Filling the Yawning Leadership Gap

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

March 14, 2017

It’s difficult to flip (or scroll) through the pages of The Chronicle now without seeing some new article about a college or university president being forced to resign, put out to pasture, or simply fired.

Indeed, the failure of leadership in higher education has become such a recurring theme in this publication and elsewhere that a recent article, "Why University Chiefs Head Out the Door" reported on two new studies examining the complicated question of why presidents leave. As Lynn M. Gangone, vice president for leadership programs for the American Council on Education, so succinctly (and understatedly) put it in that article, "We all know that the presidency of colleges and universities is becoming more complex."

For several years now, I’ve been writing about the same phenomenon in the community-college sector. For instance, in a September 2012 column, "A Song of Vice and Mire," I compared two-year colleges to George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic (now famous as the Game of Thrones television series on HBO): "As I follow the political machinations of the fictional court at King’s Landing — the alliances and conspiracies, the jealousies and betrayals, the dalliances and beheadings — I am frequently put in mind of actual people I have known and events I have witnessed over my 27-year career. … Because, truth be told, for all of their many fine points and all the good they do for society, community colleges have historically been rather bad at governance, to say the least. On many two-year campuses, if not most, corruption, cronyism, abuse of power, and fiefdom-building constitute business as usual."

Now two former community-college presidents — George R. Boggs and Christine J. McPhail — have entered the fray with their new book, Practical Leadership in Community Colleges: Navigating Today’s Challenges (Wiley, 2016). It’s far from the first book aimed at two-year-college leaders, but it may be the first written by two such credible, well-known, and successful figures in that sector.

Together, they bring a wealth of knowledge and firsthand experience to their analysis. Boggs served for many years as a community-college president in California and is also the former chief executive and president (now emeritus) of the American Association of Community Colleges, the sector’s largest and most influential professional organization. McPhail is a retired president who founded the doctoral program in community-college leadership at Morgan State University and now runs her own consulting agency. Both have been on the speaking circuit for years.

As the title suggests, this book is much less a theoretical treatise on leadership than a field manual for current and aspiring community-college administrators, especially presidents. (Some of their advice would be applicable to leaders at any type of academic institution.) This is apparent from the preface, which includes a detailed list of ways in which leaders can actually use the book — not just read it — as a starting point for focused team discussions, a text for internal "grow your own" leadership institutes, or a handbook for those already actively engaged in specific management projects. The authors offer similar sets of suggestions for governing boards, professional associations, and even faculty members.

My favorite thing about the book is that, true to its subtitle, it does not shy away from tackling the difficult challenges of our time — the demands for greater accountability, the rising costs and declining state support, the tensions over shared governance, and the debates about campus safety. One of the longest chapters is, "Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion," with subsections covering race (including "Men of Color"), gender, disabilities, veterans, and LGBT students, among other issues.

Just to give you a flavor of the book and its candid, unapologetically practical tone — a breath of fresh air in a climate where concerns about political correctness often cause commentators to pull their punches and therefore miss the mark — I’d like to quote a few short passages.

  • On the opportunities presented by a struggling economy: "Difficult financial periods can be the best times to focus on an institution’s core mission, to discontinue programs that are least aligned to the mission, to eliminate waste and duplication, to improve efficiency, and to build a stronger private fund-raising function. … As the economy recovers and funds are restored, college leaders have the opportunity to allocate the new resources to new programs and services … that better meet the needs of students and communities. … [They] need to be careful not to create any unfunded future liabilities or to commit one-time funds to ongoing expenses."
  • On diversity, equality, and inclusion: "No longer can community-college educators hide behind the historic open-door admission policies, suggesting that open-access policies alone are sufficient to provide for the educational needs of all students. Today’s community-college leaders must embrace diversity, equality, and inclusion in all aspects of their leadership. Community colleges can no longer be about only access and opportunity; today’s college leaders must examine how their students are treated and what support structures are in place to accommodate their needs in order to improve success rates and close achievement gaps."
  • On serving male students of color: "Because the vast majority of men of color begin their postsecondary experiences in community colleges, these institutions are critical for enhancing successful outcomes for these men. … But community colleges are not necessarily serving male students of color effectively. … Access is not usually synonymous with success for men of color."
  • On reporting campus crimes: "Leaders must be aware of the college’s reporting requirements. The annual crime statistics report is due by October 1 of each year and must be published and made available to employees and current and prospective students. Community-college presidents should routinely review the report with the staff members responsible for compiling it. All too often, community-college leaders are not only unaware of the report, but they also have no knowledge of their college’s crime statistics. … Leaders must take this report seriously and carefully monitor it so that all compliance aspects are followed, including the investigation and appropriate prosecution of alleged sexual offenses."

Boggs and McPhail don’t simply describe the challenges in their book. They focus on what community college-leaders ought to be doing — not just thinking or saying.

Speaking as a 30-year veteran of community colleges, as a former administrator myself, and as a frequent commentator on the dearth of leadership in the two-year college sector, this is a book that should be read by every president of a community college. They should read it, and then reread it, and then require every member of their leadership team to read, discuss, and ponder it some more.

The challenges we face in higher education today may be many, but they are not insurmountable — as Boggs and McPhail so deftly demonstrate. We need leaders who understand that and who have the courage, the integrity, and the skill to face the challenges head-on. Reading this book would be an excellent place for them to start.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia State University Perimeter College. He is the author of four books, including Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges and Welcome to My Classroom. He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for Vitae. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.