Cultivating diverse leaders

AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus speaks about leadership opportunities at community colleges during the CoopLew Chief Diversity Officers Institute in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Matthew Dembicki)

Community colleges are looking for a few good men — and women, and people of color and any well-qualified leader looking for a robust career in higher education.

That was the message Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), conveyed at a meeting of college and university chief diversity officers in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

As community colleges look to develop a pipeline for retiring baby boomer leaders — the sector sees some 250 turnovers annually among its presidents — there is an opportunity to ensure emerging leaders represent the diversity of their students, Bumphus said.

Community colleges already are in the forefront of higher education in hiring women and people of color for leadership positions, especially presidents, he said. For example, women represent the fastest-growing population among community college CEOs, comprising more than one-third of those positions.

Bumphus highlighted various efforts to increase diversity among leaders. He noted that Minnesota is a leader among states that have hired the most community college presidents of color. State system officials ensured that the pool of candidates included qualified diverse leaders, he said. And that started with making sure the search committees themselves were diverse.

Public two-year colleges are also starting to look outside the traditional pipeline for leaders, Bumphus said. He noted AACC next year will hold a professional development event on nontraditional pathways that can lead to the community college presidency, which may interest K-12 superintendents, those who have served in the military, university officials and others.

Opportunities through AACC

AACC continues to offer professional development for emerging leaders, new college presidents and seasoned CEOs through programs in its leadership suite. It also just released a new edition of its popular leadership competencies that serve as a guide for community college presidents, mid-level managers and faculty, too.

“At every stage in my career, I have always tried to up my leadership game,” Bumphus said at the meeting. “We try to provide such an opportunity for others to do the same using this document.”

The association listens closely to its members and uses that to develop its programming. For example, Bumphus meets with new college presidents at AACC’s annual convention to find out what they wish they knew before they become CEOs. Topics on that list include fundraising, budgets, legislative issues, public relations and the politics of the job.

Lessons learned

The AACC president also provided attendees a list of 10 lessons he’s learned over 30 years in teaching and leading. The list includes:

  • Know who you are as a leader and a person.
  • Hire great people and support professional development.
  • Develop your system of communication.
  • Inspect what you expect.
  • Continually tweak and refine your vision, coupled with precise execution.
  • Minimize your number of enemies; develop, nurture and respect relationships.
  • Never let them see you sweat and have an unrelenting work ethic — getting the position is just the beginning.
  • Develop a passion for what you do.
  • Determine what makes your talents and skills unique.
  • Keep a balanced life, have fun and don’t stay too long.

Bumphus explained each point and how they tied into leadership. For example, changing one’s mind is OK. He noted that it wasn’t so long along that the prevalent thought was that community college students “had a right to fail,” meaning it was up to them to determine which classes to take and ensure their success. Today, efforts like AACC’s Pathways initiative help students focus on a program of study and provide services such as counseling to guide them toward success.

Bumphus also expanded on what he means by “inspect what you expect.” As a college leader, it’s advisable to check with your team to ensure things are running smoothly. Don’t micromanage, but do understand how things work.

“You don’t want to get in the weeds, but know what’s in the weeds,” Bumphus said.

Be prepared

Several attendees, most of whom come from four-year institutions, queried Bumphus about becoming a community college president. One person asked if coming from the university sector would exclude candidates from CEO positions.

“That’s not the case,” Bumphus said, but he recommended becoming familiar with community colleges before applying. He noted a university vice president who wants to be a community college president, but during an interview the candidate highlighted his work in research.

“Our faculty is not focused on research. They are focused on teaching,” Bumphus said.

University officials interested in exploring careers at community colleges can visit their local two-year college and become familiar with its operations, programs and challenges. Student transfers continue to be important for both community colleges and four-year institutions, and it would be a good area to study, Bumphus said. He also recommended learning about dual enrollment and other partnerships between community colleges and K-12 systems that are aimed at improving college readiness.

Those interested in working at community colleges can also participate in AACC’s professional development programs, such as its Future Leaders Institute, where participants can learn about the vision and philosophy of community colleges, as well as network with current community college presidents.

Although applicants for leadership positions don’t have to come from a community college, it does help, Bumphus said. Positions to get valuable experience are available, though they may require relocating, sometimes to parts of the country that might not be personally appealing.

“You have to be able to take that leap of faith,” he said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.