The New Community College Leader

by Emily R Miller & Richard A Skinner
December 2, 2011

Community colleges are distinctly American institutions. At their best, they are democratic meritocracies that afford all who aspire to try post secondary education and reward those who achieve with advancement to at least the baccalaureate.

They are unruly organizations that defy easy categorization. As such, they are of a piece with what Plato said of democracy, “a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder; and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.”

There are nearly 1,200 community colleges in America today. They are known by several names: technical institute, junior college, community college, and, as their missions have expanded to include offering selected bachelor’s degrees, college or state college. Their names reflect a multiplicity of missions, not only across the sector but within even a single college.

But as is the case with their land-grant brethren, community colleges are now victims of their very success in accepting and fulfilling the varied missions with which they have been tasked. As resources decline and enrollments grow, presidents increasingly find themselves in a zero-sum situation, in which the determination to pursue one aspect of their missions necessitates doing less of or even eliminating completely some other compelling role and attendant activities. Several of California’s beleaguered community colleges, for instance, no longer offer lifelong education programs even as the need for continuous learning persists.

There is then a cruel irony to what may be the lot of the next generation of community college presidents. Themselves believers in and energized by a commitment to access, future presidents will likely have to reverse a century – the first century of these institutions’ existence – during which missions expanded and diversified, and begin to negotiate a retreat or, at best, a compromise on who can be afforded access to post secondary education in America. The little solace afforded these leaders is that - as in the past - community colleges will reflect the dynamics of a changing nation seemingly in retreat from long-standing principles of access.

Community Colleges as Reflections of America

They enroll nearly half of all undergraduates in the US and 96 per cent of these students are in public institutions. Since 1985 women have made up the majority of community college students. More than any other sector of American higher education, community college enrollments reflect more closely the diversity of the regions served and the nation as a whole.

Indeed, the prototypical American college student, contrary to longstanding and persistent perception, is today a 36 year-old woman employed full-time and most likely attending a community college on a part-time basis.

The numbers of community colleges and students who enroll in them and the expansion of their missions reflect a deeply-held, widely-shared commitment to providing access to students, regardless of enrollees' academic readiness or, to a degree, their financial capacity. In community colleges student achievement – not social or economic class or status – is rewarded with relatively unfettered progression into four-year institutions and graduation. These qualities are manifest in the metaphors by which they are often referred – open door; first-, second-, last- chance; workhorse; utility player.

Their leaders are, at once, idealistic in their commitment to student access and pragmatic in orientation and operation. Notwithstanding the effects of stagnant or declining government financial support, presidents and trustees remain for now unabashedly upbeat about their role in American higher education and remarkably optimistic about their ability to make good on their commitment to access.

Conventional Paths to Community College Presidencies

Who and how persons become community college presidents are reflections of the origins and missions of the sector over the 100-plus years this type of institution has been in existence.

Beginning as expressions of “community boosterism” colleges emerged in towns and cities across the United States in the manner of opera houses being built in unlikely places. Few survived much past their creation primarily because of insufficient funding. However, those that survived became the two-year junior colleges of the early 1900s. With an emphasis on collegiate education, these institutions became the vehicle to upper-division university courses and graduate programs.

What’s more junior colleges were established at least in part because of the creation and development of the American research university and with the active assistance of primary and secondary education. William Harper Rainey, first president of the University of Chicago, embraced the late 19th-Century German university model and its emphasis on research and scholarship. To insure advanced standards of academic excellence, he worked with leaders of the Joliet, Illinois school system to establish, effectively, Years 12 and 13 of a student’s education devoted to the introductory collegiate courses, what amounted to the undergraduate general education curriculum.

Students who succeeded at what became Joliet College could then move on to the University of Chicago and the upper-level coursework leading to the baccalaureate degree. More such “junior colleges” came in to existence. In light of the emphasis on a collegiate curriculum, presidents of these junior colleges were often conventional academicians with backgrounds in academic disciplines that made up the first two years of a college education

At the same time, K-12 education was expanding, compulsory secondary education laws were enacted and teacher certification standards emerged. Teacher preparation programs offered at the junior colleges met the increased demand for quality teachers. Forging a relationship between K-12 education and two-year institutions directly impacted institutional leadership at community colleges, so that school superintendents often succeeded to the community college presidency.

Over time local initiatives began to focus on technical and vocational curricula that reflected the existing or sought-after manufacturing plants and specialized businesses of the region served by community colleges as well as the mid-20th Century American economy and workforce. This shift in mission eclipsed the original academic focus. Community college presidents led the way in negotiating partnerships with local industry and expanding the institutions associate degree and workforce development programs. Sometimes presidents were themselves veterans of industry and their academic credentials were of less importance.

Following the Second World War, however, the immediate need to accommodate a growing numbers of veterans, immigrants and high school students seeking post-secondary education had two-year junior colleges reclaiming their role as transfer institutions. With an increasingly complicated mission and commitments to serving both terminal and transfer students through associate, vocational, technical, pre-professional, and para-professional programs, the community college system of today was forged.

