Learning to Lead

Programs to train the next generation of community college deans and presidents either don't exist or are too small, warns a report.
March 1, 2005

For several years now, experts on community colleges have been telling anyone who would listen that we are about to see a huge wave of retirement of college presidents and senior administrators.

A report being released today finds that the problem is even worse than the experts realized. More colleges need presidents than has been previously believed, and the programs that should be training the next generation of deans and presidents either don't exist or are too small, the report says.

"There is greater depth and breadth to the leadership crisis," said Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the Bill J. Priest Center for Community College Education, at the University of North Texas. Katsinas was one of the authors of the report, which was issued by the National Council of Instructional Administrators.

Katsinas and his co-author, Ken Kempner of Southern Oregon University, argue that the proliferation of branch campuses has created a need for more well trained administrators. While people commonly cite 1,200 as the number of community colleges, counting branch campuses that award degrees brings the total to 1,552. And that doesn't count two-year branches of four-year universities, tribal colleges and other institutions that are similar to community colleges in their missions and structure.

With all of those institutions needing new talent -- estimates vary but many expect at least half of them to see presidential transitions in the next five years -- training programs become crucial. At community colleges, many presidents have Ed.D.'s or Ph.D.'s in education-related fields, but as the new report explains, there are few programs that specialize in community colleges.

While many four-year college and university presidents prefer to have Ph.D.'s in a non-education field (or their faculties prefer that), the situation is different at two-year institutions. With leaner administrations, community colleges presidents can't count on having an army of enrollment management experts or legal experts, so they are more likely to want to study these subjects.

But the new report, "Strengthening the Capacity to Lead in the Community College," finds that existing programs for community colleges vary widely -- some are degree granting and others focus on continuing education. But more generally, there just aren't enough of them. Katsinas notes that there are states without a single such program, and that in many states, a program means a single professor or course.

Joe Sertich, who is president of the Northeast Minnesota Higher Education District, which includes five community colleges, graduated from a program in community college leadership at the University of Minnesota. The university is phasing out that program, and now Sertich is lobbying legislators to authorize another university to start one up.

"We are having a really hard time finding the people in Minnesota with the skills and training for senior level jobs," Sertich said.

Beverly Bower, coordinator of the Higher Education Program at Florida State University, agreed that it is becoming more and more difficult for community colleges to find the candidates they want. Many search committees, she said, want someone who has already been a president.

"We see a lot of people moving from institution to institution, and not as many people making room for up-and-comers," she said.

Bower also said that too many people define the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin as the single good approach to training leaders. "Some people only want people who have been through that program."

The Texas program has many fans -- its alumni hold numerous leadership positions at community colleges nationally -- but also critics who think it isn't rigorous enough and that it doesn't serve enough students. (Only 15 are admitted each year.)

The new report doesn't criticize the Texas program, but repeatedly stresses the need for more models to be created.

John E. Roueche, director of the Texas program, said that many universities "let their community college programs die" and that has created the current problem. "There is definitely a need for more programs," he said.

But they will need to be created at other institutions because Texas isn't going to increase the size of its program. "We are an immersive graduate program. Our students are in class with our faculty, all together," he said. If enrollment increased, "we would lose the magic of having a small learning community."

Some colleges have started new efforts in recent years. Morgan State University, in Baltimore, became the first historically black institution to set up a doctoral program in community college leadership, when it started its effort four years ago.

Cornell University's Institute for Community College Development is starting a series of new short-term programs to train current and future presidents. The university is about to start a distance education program to teach community college leaders how to get things done. Barbara Viniar, executive director of the institute, said the eight-week program will explain how to set an agenda, deal with those who resist it, and lead over the long run.

Viniar, former president of Berkshire Community College, in Massachusetts, said Cornell is also working to create a new program to train people who move from the private sector to leadership positions in community colleges. And it is working with some community college presidents who want the State University of New York to create a doctoral program on community colleges.

"I think there is good news in that people are aware of the need to design new programs," Viniar said. "The community college presidencies of 20 years ago don't exist any more."

She noted that when her institute has promoted programs for future leaders, it always hears from some current presidents who say that they never received the preparation that they needed, and want to participate as well.

"It's definitely a problem" that there are not enough training programs on community colleges, she said. "And I think it does rise to the level of a crisis."


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