Toolkits and Community College Presidential Searches

As a community college president, I read Aspen Institute publications closely. Aspen has positioned itself as one of the nation’s preeminent nonprofit foundations involved in community college education. Several years ago the foundation initiated the Aspen Prize to recognize community colleges for exceptional outcomes in student learning, degree/certificate completion, employment and earnings, as well as access and success for minority and low-income students. A $1 million award and great publicity is attached to the prize, which shines a much-needed and deeply appreciated light on the community college world. Decisions-makers and the public often forget that more than 40% of all students in higher education are enrolled in a community college.

Two interesting initiatives have stemmed from the Aspen Prize. In the summer of 2013, Aspen released a report titled “Crisis and Opportunity: Aligning Community College Presidency with Student Success.” The study, developed with the Achieving the Dream network, examined the shared characteristics of the community college presidents whose institutions were finalists for the prize. They included:

  1. Deep commitment to student access and success
  2. Willingness to take significant risks to advance student success
  3. The ability to create lasting change within the college
  4. Having a strong, broad strategic vision for the college and its students, reflected in external partnerships
  5. Raise and allocate resources in ways aligned to student success

Interestingly enough, these traits were not what eight search consultants said were the most common attributes sought by community college boards when hiring presidents. The consultants stated that most boards want a president with:

  1. Fiscal management ability
  2. Fundraising capacity
  3. External relationship-building skills
  4. Communication skills
  5. Risk-averse behavior

The two lists outline two much different understandings of what makes an effective community college president. As a follow-up, the Aspen Institute recently published a toolkit explaining how to hire exceptional community college presidents, the kind that might lead an institution to win the Aspen prize. Written mostly with trustees in mind, the open source toolkit outlines values and processes so that hiring committees will find leaders who are focused on student success (and able to achieve it). Importantly, Aspen’s organized its toolkit around ten qualities, an amalgam of the earlier Aspen traits and suggestions from the search consultants. In this new structure, the toolkit argues that successful residents should have the following characteristics:

  1. Committed to student access and success
  2. Takes strategic risks
  3. Builds strong teams
  4. Establishes urgency for improvement
  5. Plans lasting internal change
  6. Results oriented
  7. Communicates effectively
  8. Financial and operational efficiency
  9. Entrepreneurial fundraiser
  10. Develops effective external partnerships

Any effective higher education chief executive will benefit from these qualities. One of these recommendation, however, stands out and calls for reflection: “establishes urgency for improvement.” Seen broadly, Aspen seeks community college presidents to make changes and act with urgency. In contrast, most boards seem to want a prudent continuation of the status quo. Is urgent change always needed? Much depends upon what is conveyed with urgency, when it is conveyed, and to whom it is conveyed.

By default, any finalist for a presidency whose primary message is “urgent change is necessary” is stating that a) the institution is suffering and, by implication, b) the former president failed, and possibly, c) board of trustees has not been a successful steward of the college. That is a most difficult pill to swallow. In my experience, hiring committees rarely respond favorably to candidates who emphasize urgency or quick action. When it does happen, the institution is often in a state of great distress.

The “anti-urgency” sentiment is further supported by the literature around college presidencies. Experts caution new presidents to listen and learn about their institutions before making significant changes. It is sound advice. Culture often plays a greater role in an educational institution than is immediately apparent.

How, then, can an aspiring community college presidency make the case for urgency? One path is through emphasizing and re-emphasizing the institutional mission of student success. The ways that we, as educators, can improve the educational experience for our students is limitless. As there are many ways to improving student success, care has to be given to selecting the best possible path for the institution with the resources at hand. A president who arrives at an institution uninterested in learning an institution’s history, its strengths and its weaknesses, will have a difficult, if not impossible time effecting meaningful long-term change.A community college presidential finalist who makes it clear to all involved in the search process that student success is their top priority will however, through that very message, convey urgency.

Another path to urgency has to come from governing boards, who hold responsibility for presidential hiring. The question of change is paramount. Trustees need to have hard conversations. They have to be willing to address the question of how much change and why. They also have to do this before posting a job advertisement for a new president. Aspen’s toolkit mentions this but does not provide much detail.

Lastly, all the community college presidents I know are committed to student success. That is why we are in the business; we believe that we have the ability and skill to lead an institution to be more successful with more students. The challenges are mindsets, resources, and how best to lead – all worthy roadblocks on the road to seeing students succeed. It is a journey without end, too. One of the less-celebrated beauties of higher education is that student success is a responsibility that can never be fully discharged.

David Potash

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