High-Stakes Presidential Search

As the board of Miami Dade College moves to find a new president, experts discuss what's at stake for the community college that leads the nation in educating students from underrepresented minority groups.

October 9, 2019
 
Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla
Eduardo Padrón with former president Barack Obama

Many see Miami Dade College as an example of how to get student success right. Led by Eduardo Padrón, who stepped down in August after more than two decades as president, the college has nearly closed the racial equity gap for underrepresented minorities and served as an engine for economic mobility in the region, achievements that helped it win this year's Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

But the so-called dream factory is experiencing some turbulence. After Padrón announced his retirement, a search committee produced four candidates to replace him to the Board of Trustees.

However, amid politicized acrimony, the work has been scrapped. After some newly appointed trustees voiced concerns about not being involved with the search from the beginning, the board voted 6 to 1 in July to start the process over.

As a result, some community stakeholders feel uneasy about the future.

“As an alumnus, I’m very concerned about what lies ahead for the people’s college. And as mayor of Miami-Dade County, I’m hearing from our constituents, who are outraged,” Carlos A. Gimenez said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed. “The search process that began in February and involved some of the most high-level executives and legal minds in Miami-Dade County, along with top Miami Dade College faculty and students, seems to have been sidetracked by petty political moves.”

Juan Mendieta, a spokesman for the college, said the trustees “have shared their thoughts on the record during meetings. They have nothing to add at this time and want the new search process to speak for itself as it unfolds.”

Mendieta also said the issue was not one for the interim or past presidents to comment on.

Some trustees previously have made statements pushing back on accusations about political motives and alleging that the college’s staff was rigging the search to favor one candidate, Lenore Rodicio, the college’s executive vice president and provost.

‘The People’s College’

Miami Dade College, which has an annual enrollment topping 150,000 students, says it enrolls more underrepresented minorities than any other college in the United States. With eight campuses located across the predominantly Hispanic county, it serves as the “people’s college,” according to Gimenez.

Not only does the school have a three-year graduation rate of 45 percent, four percentage points above the national average, but its graduates also have better earning outcomes. Graduates earn on average more than $40,000 a year out of college, which is 20 percent more than what new hires earn in the region, according to the Aspen Institute.

“Miami Dade College is an exceptional institution where hundreds of thousands of Miami-Dade County residents have graduated and gone on to great things. It is truly the people’s college and is critical to greater Miami’s economic and social well-being,” Gimenez said. “Miami Dade College has a rightful spot on the national stage and has long been a tremendous source of pride for me, personally, as an alumnus, and beyond that, as mayor of Miami-Dade County.”

However, the sudden setback in the search for a new president has led some to worry about who the next president could be and whether they would continue the college's mission of serving as a public good.

“We are very concerned about the contraction of the institution itself,” said Elizabeth Ramsay, president of the United Faculty of Miami Dade College, which started a campaign to raise awareness about the issue called SOS Miami Dade College. “We’re really concerned that accessibility could be threatened.”

A search committee presented four finalists to the Board of Trustees, which abruptly voted to start the search again and retain only one of the four candidates from the prior search.

Some have speculated the move was political, because five of the seven trustees had been recently appointed by Ron DeSantis, Florida's Republican governor, who was elected in 2018.

One board member -- Marcell Felipe -- also proposed changing the requirements for applicants for the position. Applicants must have a doctoral degree and six years of administrative experience in an academic environment, which Felipe in a letter to the board published by Politico argued narrowed the pool and prevented qualified nontraditional applicants from applying. Ultimately, the board couldn’t agree on new criteria, and nothing was changed.

In the meantime, Rolando Montoya was appointed interim president of the college. Montoya is a retired provost and former trustee for the college.

The board met on Sept. 24 with prospective search firms, including AGB Search, CarterBaldwin Executive Search and Spelman Johnson. Diversified Search led the scrapped first search for a $167,000 fee.

At a special board meeting and workshop Monday morning, the trustees voted unanimously to hire AGB Search. Carlos Migoya, the board's vice chair, said the firm seemed to have "done more homework" and showed more interest than the other two applicants. The college will pay the firm 33 percent of the total compensation package for the new president, which is slightly more than the negotiated price of 30 percent with Diversified Search. AGB Search has committed to finishing the search in five months and guarantees a placement.

The proposal from AGB Search includes a high level of detail but still lacks some information, according to Judith Wilde, chief operating officer and professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. While the firm includes several ways to evaluate candidates, it also proposes assisting with negotiations, which Wilde said is problematic, because its fee is a portion of the salary.

In a response, AGB Search said it doesn't participate in negotiations but instead serves as an intermediary between the candidate and institution by gathering pay expectation information and assisting as a third party in initial negotiations "to ensure that all parties are satisfied with the outcome."  

Importance of Leadership

There is a lot at stake for the college, community and greater world of community colleges with this presidential search, some say.

“Miami Dade College is an icon in the high-access college world,” said Sanford Shugart, president of Valencia College. “It has been for 40 years.”

Shugart said it creates a “vacuum in leadership when someone like Padrón moves on.”

Leadership is the “No. 1 factor” in college success, according to Josh Wyner, vice president of the D.C.-based Aspen Institute and executive director of its College Excellence Program. After recognizing this from its data-driven work on the excellence prize, the organization researched what qualities are found in the most successful community college leaders.

Wyner explained the findings in a letter to Miami Dade's board, encouraging it to look for those qualities in the new search process. They include a deep commitment to student access and success; the capacity to lead internal change; a willingness to take strategic risks; the ability to build external partnerships; and expertise with raising and allocating money.

“As your search continues, we hope you will keep these qualities -- and student success -- in the foreground of your thinking,” Wyner said in the letter.

Padrón’s long tenure at Miami Dade also is an important factor. Only one institution that has won the Aspen Prize had a president with a tenure of less than a decade.

Wyner said in an interview that while there is enough institutional leadership to keep Miami Dade afloat for years, its success couldn’t be sustained for a long period without “an exceptional leader.”

“It’s very hard to sustain real reform” in less than five to seven years, Wyner said, so it’s as important to find a leader who will stay as it is to find one of high quality.

The faculty union intends to keep watch over the process as it unfolds, with an eye for transparency. Some members of the union and retired faculty filed a lawsuit against the board, alleging violation of due process, but withdrew the suit in September to move forward in “good faith.”

Ramsay, the faculty union president, who was part of the lawsuit, said litigation isn’t off the table if they start to feel the board isn’t being transparent. She is satisfied with the process so far, though. The trustees at the last board workshop discussed their thoughts on the search firms openly, which is what she’d “expect to see.”

The union is concerned that colleges in Florida could face the same dilemma as the K-12 system, which is seeing its public funding diverted to charter schools, she said. She worries the next president could eliminate programs or constrict the college’s open-access model, which could affect Miami Dade’s impact.

“We’re really vigilant, really concerned and really alert to the possibility and the threat of a similar diversion of public funds into the private sector and for-profit colleges,” she said. “Our institution is a vehicle for social change, and unfortunately there are those who really don’t believe in social change in the ways that the college manifests it.”

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