who are not yet college-ready. A recent ACT study informs us that only 20 percent of high school upperclassmen are college-ready in math, reading, writing and science. An estimated 60 percent of students enrolled at community college require one or more remedial courses. All of these factors strain limited financial, instructional and support resources. Questions inevitably arise as to whether community colleges can continue to be all things to all people, and how to allocate scarce resources. A 50-year era of mission expansion may give way to contraction of educational and support services unless options are identified through evidence-based strategic planning.
The business model of community college relies upon public funding, and student tuition and fees to cover negative variances between revenues from public funding and operating expenses. Enterprise costs have increased dramatically during the past 25 years, while public funding has not kept pace with enrollment. This caused tuition to rise as a multiple of the consumer price index. Drivers of operating expense increases have included: instructional technology, bandwidth expansion, campus safety, compliance programs, non discretionary repairs and maintenance of aging facilities, health insurance premiums, expansion of student services, utility bills and salary and benefits for staff. These factors strain limited financial resources. The burden of sustaining the financial stability of community colleges increasingly shifted to students, often in the form of growing debt. Perpetuation of this model is untenable.
The confluence of pressures for improved educational results in a financially constrained environment are formidable. The AACC task force recognized this reality, and called for creation of institutional designs better able to endure and satisfy stakeholder demands. Much has been written about strategic leadership and ways that sustainably outstanding institutions articulate mission, vision, values and communicate priorities and enduring goals based upon bodies of evidence. Such leaders have a high tolerance for stress; recruit and develop future generations of senior administrators; and align annual operating plans, individual performance objectives and budgets in support of organizational goals.
Leadership must be inspirational, entrepreneurial, innovative, engaging, results-driven, financially and technologically literate. They must insist upon accountability at all levels and mandate management reporting and oversight processes to assure effective follow-up. Such leaders embrace transparency as a kindred spirit of evidence-based planning and decision-making, and envision change as a continuum. They further recognize that a revitalized business model will generate more revenues through ancillary enterprises, and more effectively contain operating expenses to both support the institutional academic mission and keep tuition increases more in line with inflation.
An ample body of literature describes leadership best practices. Evaluation criteria of the Baldrige Award for Educational Excellence elaborates upon proven processes characteristic of highly effective institutions. In the late 1980s, icons in the field of community college leadership such as John Roueche and George Baker signaled the need for transformational leadership. Michael Fullan informs us of leadership requisites for all of higher education, while John Kotter, James Collier and Howard Gardner describe leadership best practices for any enterprise. Special attention was afforded such intangibles as powers of persuasion, ethical behavior, respectful discourse, consistently sound judgment, wisdom, risk-taking, a sense of humor, motivational skills, fidelity to results driven collegial processes, trust, integrity, commitment, personal courage, listening skills and a penchant to lead by example.
The best community colleges already incubate future leaders through a mix of activities. Succession planning, mentoring, professional development and training, and experiential cultivation of future leadership through participation in project task forces and careful monitoring of performance characterize such institutions. More attention must now be afforded to the type of persona, know-how and skill sets needed to transform.
There are many exemplars of achievement in a community college world who have begun the journey toward redesign called for by the AACC. SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary is a world class for-profit workforce trainer in the global energy space. Cuyahoga (Cleveland), Maricopa (Phoenix) and Alamo Community Colleges (San Antonio), as well as the Houston Community College District, are among many who have launched innovative, comprehensive and effective cost-containment plans. Their processes are creative, focused, collaborative, effective and strategic. They recognize that the severity of contemporary challenges will demand institutional planning, prioritization, actions and a continuum of redesign for years to come.
Community college leaders care about their communities, their students, and their colleagues. Forums for exchange of ideas are prevalent, and include the annual meetings of the AACC, ACCT, League for Innovation, and more intimate bodies such as RC 2020 and COMBASE. What remains is to embrace institutional redesign of the educational and business models as core activities, and to build those skills needed to meet increasingly complex demands in an environment where adequacy of public funding is likely to remain deficient for years to come. Institutions who are leading the way to change are known to share their insights, experiences and information about processes proven to work and the sorts of skills required.
In summation, the divergent challenges posed by external stakeholders and the AACC call for a team of highly trained and committed change agents to lead academic affairs, information and instructional technology, student affairs, external relations, workforce development, human resources, and finance – all united in their support of an affordable, accessible and results-driven education for their students. Leaders must think strategically and be masters of tactical implementation. To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, most of the world’s problems can be solved if we can close the gap between what we do and what we can do.
Stewart Sutin is a clinical professor at the University of Pittsburgh and former president of the Community College of Allegheny County.