Essay on the need to focus on administrators below presidents to change community colleges

A new book, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success (Harvard University Press) is an important step forward for community colleges. The work bridges the all-too-familiar divide between research and practice, outlining actionable, transformative recommendations to improve student attainment that have emerged out of the extensive portfolio of research conducted over the past 20 years by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College of Columbia University. And while many aspects of the book deserve discussion, how change can be effectively instigated at community colleges is a pivotal issue on which any reform efforts will hinge.

Obviously, the call for organizational and structural change is nothing new. Early on the book notes that “recent reforms did not question the fundamental design of community college programs and services.” Redesigning America's Community Colleges boldly asserts that “to improve their outcomes on a substantial scale in an environment very different than the past, colleges must undertake a more fundamental rethinking of their organization and culture.”

The book’s authors, Thomas R. Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars and Davis Jenkins, argue that necessary institutional change will result from conscious redesign of many community college processes along the lines of behavioral economic principles. This implicitly challenges conventional wisdom that attributes successful change to college leadership -- typically the president. For years, community colleges have been bombarded with the belief that getting the right person into the presidency is the critical factor governing institutional success. Indeed, there is an entire cottage industry of community college leadership programs, consulting firms and organizations that promote the grooming and selection process of the community college president.

Redesigning takes on the “great leader” theory of change by providing specific and clear suggestions about how college intake processes, curriculum plans and organizational framework can be altered to directly impact student success. Of course, the authors recognize the importance of presidential leadership and commitment to the process, but they bet the farm on fundamental organizational change versus intervention by great men and women.

The authors present a useful strategic framework built upon CCRC’s research. But accompanying this wisdom is a significant challenge. Even if presidential leadership is decisive, how is the design and implementation of these changes driven throughout the institution? The closest the book comes to addressing this issue is noting the necessity of faculty involvement, overlooking the imperative to focus on administrative managers, who are in charge of the organizational structures that Redesigning targets for change.

Any leader of a large community college knows that their middle-level management is critical to institutional change. These are the directors of key units, the associate deans who work directly with the faculty, and the business, information technology, financial aid and student services staff. Many of these individuals are tethered to their colleges, infrequently interacting with other institutions, and have significantly longer tenure than most presidents and senior leadership. In most cases, they are the staff members who possess institutional memory and critical operational knowledge. They maintain most of the day-to-day contact and communications with faculty, students and community.

Winning their commitment to change is crucial to redesign efforts, because it is their jobs and their processes that will be the most challenged. Therefore, an important step to driving the organizational reforms proposed by the book will need to be supported by efforts focused on developing midlevel managers in community colleges. Too many currently available programs concentrate solely on senior talent management.

Paradoxically, a renewed emphasis on middle-level management could also help the oft-cited dilemma of the lack of a sufficient pool of those qualified and interested becoming community college presidents. It has almost become a ritual among the leadership programs to decry the lack of interest by high-level administrators willing to step up into presidential roles.

Who wants to work 12-hour days, attend frequent political events -- often involving early morning and evening commitments -- and chase after alternative funding sources, all the while serving as the pivotal internal change agent? A more empowered and determined staff could make the job of community college president more focused and manageable, while integrally contributing to change designed to drive higher levels of student success.

James Jacobs is president of Macomb Community College.

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