This July I joined Wilbur Wright College as its president. Never having been a college president before, I did what all academics do when starting a new task: head to a library for resources to study the literature. Scores of books are published every year on college leadership and presidencies, and an increasing number focus on the particular challenges faced by community colleges. Experts anticipate the need for hundreds of new community college presidents in the coming decade. It is a burgeoning field filled with differing perspectives of what should be done and how. The skills, talents and abilities of the next generation of academic leaders will play an important role in shaping the American higher education landscape.
The American Association of Community Colleges has given the matter much attention, developing a set of competencies for leaders. These include organizational strategy, resource management, communication, collaboration, community college advocacy, and professionalism. These make sense, but are they enough? Can they provide developing presidents the tools and attributes will to lead institutions in periods of systemic change?
James Ryan, in Inclusive Leadership, makes a compelling claim for the ethical leader who is dedicated to inclusive democracy. Geared more towards the world of K-12, Inclusive Leadership sees essential value of all voices on leader-follower continuum. Ryan only partially addresses difficult questions of navigating the distinctions caused by merit. He does, however, effectively highlight the efficacy that accompanies ethical democratic leadership.
In Community College Leadership: a Multidimensional Model for Leading Change, author Pamela L. Eddy emphasizes that leadership can come from different places and different models. Eddy employs a variety of case studies and knowledge gleamed from many interviews to make general and specific claims about leadership attributes. Her underlying approach is utilitarian and sensitive to the diverse communities that community colleges serve.
Carlos Nevarez and J. Luke Wood in Community College Leadership and Administration: Theory, Practice, and Change present twelve discrete chapters, each with a topic central to leadership, buttressed by theory, references, and a case study to round things out. If you are interested in how different community college problems might arise and be addressed within the context of theories and systems, this book is a great start. It is clear, sometimes to complexity’s detriment, but it always zeroes in on the key factors at hand.
Any single one of these sources is helpful on its own. When read sequentially, a different message emerges. The literature speaks to a recurring interest in the college presidency and attention to individual leadership. The presidency is a high-visibility job with the capacity to effect most members of an academic community. But it could be that we give too much weight to the role.
A recent two-part series “Advice for New Community College Presidents” in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Rob Jenkins, an associate professor of English, offers a helpful and funny corrective. Jenkin’s tart observations include “it’s not about you” and “you’re not so special.” He believes quite rightly that being a community college president is a job that a “lot of people could do well.” Jenkins’ underlying message to presidents is that “you’re just a custodian of something that actually belongs not to you, but to the community, to the students, and to the faculty and staff,” so “don’t screw it up too badly.” It is sage advice that I will do my best to follow.