Getting in sync

Western Nebraska Community College President Todd Holcomb chats with Board Chair Julie Walworth. (Photo: WNCC)

Community college presidents and board members come and go. But a major driver of the continued success of two-year colleges is how fruitfully the relationships between CEOs and their boards evolve over time — from the onboarding process when a president first takes the helm to the “outboarding” process that starts with them giving notice, and all the years in between.

At all phases of the presidency, open communication, relationship building and a proper sense of who plays what role — with the board providing broad policy and fiscal direction, and the CEO carrying out the day-to-day leadership — are key to success, say community college presidents and board chairs.

Todd Holcomb came to Western Nebraska Community College (WNCC) in Scottsbluff seven years ago and spent six months as vice president before being asked to serve as interim president and then president. With a background primarily in the four-year university environment, Holcomb is grateful that his board supported him attending CEO training through the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and thinks it’s been helpful that his board is so involved in the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT).

“It’s important to have those educational components coincide with one another,” he says.

It starts with the search

The onboarding process starts during the search process, ensuring the board and CEO have a clear understanding of one another’s short- and long-term expectations, Holcomb says.

“Some colleges want a change agent,” he says. “That’s fine, as long as there’s an expectation upfront. What I see happening is sometimes there’s miscommunication between the president and the board on those expectations.”

In Holcomb’s early weeks, the 11-member WNCC board also allowed him the opportunity to get to know the college and its surrounding district, which covers 17,000 square miles, about one-fifth of the state.

“The board gave me the latitude to understand and learn the culture before there was any sense I would move forward with certain projects,” he says. “I started going out into the district and meeting the board of governors at their individual locations in town. It’s very difficult to build relationships on ‘board day.’”

This excerpt comes from the current issue of the Community College Journal, the award-winning magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Holcomb recalls that he did some “unique things” to build these relationships; for example, one board member, a rancher, invited him to a branding party — which wasn’t about celebrating a marketing communications effort.

“It’s where they brand young calves. It was quite an experience,” he says. “I drove out into the middle of the Sand Hills and spent a day getting to know the residents. That was a great experience. You have to get outside your comfort zone.”

Julie Walworth, board chair at WNCC since January and a board member for five years, was not yet there when Holcomb took the helm but says it’s important for a new president to visit with the board, staff, members of the community and — most importantly — students.

“Smaller towns on the outskirts aren’t always as involved with the college, and yet they’re still taxed, so we have to make sure our connections with them are strong,” she says. “And it’s important that students get to know him—students are what we’re here for.”

Supporting its choice

Donald Generals ascended to leadership of the Community College of Philadelphia in July 2014 from the position of vice president of academic affairs at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, New Jersey. He says that his board had vetted his 30-year career thoroughly and helped smooth his transition by expressing full confidence in him, which included swatting away some people’s questions about a stint he had spent at a proprietary school.

Community College of Philadelphia Board Chair Jeremiah White (left) and President Donald Generals go over some points. (Photo: Fernando Gaglianese/Nando Photography)

“They publicly, as well as privately, dismissed those accusations or criticisms,” Generals says. “The level of confidence they showed in me was very important. Their confidence infused credibility in the [vetting] process as well as the final candidacy.”

Like Holcomb, he made the effort to get to know his 15 board members on an individual level. “I took the opportunity, and they reciprocated, in trying to get to know each other relative to our personal and professional identities,” Generals says. “You have to have a relationship with your board as a whole, but you also have to work at your relationship with each individual.”

The board also encouraged him to attend AACC’s New CEO Academy, where he found “a supportive environment and atmosphere” with colleagues who also had been on the job for only a short time. And the board supported Generals’ early steps in reorganizing the college. “I feel like I hit the ground running,” he says.

Jeremiah White, who chaired the search committee that led to Generals’ hire and became board chair last September, says that prior to the search, his board came together on its vision and set out to find someone who could take that and build on it.

“We were all in lock sync about where we were, and what we needed to see in the first year and the second year from the new president,” White says. “Part of it had to do with the board accepting the fact that he had to get in there and get under the hood. We didn’t know all the details.”

A veteran’s view

Where Generals remains relatively early in his tenure, Millicent Valek, president at Brazosport College in Lake Jackson, Texas, has been going for more than two decades in what she terms with a chuckle, “my first presidency, and probably my last.” She arrived in 1996 after eight years as chief academic officer at Arizona Western, and, like Holcomb and Generals, she serves on the presidential advisory committee of ACCT.

When Valek was hired, her board had gone through a search process that was several months long and helped to pave the way.

“I was the first external president they had hired,” she says, which heightened people’s curiosity. “There were lots of opportunities, during the finalist stage, for community and faculty forums, which laid the base.”

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About the Author

Ed Finkel
is an education writer based in Illinois.