Brave New Leadership
With community college presidents retiring left and right, what’s an open-access institution to do? Leadership programs just might be the answer
As community colleges grapple with some of the most pressing issues they’ve ever faced — teacher shortages, swelling enrollments and budget cuts, to name a few — those at the helm of the institutions are critical in determining the schools’ success. Meanwhile, with scores of baby boomers on the verge of retiring, community college leadership also will be facing a shortage. Such challenges, educators say, only underscore the need for more and better community college leaders — and programs to train them. A variety of programs are stepping up to fill the institutional knowledge vacuum created by retiring presidents, and vice presidents who would normally be tapped to fill the high posts also are retiring, according to a 2001 study by the American Association of Community Colleges. From residential two-year programs, to Internet-based teleclasses, to customized curriculum paths, doctoral and master’s degree programs in community college leadership are the next wave of career education for the community college professional. And if a degree-granting course isn’t quite on the radar screen, less formal weeklong or daylong seminars can be a good way to get your feet wet in the leadership arena.These programs teach everything from financial and budgeting strategies to interpersonal skills, all with the community college in mind. Not only is completing one of these programs a good way to get a job — soon it may be the only way to find a position in the upper echelons of community college management.“You can still find some searches where they don’t require a doctorate,” says Dr. John E. Roueche, president of the Community College Leadership Program at The University of Texas at Austin, “but the overwhelming majority would require at least an advanced degree in the field.”
THAT WAS THEN The 1960s and 1970s were boom years for community colleges. With funding at a high, many of today’s retiring leaders were drawn into the community college movement and found their career paths. “Community colleges are a social miracle for this country,” says Dr. Terry O’Banion, president of Walden University’s leadership program and president emeritus of the League for Innovation in the Community College. With the doors to education open wide for many who would not have otherwise had access to higher education, two-year schools have helped to level the unbalanced playing field.Now those leaders who were so motivated and supported are retiring, and with them goes decades of institutional knowledge and ability. One way they’re making sure to pass on their knowledge is by heading up or joining the faculty of community college leadership programs. Look at any faculty list, and you’ll see familiar names across the board. “What is clear to me is that this profession has a culture of development,” says Dr. Mark D. Milliron, president and chief executive officer of the League for Innovation in the Community College.
A LITTLE OF THIS, A LITTLE OF THATAt the University of Texas at Austin, the renowned community college leadership program is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. Its two-year residential program has graduated more women and minority students than any other, Roueche said, and not only does it seek out the talented; it places them, too. The highly competitive CCLP is an immersion program that keeps students, faculty and guest lecturers up-close and personal, creating a bonded “block” that not only provides support during the program, but is a source of professional support and networking once the program ends.That support isn’t unique to Texas’ program. All the programs emphasize team-building and peer-group support, as is evidenced by the common use of cohorts — a group of students who go through the program together. At Texas that group pretty much eats, sleeps and breathes together, going through each section of the program as a unit, and sharing time not only with other students, but also with faculty. “We were surrounded by professionals who were steeped in practice,” notes Milliron, a graduate of the program. “We had faculty who would say, ‘That’s a great theory, but let’s try to put it into practice.'”At the Colorado State University program, however, the students also are putting it into practice — the program is built around the working professional, and most classes are online. Students complete weekly and monthly activities as a group, and continuous requirements online. The weekly and monthly meetings require in-state students to go to a local community college for video conferencing, while out-of-state students participate via audio link.Physical distance doesn’t mean isolation, though. Despite the distance element of the Walden program, for example, the cohort system still works for its students.“I feel quite a bond with the other students,” says Greg Luce, a Walden doctoral student and partnership and marketing director at the League for Innovation in the Community College. “I feel a strong connection [to my cohort], and we provide a great support network for one another.”As with CSU, the Walden University program also is geared to the working professional, and the sequence is spread over three years. The curriculum framework offers infinite tailoring to the needs of the student. Working closely with a mentor, the student maps a path within the guidelines, then completes courses through distance education, finishing up with a traditional thesis. With programs such as Walden’s, which began accepting students last fall and is led by longtime community college leader O’Banion, the admissions to the three-year program are rolling, with students entering on a monthly basis. The coursework is mostly online, with regular e-mail communications and face-to-face meetings. The program is structured so students can keep their full-time jobs while still working to advance their careers. They also complete intensive on-site residencies at a community college.“I didn’t want to give up my work with the League, or relocate my family,” Luce adds. “Walden allowed me that option.”Another benefit to attending school while maintaining a current position is the opportunity to try out what’s being taught. For the final dissertation at Walden, “students apply their new knowledge by doing something that they have learned — do a study or a series of interviews or put it to practice in their place of work,” O’Banion says. Though much of the coursework is done independently, academic rigor and standards are maintained through faculty review and discussion.
