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This is one of a series of articles that looks at pathways to the academic presidency in the U.S.  In an earlier piece, boards were offered suggestions about how best to prepare for the inevitable change in leadership that comes sooner or later to every college and university.

Because American higher education remains a complex and differentiated sector, each article in the series examines the distinctive attributes of leadership by institutional type:  academic medical/health sciences centers; liberal arts colleges; community colleges; research-intensive universities; regional public institutions; and for-profit colleges and universities.  The final article summarizes these differences and identifies the aspects of the presidency that are more or less common to all types of colleges and universities.

Changes in higher education leadership will increase in number in the next several years, primarily due to presidential retirements.  Moreover, data reveal that fewer of those currently in the traditional pool of candidates – provosts and vice presidents – express interest in succeeding to a university presidency.  The likelihood therefore is that some successors to the academic presidency will have less executive leadership experience and therefore less experience working with academic governing boards.  This condition takes on special importance when most boards are increasingly sensitive to the need for some – perhaps a great deal of – change within their institutions, so new presidents may find themselves under pressure to effect and manage major institutional change.


There is a reckoning ahead for America’s community colleges and their governing boards.  In our opinion, this challenge will be of such scope that it will and should change in fundamental ways some of the attributes sought in the next generation of community college presidents. After more than a century of these institutions’ leadership finding ways to open doors to students who would not otherwise gain access to postsecondary education, new leaders will be required to make what are likely to be stark choices among multiple missions and, in the process, withdraw at least partially from the commitment to unimpeded access.

What we see as necessary will not be received well by many in community colleges, including some with whom we have spoken over the past several months. Their leaders are, at once, idealistic in their commitment to student access and pragmatic in orientation and operation. Notwithstanding the effects of stagnant or declining government financial support, presidents and trustees remain for now unabashedly upbeat about their role in American higher education and remarkably optimistic about their ability to make good on their commitment to access. In this, they remain true to more than a century of good, hard work.

Uniquely American

Community colleges are distinctly American institutions. At their best, they are democratic meritocracies that afford all who aspire to try postsecondary education and reward those who achieve with advancement to at least the baccalaureate. 

There are nearly 1,200 community colleges in America today. They are known by several names:  technical institute, junior college, community college, and, as their missions have expanded to include offering selected bachelor’s degrees, college or state college. Their names reflect a multiplicity of missions, not only across the sector but within even a single institution.

Multiple purposes are not new for community colleges. They emerged in the early 1900s as points of access to a college education. In fact, the beginnings of the American research university and in particular that of the University of Chicago are related.  Chicago’s first president, William Harper Rainey, embraced the late 19th-century German university model and its emphasis on research and scholarship. To ensure advanced standards of academic excellence, he worked with leaders of the Joliet, Illinois school system to establish, effectively, years 12 and 13 of a student’s education devoted to the introductory collegiate courses, what amounted to the undergraduate general education curriculum.

More such “junior colleges” came into existence.  In light of the emphasis on a collegiate curriculum, presidents of these junior colleges were often conventional academicians with backgrounds in academic disciplines that made up the first two years of a college education.

At the same time, K-12 education was expanding, compulsory secondary education laws were enacted and teacher certification standards emerged. Teacher preparation programs offered at the junior colleges met the increased demand for quality teachers. Forging a relationship between K-12 education and two-year institutions directly impacted institutional leadership at community colleges, so that school superintendents often succeeded to the community college presidency.

Over time, local initiatives began to focus on technical and vocational curriculums that reflected the existing or sought-after manufacturing plants and specialized businesses of the region served by community colleges as well as the mid-20th century American economy and workforce. This shift in mission eclipsed the original academic focus. Community college presidents led the way in negotiating partnerships with local industry and expanding the institutions associate degree and workforce development programs. Sometimes presidents were themselves veterans of industry and their academic credentials were of less importance.

