Advice for New Community-College Presidents, Part 1

Brian Taylor

August 26, 2013

You might say that I'm a bit of a connoisseur of community-college presidents. Over the past 26 years, I've worked for 10 of them, ranging in quality from pretty good to fairly awful. Collectively they've taught me a great deal about what presidents ought to do—but even more, I'm afraid, about what presidents ought not to do.

Given that dozens of presidents will take office at two-year colleges this fall—a number that is likely to grow in future years as retirements accelerate—I thought this might be a good time to offer some advice from the perspective of a veteran faculty member and former midlevel administrator.

Not that college presidents don't get a lot of advice. It's just that nearly all of it comes from other presidents, politicians, and corporate types. Most faculty members aren't asked for our opinions on leadership issues. No one has asked me, either, but that's never stopped me in this column before. I suspect that I represent the majority of low-to-midlevel employees at community colleges who don't have this kind of platform and aren't in a position to speak candidly to rookie presidents and aspiring leaders.

In fact, I have so many tidbits of good advice that I've been forced to divide them into two batches. Here's the first:

It's not about you. If there's one thing the rank-and-file despise most, it's a leader who hogs the spotlight.

Anyone who has ever worked at a community college knows what I'm talking about: presidents who drone on endlessly in meetings, supposedly about the college's accomplishments but really about their own; who take advantage of every opportunity to publicly "toot the college's horn," which usually means tooting their own horn; who can't even present awards to students or employees without somehow turning the occasion into a celebration of their presidency.

Apparently that is a trap into which presidents can fall quite easily, judging from the number who do. But you must take care to avoid it, lest constituents begin to roll their eyes every time you speak. They may also talk about you behind your back, using words like "narcissist" and "bloviator." You're better off not saying anything than being perceived as always talking about yourself.

Besides, it really isn't about you. It's about the faculty and staff, who more than any other single group "are" the college, the one relatively fixed point in a sea of change. And, of course, it's ultimately about the students, right? Sure, every president says that. But will you be one of the few who actually mean it? And whose behavior matches your rhetoric?

You're not the college, and the college isn't you. Perhaps those presidents who are so prone to making everything about them have trouble distinguishing between themselves and the institution. In fact, many of the presidents I've dealt with over the years clearly believed that they were synonymous with the college, and the college with them.

That can create problems for faculty, staff, and low-level administrators, because anything they say that might be perceived as critical of the college is therefore perceived as being critical of the president. It's like pointing out that someone's baby is ugly: There's no way to do it tactfully. By the same token, presidents who blur the lines between themselves and their institutions also tend to turn any criticism of their leadership into criticism of the college. The message is, "If you love the college, you will approve of me; and if you dislike me, then you must be an enemy of the college."

Remember: As a new president you are just one of many employees at the college. Most of them were there before you arrived, and most of them will be there long after you're gone. They have just as big a stake as you do, if not bigger, in the success of the institution. They must be able to point out things they believe are wrong with the college without your taking those comments personally (and perhaps retaliating against them in some way).

Just because they criticize your performance doesn't mean they are disloyal employees. Your treating dissenters in that way might, in fact, be the reason they don't like you.

It's brick, not marble. Another common presidential behavior that faculty and staff members detest is what we refer to as "monument building."

Monument-building occurs when a president starts some program not because it's integral to the college's mission but because it will look good on his or her résumé. Or when a president wins approval to construct an extravagant building even though an older one is still working well. Everyone understands that those presidents aren't really trying to improve things on the campus; they're just erecting shrines to themselves.

Monument-building can be expensive, draining money from other, worthier projects. It can also lead to resentment and a decline in morale. Sure, new programs might very well be in order, and new buildings sorely needed. But before you embark on any new project, seek some consensus on the campus and examine your own your motives to make certain that they're pure, that you aren't simply falling victim to the natural presidential urge to make a name for yourself with taxpayers' money.

You're not so special. A president with whom I had a pretty good working relationship once confided in me that he was "just an ordinary guy doing an extraordinary job." As much as I appreciated his modesty and candor, I realized that he was only half-right: The job itself isn't nearly as extraordinary as some imagine.

Let's be honest: Serving as a community-college president is hardly being an astronaut or a Super Bowl-winning coach or a Nobel laureate or CEO of the Ford Motor Company. It's a job that a lot of people could do well, some of them better than the people who actually have the job. And yet this belief in their own elevated status, their natural superiority, seems alarmingly prevalent among community-college presidents.

Years ago, when I was coaching basketball, my team lost a close game on the road following a questionable call by a referee. On our way back to the locker room, one of my players lost his temper and shattered the glass panel over a fire extinguisher, setting off an alarm.

Called out of the locker room to meet with the host college's rather irate president and athletic director, I assured them that the young man would be disciplined, that he would write a letter of apology, and that he would pay for the damage (all of which happened). But the president left me speechless when he insisted loudly, obviously incensed, that "breaking the glass wasn't the worst part. He was also disrespectful to a college president!"

"Oh, no!" I wanted to say (but wisely didn't). "Not that! Shall I summon the firing squad?" Of course, what I was really thinking was, "What a ..."—well, you can imagine what I was really thinking.

New presidents, don't take yourself so seriously. Try a little humility. I think you'll find that it goes a long way.

That's all the sage advice for Part 1. If you're not yet thoroughly offended, just wait until next month's installment.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a Career in America's Community Colleges. He writes monthly for The Chronicle's community-college column and blogs for On Hiring. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.