Daniel J. Phelan: Community College Presidential Tenure: Longer is Better

Organizationally and professionally, it is best when a community college president chooses to pursue a long tenure at an institution. Three key factors can lead to the success for any higher education leader: Culture, Governance, and Professional Responsibility. Unless a president is willing to fully commit to these key factors, his/her advancement of the organization will likely be modest at best.


An organization’s dominant culture is the sum of its relevant history, traditions, habits, mores, political mechanics, and beliefs. It first takes significant time to understand these dynamics and subtleties.  In addition, each institution has subcultures, which in many cases don’t always present themselves until they are under stress.

Indeed, presidencies have been upended early on because the new leader did not take the necessary time to understand the college’s prevailing culture and subcultures before taking action.  Certainly recent headlines across the country recount this fact. Remaining mindful of the unique differences of each college is vital, as the president can make no assumptions regarding the culture of an institution based upon the prior experience at another. Without acquiring a “culture compass” to any college, a new leader jeopardizes her or his tenure there.

Following thoughtful understanding and respect for the organization, the community college leader should work with the board of trustees to cultivate a culture that supports organizational objectives. Developing a shared vision and action plan for the desired culture is a significant undertaking and requires several years to advance. Indeed, most organizational research literature suggests that a sustainable change in organizational culture can take 7-11 years to achieve. It is notable that all of the Aspen Prize winners had a president who had been at the college for more than ten years.

Changing culture is serious work and requires seeing “the whole chessboard,” engaging in honest discussion about the values and beliefs underpinning the work of the organization.  Understanding change and change strategy is also a must. I recommend John Kotter’s 8-step process for leading change, which is a great tool for undertaking cultural change work. Each of these steps requires preparation, thoughtful design, and execution. And despite all of this preparation, there will still be unforeseen factors that may throw you off course. So, planning for that possibility and being ready to react and adapt are essential.


Appreciation for and rapport with the community college’s governing body also merit considerable time and effort in securing a longer-term tenure. Stated simply, a community college president’s relationship with the board of trustees is everything. If it’s not healthy and vibrant, the rest of your work won’t matter. A major challenge is trustees’ differing levels of understanding, expectations and goals. What’s more, elections or appointments can change the board and its own culture. Consequently, the board is a moving sphere of influence that necessitates constant attention and time.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate the very important role the board plays, but it is one that must be in sync with the work of the president. Trust must be absolute, and a majority consensus with the board is essential to undertake the work of the president’s office, whether to advance a strategic plan, to adopt a new organizational culture, or to pare down a budget. I’ve found five axioms that serve as reminders that are helpful to me to that end, which I elucidated in my book Unrelenting Change, Innovation, and Risk: Forging the Next Generation of Community Colleges. They are:

  • Wherever two or more trustees are gathered, there you should also be;
  • Never, never, never surprise your Board – communicate regularly;
  • Choose your battles wisely, as not all bumps on the road are hills upon which to die;
  • What one trustee knows, all should know; and
  • Consistently demonstrate humility as president and acknowledge and respect the board’s leadership and contribution – always.

These touchstones should be of no particular surprise, but adhering to them has helped me to build trust with my board, prepare for significant organizational change, and deal with difficult challenges when they come – and they will come. Each of these points takes a lot of work and your constant attention over time.

Professional Responsibility

In addition to culture and governance, the final component for building a lasting tenure is accepting a deep level of personal humility and responsibility to the role and committing to it. Some will enter a presidency fully knowing that they only intend to be there for three of four years and move on. And, admittedly, some don’t have a choice in the matter.

Still, I believe that establishing, up front, a commitment – a ‘covenant’ – with the board and the college will also enhance the length of your service. I’ve heard the recurring phrase: “Presidents come and go, but the faculty remain.” Within this quip is the idea that employees just need to wait out the current president until their departure, which leads to half-hearted attempts at supporting new ideas, innovations, and plans.

Committing to remain for the “long-term” communicates that you are going to be around for a significant amount of time (ideally seven to ten years) before moving on. It says that you are investing in the institution and are going to labor with others to achieve objectives important to the college and the board. It also says that you have the organization’s best interests in mind and that you are not just positioning yourself for the next opportunity.

These are vital messages for the board and employees to understand.  Taken together, cultural understanding, board relationship, and professional commitment are key to helping you realize not only the fruits of your ideas and labor, but will also lead to real and sustainable change to the benefit of students, the organization, and the community at large.  Don’t underestimate the power of tenure for your college and you, too!

Daniel J. Phelan is President/CEO of Jackson College (Jackson, MI) and Former Chair of the AACC Board of the Directors.

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