Pamela L. Eddy: Rethinking How to Develop Leadership Talent in Community Colleges

Talk of a leadership crisis in community colleges has been around since the turn of the 21st century. Given anticipated retirements in the next five years, the replacement of 225—21%—public community college presidents will occur.  Looming questions include:

  • Who will replace these leaders?
  • How can we better prepare leaders for tomorrow’s challenges?
  • Should we also focus on filling other key leadership positions such as chief academic officers and mid-level community college leaders?

The search for leaders is complicated by the current higher education context: historic underfunding, declining enrollment, issues with remediation, the prospect of merging community colleges. Added to this backdrop is public discourse questioning the need for a college education.  These pressing issues prevent current leaders, and their boards, from dedicating time and attention to thoughts of how to fill the anticipated presidential vacancies.

New Solutions to the Community College Leadership Crisis

The time has come to seriously rethink how community colleges are organized, and also how to develop ready, willing, and able talent to adaptively lead community colleges through these current challenges. We must also consider how leaders are being developed within colleges today and who gets tapped for these training opportunities.

Conceptualizing leadership talent more broadly is one means to open up the pipeline.  Following are some ideas community colleges can take to think differently about leading modern community colleges. These ideas can help develop effective leadership skills for negotiating the ever changing borders of higher education.

Broadening Racial Diversity.  Currently, 20% of community college presidents are leaders of color.  This expansion of racial diversity in the top-position over the last five years is notable given that for the past 20 years this figure hovered instead around 13%. The issue of racial diversity is particular poignant because community colleges enroll the largest numbers of minority college students (49% of the student body). We need leaders to better represent student demographics.

  • Faculty Hires. A key place to start increasing racial diversity in community colleges is with faculty hires.  If 80% of sitting presidents have spent time in the classroom, hiring diverse faculty will broaden the base of the leadership pipeline. Unfortunately, faculty of color currently represent only 20% of current community college full-time instructors. Recruitment of diverse faculty must be part of the agenda. Critically, one in four community college presidents indicate that they have programs in place to actively recruit and retain minority faculty members.  Developing current faculty of color and tapping into doctoral students of color in regional graduate programs to consider becoming faculty are promising long term steps.
  • Leadership Development Programs. Several American Association of Community College councils provide leadership programming targeting underrepresented populations, but these programs are costly and may be a barrier to aspiring leaders given the fiscal exigency of most campuses. Building more regional programming or grow-your-own programs provides an alternative to increase participation and racial diversity.  More recently, the Aspen Presidential Fellows Program expanded development opportunities and currently has high representation of leaders of color in their training cohort.

FLEX Leadership Development Programs. I propose a new FLEX Leadership Development program as a unique grow-your-own (GYO) program.  It is based on the following concepts.

  • Facilitating: To develop the needed talent for the future, programs need to facilitate opening the door to expand participation beyond the usual individuals selected for development. Casting a wide net includes seeing who is doing a good job leading a campus committee, helping with student success, and building partnerships within the community.
  • Learning: Those in the rank and file need to learn how to lead. Development programming should include opportunities to learn how organizations work, how to deal with conflict, how to lead change, and how to communicate with different stakeholders.  Knowing the mechanics of how colleges work gives aspiring leaders a way to decode what is going on both inside the college and in the larger context.
  • Experimenting: Individuals learn best by doing. Providing opportunities for those in a leadership development programs to test out their new knowledge in practice is important.  Creating individualized leadership development plans taps into the unique contributions of individuals, leveraging strengthens and addressing weaknesses.  Aspiring leaders require more opportunities to test out leadership strategies.
  • eXploring: Just like students explore majors, individuals need to explore their own leadership options. Setting up internal internships, engaging in job swaps, and deans/presidential fellows creates a chance to learn more about what leadership options best fit individuals.

Organizational Hubs. Changing the organizational architecture of community colleges to alternatives less reliant on hierarchical and bureaucratic structures can help reconceive leadership. Christine McPhail has argued we need to think more of a matrix formation in which information moves up, down, and sideways within the institution.

  • Leaders are more than a title. It is imperative to move beyond recognizing leaders merely by their title. Instead, when we think of campus members as educators, a different value system emerges in which a flatter hierarchy opens up and distributes leadership throughout the college.
  • Breaking down organizational borders. Community colleges have always been embedded in their regional communities, but organizational bureaucracies put up walls that challenge cooperation. Permeable borders require leveraging leadership throughout the college and clear two-way routes of communication regarding vision. Leaders must tell a compelling story about the value of the community college to maintain public support.

Looking Forward

Community colleges are on the cusp of a period of transformation and retooling to best meet public needs, and leadership is especially critical at this juncture. Institutions must invest in leadership development to best equip individuals and teams with the requisite skills and leadership perspectives required to lead into the future. Too much is riding on community college success not to make this critical investment.

Dr. Pamela L. Eddy is Professor of Higher Education, department chair of Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership, and a faculty fellow in the Center for Innovation in Learning Design at William & Mary (Williamsburg, VA).  Her research interests include community college leadership and development, organizational change and educational partnerships, gender roles in higher education, and faculty development.  Most recently she edited a volume of New Directions for Community Colleges on Constructions of Gender and published (with co-author Regina Garza Mitchell) an article titled “Preparing Community College Leaders to Meet Tomorrow’s Challenges.”

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