Advice for New Community-College Presidents, Part 2

Brian Taylor

September 17, 2013

A report from the Kresge Foundation, released in June, found that 40 percent of community-college presidents plan to retire in the next five years—and that doesn't count the ones who stepped down at the end of 2012-13.

Clearly, two-year campuses across the country will be welcoming a host of new chief executives in the near future. Many of them will have past presidential experience, but others will be entirely new to the top job—a fact that raises the obvious question: Will they be prepared to lead?

Determined to do my part, I decided to write this two-part series from the perspective of a 26-year veteran of the community-college sector, as both a faculty member and former midlevel administrator. During that time I have worked for 10 different presidents and gotten to know many others, learning a great deal from all of them (as I noted in Part 1) about what campus leaders should and shouldn't do. If I seem to focus more on the latter, it's not because I'm trying to be negative. I've just witnessed too many presidents make mistakes, creating problems that probably could have been avoided. I explained four of those common mistakes in the first installment. Here are six more:

Einstein, you're not. Ever notice how some medical doctors assume that they're smarter than everybody else about everything? Their reasoning, apparently, goes like this: The medical profession is obviously nobler than any other profession, and it also pays better than most. Who wouldn't want to be a doctor? Therefore, anyone who is not a doctor simply must not have what it takes.

I've observed a similar mind-set among many community-college presidents. To their way of thinking, being an administrator is much preferable to being a faculty or staff member. I mean, who in their right mind would spend their life chained to the classroom if they could possibly avoid it? Therefore, anyone who hasn't "advanced" into upper-level administration must not be smart enough, or capable enough.

The truth, of course, is that colleges are full of highly intelligent people. As president, you are probably not the smartest person on the campus or even in a given meeting. If you recognize and accept that fact, you can benefit greatly from the intellect, experience, and expertise of the people in your organization—many of whom, believe it or not, actually love teaching and/or working with students and can't imagine doing anything else. If you persist in believing you're smarter than everyone else in the room, you will not only alienate your colleagues but may on occasion look like a fool.

Listen and learn. All new presidents come into office promising to listen to faculty members, staff employees, and students. But in my experience, few keep that promise for very long. They may pretend to. They may even wrap that pretense in great fanfare. But they have their own ideas, priorities, and biases, and they're not really that interested in what anyone else has to say—especially the rank and file.

Here's a tip: If you hold a meeting ostensibly for the purpose of listening to faculty and staff members, and then notice that you're doing most of the talking, or constantly interrupting other speakers, or pointing out where they're wrong—well, you're probably not really listening.

My advice would be to create elected, representative advisory groups made up of various constituents on the campus. Meet with those groups regularly to run ideas by them and hear their ideas. Encourage people to speak freely. Listen to them carefully, and temporarily set aside your own agenda. Then be humble enough to recognize wisdom when you hear it and flexible enough to adjust your decisions accordingly.

Say "no" to yes men (and yes women). One trait that community-college presidents share with leaders of other large, complex organizations is the tendency to surround themselves with people who share their vision and priorities—or at least pretend to go along in order to advance their own careers. New presidents, because they're often insecure, are especially susceptible to yes men and yes women.

In my experience, what more presidents need to hear is "no": "No, you can't extend registration for two more days." "No, you can't just ignore that board policy." "No, you can't shove that change down faculty members' throats." Of course anyone willing to say those things risks being labeled a "naysayer" and accused of disloyalty. But people who are truly loyal to an institution, and not just to its president, will naturally balk when they believe a decision is wrongheaded. And even when they're wrong, dissenters serve the valuable purpose of making everyone else examine their own arguments.

Keep your priorities straight. Most presidents, and especially new ones, are highly focused on enrollment. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. If a college doesn't have enough students to support its programs and its budget, everything else is pretty much moot.

The problem arises when the president's focus on enrollment becomes an obsession, put ahead of all other considerations including academic quality, campus morale, and student success. Sure, it might be easy to shoehorn a few more students into a section of English composition or a biology lab. But is that really good for those students? For the instructors? For the college?

Growth for its own sake—just so you can brag about the size of your college—is not in itself a worthy goal.

Not all change is good. Another legacy-building exercise in which new presidents frequently engage involves getting rid of all the old ways of doing things. That is known as "change," and is always assumed to be for the better, to the point where many college leaders nowadays attempt to brand themselves as "change agents."

Whenever I hear someone say, "I'm a change agent," I think to myself, "Big deal. So is hydrochloric acid." Just as growth for its own sake isn't necessarily desirable, neither is change for the sake of change. In fact, while change can be much needed, long overdue, and wonderfully revitalizing when it happens, it can also be stupid, destructive, and a slap in the face to all the people who worked so hard to keep the college functioning smoothly before you graced it with your presence.

The trick, of course, is distinguishing good, needed changes from bad, unnecessary ones. As a new president, you might want to spend some time figuring out what actually needs to be changed—and what deserves to be kept. (Hint: Your advisory groups can help with that.)

First, do no harm. I've often thought that community-college presidents (and politicians, too, but that's another subject) should have to sign a pledge much like the Hippocratic Oath, promising that whatever else they do, first and foremost, they will do no harm.

I understand how important it makes you feel to be entrusted with this job. Just remember that you're probably the college's seventh or eighth president, at least. If you're lucky, you might be there eight or 10 years before handing off the reins to someone else. In the final analysis, you're just a custodian of something that actually belongs not to you, but to the community, to the students, and to the faculty and staff.

Your primary goal, as custodian, should be this: Don't screw things up too badly for everybody else. If you can actually improve things a bit, so much the better. Yes, there are times when you will need to take decisive action, and I hope you will have the courage to do that. But there are also many steps that you should not take, and I hope you have the wisdom to avoid them.

Leading a community college provides countless opportunities to do good for students who need it most, not to mention faculty and staff members who may have been a bit banged up by budget cuts and public sentiment in recent years.

Please feel free to give them your best effort.

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 our community-college column and blogs for On Hiring. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.