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The League Day 2: When Generations Clash
March 5, 2012 - 10:12pm

Go to enough panels, and you start to detect themes.

Quick quiz: Community colleges are

a. A movement

b. A daring and audacious bet on democracy

c. An established sector of higher education

d.  Dying

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 about right.

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, institutions.


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