The ability of the community college to continually expand in new directions was often the product of visionary and entrepreneurial leadership coupled with resources infused by state and industry as well as a malleable faculty (notwithstanding the fact that a majority of full-time faculty in community colleges operates under collective bargaining agreements and, in states such as California, are legislatively recognized as participants in institutional governance).

By far the most important change in community college faculties is the increase in part-time instructors and professors at two-year colleges stunning -- 116,000 (801%) during the period 1969-1998. Between 2003 and 2009, the number of instructional staff for all post secondary institutions increased, but the percentage of those employed in a full-time basis declined. Part-time faculty members now constitute a clear majority among faculty at the two-year college sector. (Moreover, across all types of institutions contingent or term appointments have become the model form of new full-time faculty appointments in the past decade.) Community college presidents frequently benefit from the flexibility provided by a largely untenured, part-time, and contingent faculty body.

Today it is difficult to imagine how community colleges can continue to maintain a commitment to the expanded spectrum of activities they are tasked with and the unfettered access hitherto afforded students. The depth and duration of the Great Recession threaten even the most ingenious efforts of community college staff, faculty and leadership to cope with increasing demands, declining public revenues, long-held commitments to low tuition and fees for students, and the growing presence of collective bargaining among both full-time and part-time faculty.

The time has arrived, it seems, for a new generation of community college leaders to begin dialogues within and beyond their institutions and to negotiate compromises over what constitutes meaningful access to post secondary education and the workplace. These will not be simple, easy conversations.

New Paths or Well-Trod Routes?

We find it difficult to forecast which profession or background will be the predominant source of the next generation of community college presidents. What is clear it is that the individuals who seek to lead will require the ability to challenge existing practices and imagine new models to deliver quality, affordable, and relevant education. Community college presidents will be hard-pressed to continue to expand their institutional missions and support an eclectic mixture of programs.

An entrepreneurial spirit that is not paralyzed by the growing constraints confronting the sector will define the future leadership at community colleges. An ability to reinvent long-standing relationships and expectations held by communities, states, industry, students, and K-12 education will be consequential. Identifying and establishing alternative revenue streams will be essential.

Sharpening and honing (not expanding) institutional missions in order to create niches that are both fiscally sustainable and valuable for students and society will be a goal for future community college presidents. What will be needed are statewide or perhaps even regional/multi-state partnerships involving several colleges working together to avoid unnecessary duplication of offerings. Such consortia can facilitate student opportunity and ability to select and enroll in well-articulated, readily transferrable courses from and to several institutions. The success of the US Army online consortium of community colleges and four-year institutions and of Western Governors University demonstrate what can be accomplished by developing online, blended curricula and consortia among community colleges.

However, the hope for closer collaboration among community colleges rests squarely with the fates of future presidents who can commit to, launch and survive a transformational change process that in all likelihood requires considerably more time than permitted by the average tenure of academic presidents, as short as three years in some states’ community college systems.

What can be anticipated with somewhat greater certainty about the next generation of community college leaders is that more, many more are likely to be women. In an America of roughly 51:49 per cent women to men, females outnumber men in college 57 to 43 per cent. Women earned 60 per cent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees awarded in recent years, and in 2010 among all college graduates in the 25-29 age group, 55 per cent were women, and women held 51.4% of all managerial and professional positions, up from 26% in 1980.

And among almost all ethnic groups in the US, the trend lines are for men to be less educated, less likely to be employed.

Demographics may not necessarily be destiny, but as Bob Dylan (another male who did not graduate from college) told us years ago, you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing. The passage of time and the arc of current trend lines will insure more women preside over community colleges where, at present, only 29% of sitting presidents are women. The next generation of community college presidents is more likely a woman who – if she is to effect meaningful change – will need to commit a significant portion of her professional career to transforming a single institution in bold new ways. She will ask discomforting questions that challenge policies and practices. She will need to engage faculty whose ties to the institution are more often than not contingent and who have themselves likely benefitted little from most recent change.

Community college presidents will likely have to learn to work with boards whose members probably accept that change, substantive and substantial change, is needed, but who will find it uncomfortable being the recipients of their institutions’ stakeholders’ wrath at even the prospect of change.

Good boards will be those who can pledge and then live out a commitment to presidents willing to undertake institutional change but not surprisingly simply and inevitably tired by the process of trying to effect such change.

The next generation of leaders of community colleges are more likely to succeed if they grasp that technology can indeed do much to maintain student access but only if they stop trying to replicate the conventional lecture and laboratory with technology and, instead, exploit fully what the technology is capable of in a wholly new approach to teaching and learning.

The agility, flexibility, and speed with which community colleges have adapted to the various forces acting upon American society over the past century give comfort that they can again find the means and the ways to continue to provide access for an ever-changing student population. One hopes so.

But the times and prospects do not bode well and we may be fortunate if the next generation of community college presidents have the courage to acknowledge their institutions’ limits and the intellectual honesty to accept the implications of those limits for institutional missions and efforts.

Emily R Miller & Richard A Skinner

This article appeared in INSIDE HIGHER EDUCATION:
“The New Community College Leader” (December 2, 2011)

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