MORE THAN JUST DEGREES In addition to degree programs, current leaders are seeking to close the gap by identifying leadership candidates early in their careers, and offering mentoring to help potential leaders find their niche in the community college spectrum. So while doctorates are preferred for many high-level openings, there are plenty of career-building options for mid-career college professionals, as well.At development programs such as the newly minted Massachusetts’ Community College Leadership Academy, which began last year, experienced faculty are invited to speak to a group of fellows chosen from around the state. There is a day-long meeting once a month for eight months, followed by a week-long seminar in June. The fellows have the option of earning graduate credit for the seminars, or receiving a certificate. Most costs are covered by the universities that send the fellows, so students have only to pay for their own transportation and lodging expenses. Those who choose to receive credit will pay additional tuition costs. “These programs are a great stopgap,” O’Banion says, adding that the development programs can be beneficial even to those who already have doctorates. “You never stop learning.”Another program that meets the needs of mid-level candidates is Antioch University- McGregor in Yellow Springs, Ohio, which offers a master’s degree in management, with a concentration in community college leadership. This degree program is geared toward the faculty member who perhaps has an academic degree and needs further education in leadership, or is closer to the beginning of a leadership career. The Antioch program can be completed via distance learning over the course of 21 months. For many eventual doctoral candidates, the development or professional program is a way to test the waters. “I had previously attended other leadership programs,” says Susan Lindahl, who is the college and community relations officer at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan., and also a Walden student. “After reviewing the design and coursework [of the Walden program], it seemed to be a perfect fit.”
IT’S ALL ABOUT PEOPLEIf you’re afraid that a Ph.D. in community college leadership would have more to do with finances than friendships, you might be wrong. If your people skills aren’t up to snuff, you’ll have a hard row to hoe — and good people skills are just part of the entrance requirements at some of the programs, let alone what’s in store on the syllabus. Of the important skills necessary for future leaders, three of the four — the ability to unify the college, the ability to mediate and the ability to form coalitions — were interpersonal skills, according to the 2001 AACC study, “The Critical Impact of Impending Retirements on Community College Leadership.” (The fourth, according to the study, was a good command of technology.)And just because it’s all about open-access doesn’t mean you simply walk in the door and sign your name. “This past year we have had 65 to 70 formal applications,” Roueche says. Of those 70 applications, there was room for about a quarter of those who applied. “People look remarkably similar on paper. We require everyone we’re serious about to come to campus for a day or two. We look carefully at recommendations and academics, but we load heavily on optimism and positive thinking,” Roueche explains.In addition to those on-campus visits, incoming students often have the recommendation of the president of their home school. The successful applicant will “have patience, persistence and first-class human skills,” Roueche adds.As anyone in community college work knows, it’s not all about the money. Dealing with a population of students that face all sorts of challenges before they even enroll — let alone academic challenges — requires skills that might not be so necessary in a more traditional academic setting. “A community college is like an emergency room,” Roueche says.When a school offers open access, to be successful that school also must offer success strategies for a student who is often less prepared than a traditional student. “At a competitive university, they seek out the best and the brightest,” says Roueche. “They have good grades, good SAT scores, plenty of support, and probably an American Express card.” Those well-prepared students can get through school with or without the talented faculty of some name schools, he says. But the real challenge is to provide an education for students with other responsibilities, including jobs and families. “Truthfully, you’ve got to be a better college — at these schools you need a lot of intervention, guidance and support to help students be successful and learn,” Roueche says. Part of being a better college is not only giving students what they need to make college possible, but making sure students get what they need to make the education work for them in the real world. O’Banion calls this “learner-centered” vs. “learning-centered.” While “learner-centered” often means open access, flexible scheduling, financial aid and effective job placement — all elements that are key to helping students — O’Banion says future leaders also need to be “learning-centered,” knowing techniques for maintaining standards and making sure students are actually meeting their academic goals, not just being shown the open door. Learning-centeredness is the only way for students to find professional success once they leave school, O’Banion says, and one way community colleges can really serve their communities.
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES One critical feature of many of these programs is mentoring. From the point of being recognized as a potential leadership candidate to admission to a program, then successful completion and placement, success hinges on the respect and encouragement of community college peers. “I’ve been blessed with wonderful mentors,” Milliron says.As stiff as the competition is for the few spaces in some of the programs, so is the desire among the community college experts and high-level officers at community colleges to encourage the up-and-comers to gain the skills they’ll need to carry the flag of open-access learning into the future.While everyone agrees that “there’s no substitute for a university-based doctorate,” O’Banion says, the old guard also realizes that the community college system needs every trained leader it can get, that there’s no one prescription for leadership success. Whether it’s a weeklong seminar, or a monthly meeting, or a two-year residency, anything is better than nothing, and these are all steps that will eventually help students take the reins as tomorrow’s leaders.
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