Tension at the Top

A spate of resignations and terminations among community college presidents provokes worries about a shortage of qualified candidates to fill these positions.

May 20, 2016
Lake Michigan College
Lake Michigan College, which saw its new president ousted in just three months.

It’s an important time for community colleges, yet a number of conflicts between boards and presidents in the two-year sector have stoked fears about who will lead the colleges.

Community colleges, perhaps more than ever, are on the front lines of policy discussions about rebuilding the nation’s economy and future. The position of community college leader, however, is in flux. A large number of leaders at two-year institutions are leaving the field, while the presidential pipeline has become narrower. And recent conflicts between college trustees and presidents have led to resignations and terminations, which highlight the difficulties of holding the presidency.

For example, last year 269 community college presidencies turned over, which means nearly one in four of the country’s 1,132 community colleges experienced some type of transition.

“Community colleges have finally been recognized by [U.S.] presidents, by legislators, by foundations, by policy centers, by business and industry as one of the most important democratic institutions in the world that is helping to improve our economy and meet the needs of citizens,” said Terry O’Banion, chair of the graduate faculty for National American University. “And at a time we’re finally recognized, we’ve failed to keep up with the preparation of leaders to take on the leadership role … We’re the leaders in the completion agenda and we’re out there working and losing presidents left and right who would make this happen and make it work.”

In recent months -- and for a number of reasons, which in some cases have yet to emerge -- numerous community college presidents have been fired or resigned from their positions. Some departures followed controversies related to how presidents managed finances or their relationships with trustees, students or faculty.

This month Lake Michigan College’s board ousted its president after just three months. In April Essex County College’s board fired its president and vice president. In November Drake State Technical & Community College’s president announced her retirement after being informed she would face termination for allegedly hiding details of a federal inquiry into grant money. That month Rochester Community and Technical College’s former president resigned from the position after 18 months, when the institution’s students, faculty and staff demanded a change in leadership.

At Essex County, which is located in New Jersey, state and federal authorities have launched investigations following the termination of President Gale Gibson and more than 20 employees connected to her. The college’s board alleges Gibson and her staff tampered with employee emails. The former president, however, asserts she didn’t do anything wrong except raise concerns about financial issues and recommend disciplining politically connected colleagues.

The dispute between the now-former Lake Michigan president and the college’s trustees also is an example of the tensions that can arise over finances and management. Just 90 days into her term, Jennifer Spielvogel was suspended and eventually fired by the board.

The board cited more than $20,000 in unapproved expenses by Spielvogel, improper conduct and inadequate goals as the reasons behind their decision. For example, the board chair said the former president purchased personal tickets to a Kenny Chesney concert from an executive discretionary fund. They also alleged that she spent more than $7,000 on items, like a medallion, for an unauthorized presidential inauguration.

“What I hope people understand is that this is about more than the medallion or a forgotten expense report. It is about fundamental errors in decision making that led to an unbelievable amount of expenses accumulated in less than 90 days,” said Mary Jo Tomasini, the board’s chair, in an email.

Tomasini began an investigation into Spielvogel after the new president, who was hired from Ohio’s Cuyahoga Community College, failed to turn in expense reports for two months. The board also interviewed other college employees as part of their investigation, she said.

But Spielvogel and her attorneys dispute the allegations and blame the board for micromanagement.

Spielvogel was authorized to spend up to $100,000 without board approval, and she offered to reimburse the college for the medallion, she said. In some cases, the money she’s accused of spending wasn’t spent at all, said Raymond Cotton, a lawyer representing Spielvogel, who specializes in presidential contracts. She’s preparing to sue the college for breach of contract.

“A board should not get into micromanaging the college, but this board wants to manage this college on a day-to-day basis,” Cotton said. “They got someone very good and they were not OK with her managing the college.”

Presidential Churn

The American Association of Community Colleges’ membership database tracks transitions in leadership positions, but not whether those transitions are due to employment changes, retirements, death or terminations. Even so, they still are seeing annual increases in the number of transitions taking place, which include appointing new presidents or multiple changes at single colleges.

Year No. of Transitions
2011-12 134
2012-13 158
2013-14 262
2014-15 269
2015-March 2016 203

“The lack of a community college leadership pipeline is not a new phenomenon. As the baby boomer generation retires, there will continue to be a gap,” Walter Bumphus, AACC’s president, said in an email. “Although we have tracked this data for five years, no one could have predicted the tsunami of leadership transitions in community colleges.”

Seventy-five percent of presidents have announced plans to retire in the next 10 years, as have 75 percent of senior administrators, said O’Banion, of the National American University.

However, there needs to be more research on the causes of the upheaval happening among presidents and whether or not the new wave of turnovers is different from past years, O’Banion said.

One difference may be that the profile of community colleges in America has risen and so more leadership issues are reported in the news, he said. Also, the public is more politically involved with the institutions and so more aware of the inner administrative workings of colleges.

