A Different Set of Advice for Community-College Presidents

Brian Taylor

October 02, 2013

As a faculty member and a self-described "connoisseur" of community-college presidents, Rob Jenkins provided some provocative advice to new and aspiring leaders in his August and September columns. On first read, his comments seem offensive to sitting and future presidents, analogous to someone who doesn't have children confidently giving advice to new parents. But it is worth thinking about what he says.

He may be a connoisseur of presidents, but I have actually been one and have guided many others, so I would like to respond and add to his advice. I could offer a lot of suggestions on topics like closing student achievement gaps, working with trustees, dealing with the media, handling crises, and managing the budget but I will limit my comments here to the internal relationships that Jenkins describes.

While he has experience as a midlevel administrator, Jenkins wrote primarily from the perspective of a faculty member. He offers what I believe is an accurate portrayal of how faculty members generally view administrators, especially presidents. And although most leaders come from the faculty ranks, they do not think often enough of how they should relate to this important constituency.

Faculty members, of course, are not the only important audience for presidents. They have to relate to community members, students, trustees, donors, policy makers, fellow campus presidents, and alumni. New presidents must think seriously about the kind of leadership they will provide and the relationships they will have with each of those groups.

Jenkins's advice deals primarily with the importance of humility, the value of listening to others, and the need to recognize the achievements of others rather than taking credit for every accomplishment. That's important advice, but it can be difficult for some leaders to accept.

As president, you may have worked hard, sometimes behind the scenes, to make something possible. That is what leaders do. It may be tempting to point out your efforts, but instead try to see yourself as the coach who shines the spotlight on the players who made it happen. It is always wise to accept the praise that comes your way graciously and to give credit to the people who were on your team. In fact, you should make it a point to seek out and recognize accomplishments and good behavior on the part of your employees.

As Jenkins notes: As president of a college, you work with smart people, some of whom are smarter than you—or at least think they are.

When I was president of Palomar College, I hired the first female dean of vocational education. Many of the senior male faculty members openly questioned whether she had the skills and knowledge to be successful in such a role. She quieted them by saying that she didn't know anything about diesel mechanics, automotive repair, welding, or cabinetmaking—but she knew how to be a dean. When she left Palomar after a long and successful tenure, the faculty members were sad to see her go. Remember, the people that you deal with are smart and are to be respected, but you need to project confidence in your leadership abilities.

It is all too easy for a president to become trapped in the office responding to e-mail messages and phone calls, but it is important to get out and be visible. Carve out some time on your calendar regularly to walk around the campus. Talk to students, faculty members, and staff employees. Find out what they are doing that is new and exciting, and what challenges they are facing. Take a genuine interest in their work and recognize their achievements.

But don't use this out-and-about time to solve problems that your fellow administrators should be dealing with. You don't want to undermine your team.

Colleges usually have several governance and planning committees that provide leaders with valuable advice and give people who will be affected by campus decisions a voice in the process. Usually a president will accept the committee's advice on a new policy or program.

But there may be times when the president has to take a different path. Doing so is almost always unpopular, but remember, your goal should not be popularity but to do what is right for the college, its mission, and its people. On those occasions when you have to make a different decision than the one recommended to you, explain clearly what you are doing and why.

I once worked for a president during a very challenging time in California. The passage of Proposition 13, a property-tax-limitation initiative, threw us into a period of uncertainty about our financial stability and the degree of local governance that would remain. At the same time, college faculty members were exercising their new legal right to organize for collective bargaining, and no one had any experience with what its impact would be on decision making.

During that difficult period, the president of the college remained quiet and delegated all of the talking to the vice president for academic affairs. But the president did not gain any popularity by doing so. Over time, the vice president earned the respect of the faculty, while the president lost their trust.

As Jenkins points out, faculty and staff members take offense when presidents see themselves as synonymous with the college. That is worth remembering. However, to external constituencies, presidents are the college. Donors usually make contributions only when the president asks, policy makers want to hear from the president instead of a lobbyist, community leaders seek out the president to discuss education and training needs, and the trustees' primary contact at the college is the president.

Everywhere the president goes in town—at any time of day or night—he or she is seen as representing the college. Just remember to shift gears when you change audiences and return to the campus where you are the leader, you are not the college.

Taking criticism is difficult for anyone, and Jenkins points out that some presidents see disapproval of themselves as synonymous with disapproval of the college. Dealing with criticism is one of the most emotionally difficult issues for leaders. Here I have two points of advice: First, create a climate in which it is safe both to criticize you and to bring you what might seem to be unwelcome information. Second, never shoot back.

In the fall of 2000, two janitors witnessed the former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulting young boys in the locker and shower rooms on the campus. The two janitors talked with each other but decided not to report what they saw because they thought they would get fired. Think about how the Penn State situation might have ended differently if those employees had felt safe enough to tell administrators what they saw.

I can't stress enough: Never retaliate. Sometimes criticism seems vicious, especially when the shots are fired from the relative safety of a tenured faculty position. Do what you can to create a culture of civility: Insist that disagreements are handled respectfully and defend other employees from unwarranted criticism. But it is best not to comment on the shots fired at you. It is sometimes difficult not to take the attacks personally, but remember, they are directed toward you only because you are the president.

Of course, you may have to take action if the uncivil speech is accompanied by illegal or unethical behavior or is somehow disruptive to the functioning of the college.

To have a successful presidency, you cannot be burdened by unnecessary controversy. Other than lack of control over the college budget, excessive travel and entertainment expenses seem to be the land mines that get presidents into trouble. Be careful with your use of college credit cards. Double-check all of your expense claims to be sure they are accurate. You are likely to make some decisions that are unpopular, and there will be people who are only too happy to make an issue of your expenditures, both the amount and the appropriateness.

If you are moving into a new presidency, think twice about spending college or foundation money to remodel your office—or the president's residence, if you are one of the few community-college presidents to have one. Such actions are seen as self-serving, especially during times of scarcity. If the office or residence needs work, it should be done before you arrive on the scene.

While Jenkins advocates extending the Hippocratic oath to college presidents, I hope you leave a greater legacy than having done no harm. In fact, I hope you challenge your faculty and staff members to do better and invite them to help you improve the college. The most successful presidents will create a culture of evidence at their colleges. For example, they will rely on data to show where changes must be made to improve student access and success and ask the faculty and staff to develop new strategies to close achievement gaps and to improve learning outcomes.

The presidency is a demanding, sometimes all-consuming, job and often insecure, as evidenced by the fact that Jenkins has worked for 10 different leaders in his 26-year career. But it's also an extraordinary job. Although Jenkins may not believe it is on par with being an astronaut or a Super Bowl-winning coach, who really makes more of a difference in people's daily lives than educators? When Christa McAuliffe was asked about the thrill of being an astronaut, her reply was, "I touch the future; I teach."

Leading a group of intelligent and dedicated faculty, staff, and administrators who are all focused on student learning, you can shape the future.

George R. Boggs is the president emeritus of the American Association of Community Colleges and president emeritus of Palomar College. He is a clinical professor for the Roueche Graduate Center at National American University and an adjunct faculty member at San Diego State University.