A new deal

The skill set asked of today’s top educators is demanding, with higher education boards of trustees targeting versatile leaders able to raise funds, speak to the media and serve as an institution’s academic authority, all while maneuvering among constituent groups seeking their time and attention.

Community college presidents, in particular, handle these tasks in a much-scrutinized atmosphere of access, affordability and responsiveness to community need, which makes terms of the contract between an administrator and institution all the more important. According to academic leaders, board members and industry experts involved in the contract negotiation process, first-time and seasoned presidents alike should be as careful with their own interests as those of the college they’re serving.

Editor’s note: This excerpt offers a peek into the upcoming edition of the Community College Journal, the award-winning magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Prospective presidents today must recognize that contracts — whether an initial agreement or renewal of an established arrangement — can set the stage for a productive relationship between themselves and the board, or, in the worst-case scenario, provide an equitable exit plan that leaves all parties relatively unscathed.

“Likeability is at its highest when a contract is first given out. Everyone’s excited and ready to take off,” says Preston Pulliams, president and owner of Gold Hill Associates, a presidential search team. “It’s absolutely critical to have everyone at a comfortable place where a president feels properly compensated and the board feels good. Because as soon as a president makes an uncomfortable decision, you’ll have that good footing to start from.”

An ever-evolving position

The question remains: How do community colleges and would-be educational leaders find that “comfortable place?” Two-year colleges are contending with a narrowing talent pipeline marked by a large number of presidents leaving the field. The American Association of Community Colleges’ membership database — which tracks transitions in leadership positions due to employment changes, retirements, deaths and terminations — reported 111 community college CEO transitions in the 2017-18 academic year.

Aftermath from the recession and the baby boomer generation retiring are among the reasons for the administrative upheaval, notes Pulliams, a former president of Portland Community College in Oregon.

A sector in flux, combined with an increased focus on the cost of higher education, has found more presidents stumping before state officials for education dollars, resulting in a difficult, ever-evolving position that should be compensated accordingly, Pulliams says.

“The job has changed over the years, so that means a different kind of contract,” he says. “Colleges are strapped financially, and must bring in someone who can manage the budget. Plus there’s a responsibility to find non-mainstream funding for faculty chairs, construction or support of student completion.”

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A successful negotiation requires understanding the complex parameters of the modern presidential contract, notes Pulliams. As the job changes, so do benefits attached to employment, from housing allowances to sabbaticals to onboarding plans designed to ease the new administrator’s learning curve.

Smart candidates come to the table knowing the departing president’s contract as well as salaries of presidents from similarly sized colleges. Fully defining non-salary considerations — evaluation schedules, cause for termination, performance incentives and more — is key when tailoring each of those conditions for a fair and efficient outcome.

“When colleges get down to finalists, these are usually the competitive people who have done their homework,” Pulliams says.

Presidents are wise to pursue professional guidance on nuanced contractual matters rather than taking a “do it yourself” approach, experts believe. Hiring legal representation results in a smoother back-and-forth on contract talks that shouldn’t take any longer than a week or two to complete. Though it may be tempting for presidents to serve as their own legal advisor, most admins are not going to know – citing just one example – the subtle differences between arbitration and litigation in the dispute resolution clause of their contract.

The full article will appear in the June/July edition of Community College Journal.

About the Author

Douglas J. Guth
is a writer based in Ohio.