Running a community college is a higher-profile gig these days. And that newfound attention, both positive and negative, extends to the top rung of decision making at community colleges: trustees.
“Boards of trustees reflect the mood of the country,” said Eduardo J. Marti, vice chancellor for community colleges at the City University of New York. And Marti said that mood is increasingly politicized and focused on accountability. “The role of the trustee is very difficult, particularly during difficult political times.”
Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland last week publicly singled out  the Board of Trustees of Baltimore City Community College for some of the problems at that troubled institution, which a regional accreditor has placed on probation because of concerns over inadequate student learning assessment. He also appointed  five new trustees to the nine-member board.
“The governor has been disappointed with the lack of progress” at the college, an O’Malley spokeswoman told the Baltimore Sun. “He believes now is the time to infuse the board with new leadership.”
And in Illinois this week news surfaced that a Congressional candidate solicited campaign donations from faculty members at Black Hawk College, where he serves as a trustee. Mike Boland, the trustee, reportedly sent  a campaign e-mail blast to more than 100 faculty members. A faculty union representative called Boland’s email a conflict of interest.
Neither of these examples is indicative of broad shortcomings among the nation’s estimated 6,500 community college trustees, and it’s not even clear whether the Baltimore City Community College board is to blame for that college’s struggles. But those flare-ups follow other highly publicized board controversies, most notably the 2009 meltdown  of the Governing Board of the Maricopa Community College District in Arizona, one of the largest and most prominent community college systems.
Several community college governance experts agree that boards are facing increased scrutiny and, in some cases, more political pressure. Lawmakers, reporters and the general public are paying closer attention to their perceived stumbles. The stakes are high as community colleges cope with recent enrollment gains, state budget woes and the accountability and college completion push by the Obama administration and powerful foundations.
“This is the time when we need the absolute best boards in our history,” said Terry O’Banion, president emeritus of the League for Innovation in the Community College. Boards feel the pressure, O’Banion said. And while most are doing a good job, “not all of them are doing well with the opportunities and challenges that we face.”
Community college leaders praised trustee training efforts and materials  produced by the Association of Community College Trustees. The group distributes learning guides for new trustees, a training checklist for presidents and board chairs and hosts an annual institute for new board members and their presidents. The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges also works on trustee preparation for the community college sector.
But community college trustees are often taken for granted on their campuses, some observers said. And the colleges themselves rarely devote much energy to help trustees get better at their volunteer roles.
“We should be spending a whole lot more time on the development of the boards,” said James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College, located in Michigan, and himself a former two-year-college trustee.
Community college boards are facing similar scrutiny to what their peers at four-year public colleges experience. But two-year boards don’t offer their members the same perks and prestige. Trustees at flagship public universities, for example, might get the chance to mingle with the governor and other heavy hitters in the luxury box during home football games.
Community college trustees are also less likely to be alumni, experts said. And, in some cases, trustees at two-year colleges may consider the role a steppingstone to a more powerful political office. The driving force behind accountability efforts at community colleges is also slightly different. By definition, community colleges must be more responsive to their local communities. And they also work with more vulnerable students.
Mary Spilde is president of Oregon’s Lane Community College and a past chair of the American Association of Community Colleges. She said community colleges and their boards are under the microscope because they face the “heavy lift” of serving less-prepared and diverse students during an ongoing economic shake-up.
“It’s going to require pretty transformational changes in how we do our work,” Spilde said. “There is more pressure on community college trustees right now, and I think that’s reflective of the population that we serve.”
Jacobs, who has been active on the national scene, said community college boards often include some of the diversity reflected in their students. For example, he said he’s worked with trustees at two-year colleges who have received welfare.
“The trustees are not just rich white guys,” said Jacobs. “We have to build on that.”
It’s difficult to generalize about the performance of boards at 1,200 two-year colleges in the U.S., which feature a broad range of structures and different methods of trustee selection.
In Kentucky, for example, one statewide Board of Regents oversees the 16 colleges in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. Other states have combined statewide boards for four-year and two-year public colleges, including Nevada and Alabama. And boards in Florida, Texas and Ohio oversee individual community colleges or two-year-college districts.
Richard Novak, vice president for programs and research for AGB, said there are some advantages to having a statewide community college governing board. They can set a clear agenda and public message “that you can hitch your wagon to.” Novak says boards in Kentucky and Tennessee are particularly strong.
Roughly 60 percent of community college boards have appointed members, typically chosen by governors or other state entities, according to ACCT, while the other 40 percent of boards are politically elected.
Neither approach is more likely to result in a board that is overly politicized, experts said. That happens when one trustee goes “rogue,” or when the board is publicly fractured.
“If a really rascally trustee gets in there and wants to cause trouble, there’s really not much they can do,” said O’Banion, who has written extensively  about the concept of the rogue trustee.
The situation at Maricopa was particularly messy, and involved more than one board member. The district called in outside consultants to gauge the board’s performance after employees complained to an accrediting association about alleged micromanagement improper governance protocols. The panel found a board that was out of control, producing a report filled with examples of trustee meddling and bad behavior, including offensive public comments.
Maricopa’s board has cleaned up its act in the two years since the report was released, O’Banion and others said. The district’s chancellor, Rufus Glasper, kept his job throughout the turmoil. And several new trustees replaced controversial predecessors.
Leadership stability is particularly important for community colleges, several presidents say, given the challenges they face. Making changes takes time, and heavy turnover on boards can blunt creativity.
Dana G. Saar joined Maricopa's board in January, after winning an election. A real estate agent who has served on K-12 boards for 14 years, Saar said Maricopa's trustees needed to refocus on their role and stop feuding publicly.
“Changing out a couple board members made as big a difference as anything,” said Saar. “I saw the need to bring the board back together.”
Asked about the draw of being a trustee, Saar describes the voluntary job as public service, without the perks board members at big state colleges receive. “It’s not the prestige. There’s a lot of effort to put in,” Saar said. “The reward is sitting on the stage at graduation.”