A Reckoning:  Implications and Costs

Today it is difficult to imagine how community colleges can continue to maintain a commitment to the expanded spectrum of activities they are tasked with and the unfettered access hitherto afforded students.  The depth and duration of the Great Recession threaten even the most ingenious efforts of community college staff, faculty and leadership to cope with increasing demands, declining public revenues, long-held commitments to low tuition and fees for students, and the growing presence of collective bargaining among both full-time and part-time faculty. The time has arrived, we believe, for a new generation of community college leaders to begin dialogues within and beyond their institutions and to negotiate resolutions of what constitutes meaningful access to postsecondary education and the workplace. These will not be simple, easy conversations.

The reckoning we see near to hand will require that community college presidents enable their institutions, beginning with governing boards, to pull back from open-door access and do so strategically with well-articulated rationales.  In the Sunbelt states where young, largely Hispanic/Latino cohorts of high school graduates will seek entry to college, community college presidents may have to opt for addressing those cohorts’ needs and pull back from workforce and economic development activities that are important to communities and regions.

Alternatively, leaders of community colleges in the Midwest should focus their mission on helping mid-career workers to make the transition from manufacturing to new jobs and forego the collegiate-access role.

States and regions of the country competing for major locations and relocations of businesses and employers might serve best by focusing on providing the types of training required of new economic enterprises.

What is common to these and other ways by which community college presidents can recalibrate institutional missions is the requirement to forego multiple dimensions of service, focus on priority needs and acknowledge that there are limits to access. In so doing, it will be incumbent that those activities given priority achieve objectives. Otherwise, community colleges presidents and trustees are sure to feel the wrath of community and state publics and stakeholders.

And what if the new generation of community college leaders, imbued with the “can-do” spirit of their predecessors, decline to undertake the recalibration we believe is essential? Instead, presidents and boards elect to continue to adhere to unimpeded access and, as we observe in future articles about other institutions’ searches for solutions, seek to apply technology in new ways to expand capacity, extend their partnerships with K-12 schools in sharing facilities, and look to business and industry to invest more in support of education and training. 

Our guess is that these efforts will defer for a time the reckoning we see in the offing; they will not eliminate it. Instead, we see these good-faith, energetic efforts potentially undermining still further the public’s already shaken confidence in higher education and perhaps contributing to indicators that reveal that educational outcomes are not being realized.

Furthermore, the rapid growth of for-profit colleges and universities to date suggests that these organizations have found an underserved population of mostly older students who are willing to pay typically higher prices than those charged by nonprofit and public institutions. If for-profits determine that they are able to serve still more students and do so at lower costs than they now charge, then the marketplace may provide a substitute for community colleges.

We are impressed by the enthusiasm of community college leaders, staff and faculty and applaud their passion for serving as the first, second or last chance for so many students. The record of these institutions on responding and adapting to new needs and opportunities is extraordinary. But we believe the time has come for a generation of community college presidents and chancellors to recognize the limitations of today and, most likely, tomorrow, and prepare their institutions to focus on one or the other population and serve it well.  In this, the next generation of community college leaders may resolve the dilemma of living with compromises one never wanted to make in the first place.

A Postscript:  Recommendations to Presidential Aspirants

Our advice to community college presidency aspirants may seem ironic at best and self-defeating at worst. Typically, governing boards are alert to even a scintilla of controversy in candidates’ pasts, deeming those to be signs of an inability to manage change or finesse difficult situations.

In our view, candidates who have experienced the consequences of controversial decisions ought not shrink from presenting themselves as viable prospects for the academic presidency of community colleges. The change we see as likely and necessary for community colleges will call for individuals with experience in negotiating and living with and through processes that are, by their nature, complex and almost surely contested.

A century of institutional development focused on affording access to almost anyone seeking admission will not be altered easily or without debate, perhaps rancorous debate. Accordingly, we think it better to have undertaken something akin and survived than to present a record free of controversy that lands you a presidency but not necessarily a board or faculty or staff willing to support the tough choices that we see ahead for community colleges.

We are not proposing pugnacity or combativeness as priority considerations for anyone contemplating a try at becoming a president.  Nor are we urging that boards move those particular attributes to the top of their lists of requirements for a new president.

We are asserting that the community college is a type of American postsecondary institution worth serving, especially for those whose backgrounds include an episode of bringing forward the case for the need to make difficult choices, explaining one’s reasoning, listening closely to others, and then living with the consequences of the decision.  In this sense, then, they serve by leading.

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