Experts say the turmoil some presidents face, the constant shuffling of positions and the seeming lack of presidential candidates often can be boiled down to a few issues including poor relations with trustees, the decrease in community college leadership training programs and cultural clashes between colleges and presidents.

“One of the problems is that boards do not come together to develop a common set of expectations for a new president, and a new president is put into a difficult position if the board has different expectations,” said George Boggs, former president of AACC.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between an appointed board or an elected one, he said, adding that either can enter a college with a political agenda in mind for themselves, for a group or for the person who appointed them.

While trustees have plenty of options for professional development to better understand their role, they’re often not held accountable for their actions, said Boggs, who was a long-serving president of California’s Palomar College before taking the helm at AACC.

O’Banion has defined these situations as the problem of the “rogue trustee,” or people who are elected or appointed to a community college board and view the position as a political stepping-stone.

“We’re seeing an increase in rogue trustees, and more people are aware of that and it’s a hellish situation,” he said. “I’m working with a college now with rogue trustees, and the president recognizes they’re going to be fired, and a lot of people don’t want to take on these positions where there are rogue trustees.”

In addition, at some colleges, unions have discouraged young faculty to avoid “crossing over to the dark side” and entering administration, while others may find that making the move leads to a pay cut, O’Banion said.

Boggs advises people who want to move into the president position to really think about whether that particular college or locality is even a good fit for their skills and personality. That’s because cultural and social clashes often contribute to the tensions between a new president, the board and others at the college, he said.

For example, O’Banion mentions a friend from an Alabama community college who is applying for a president position in California. Regional differences could contribute to a cultural mismatch there that may be difficult for that person, he said, while the recent hiring of Maria Harper-Marinick as chancellor of Arizona’s Maricopa Community College system shows how a candidate’s familiarity can benefit both the candidate and the college -- Harper-Marinick had been a vice chancellor of the system for years.

Other issues can be land mines for presidents, O’Banion said, such as whether or not they’ve previously dealt with faculty or staff unions.

“If you haven’t worked in a union environment before, you can mess up as president,” he said.

Where to Train?

Aspiring community college leaders have a choice of fewer leadership programs these days. AACC, the Association of Community College Trustees, Achieving the Dream and the Aspen Institute offer training, but there used to be more of those programs, and many were offered at universities that could provide a doctoral degree, Boggs said.

O’Banion said some major universities, including the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Texas at Austin, University of Florida, Florida State University, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University had leadership training doctoral programs, but they cut the programs back or eliminated them in favor of research. The cutback means more inexperienced people are being placed in these presidential roles, he said.

“A number of community college leadership programs have closed at major universities across the country,” Boggs said. “We’re not preparing as many leaders as we have in the past and there’s tremendous turnover. We’re seeing people approaching retirement age, and I’ve heard from search firms they’re not getting qualified applicants for leadership positions at community colleges.”

At the Aspen Institute, they’ve used research to identify three qualities that are key to having an exceptional community college president. The first -- a deep commitment to student access and success -- should drive all the decisions these leaders make, said Josh Wyner, vice president and executive director of Aspen’s College Excellence Program, in an email.

“Large expenses on fancy offices and other things are clearly unrelated to student success and signal alternative priorities,” he said. “The second quality -- exceptional change management ability -- is relevant because bringing about significant change requires ... walking the walk. If the president acts in ways that appear to run counter to student success goals, it becomes much harder for her or him to lead others to change their practices and behavior in needed ways.”

The final quality Wyner points to is the capacity in a president to raise and allocate resources to pursue student success goals. Transparency is just as important, too. For example, Sandy Shugart at Valencia College in central Florida requested the entire budget for the college be made available to everyone on campus when he first started, he said.

Aspen is working on instilling these qualities in the professional development opportunity it created with the Presidential Fellowship for Community College Excellence. Through that program, they selected 40 fellows to go through training to help them as leaders.

As for the conflicts that may arise between presidents and faculty groups and trustees, Wyner said those problems are common but can be prevented or minimized.

“Leaders can prevent the chances that those differences will be fatal by being really good, authentic communicators,” he said.

But some experts say the pipeline issue may be exaggerated.

The turnover in leadership positions mostly depends on the state and the regional characteristics or demographics of a college, said Narcisa Polonio, executive vice president of education, research and board leadership services at ACCT.

“The presidency at the community college has come of age, so there’s a much better definition of what the position is and what are the requirements,” she said. “In most cases the expectation is they’ll have a doctorate and 10 to 15 years of senior experience, but what happens is, when the position becomes better known and better defined, you don’t get a lot of people just throwing their name in.”

The situation is far more complex than people may realize, she said. For example, there is a lot of movement in California with 113 community colleges and a built-in pipeline that moves people up the chain relatively quickly. And many presidents in the state have more than 10 years of experience at one college, she said.

“Most search committees want a ready-made president. They’re looking for people who have already been a president and know everything about the trade, but that’s not realistic,” she said. “Presidents come from someplace, so the question is, do we have enough vice presidents out there?”


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