During his first week as president of Phoenix College in Arizona, Larry Johnson, Jr., dressed like a student – with ripped jeans and a hoodie – sat in the back of a classroom and joined the discussion.
Johnson borrowed the idea from the “Undercover Boss” TV show. None of the students knew there was an “undercover president” until the teacher told them at the end of the class.
He was able to pull that off, in part, because he was 36 when he was appointed a year ago as president of Phoenix, which is part of the Maricopa Community College District.
As a new wave of younger community college presidents is emerging, they are using their generational ties to connect with young students and bring a fresh energy to the job – just as young baby-boomer presidents did when the community college sector mushroomed in the 1960s.
Connecting with students
Even though they are young, millennial presidents have experience to lean on. Johnson started his career as an adjunct faculty member at Tallahassee Community College in Florida, then moved to full-time faculty and department chair positions at Georgia Piedmont Technical College. He relocated to Broward College in Florida, where he was associate dean of academic affairs and dean of journalism. He then moved to the St. Louis Community College, where he spent two years as provost of the urban campus.
As he thought about becoming a college president, he immersed himself in higher education issues, gave presentations at national conferences, published articles and learned from mentors, such as Charlene Dukes, president of Prince George’s Community College (Maryland). He also attended various leadership development seminars and joined the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) Commission on College Readiness.
Johnson selected Broward to work at a multi-campus college, and later St. Louis because “the community was suffering from the aftermath of Ferguson, and I wanted to be a role model for young men in the midst of that chaos.”
Johnson, a first-generation college student who grew up in a single-parent household, had the goal of “serving students similar to me in terms of upbringing.”
“I understand the barriers they’ve faced,” he says, and “when they see what a 37-year-old can do, they see this is a feat they can accomplish, as well.”
Johnson encourages students to contact him on social media. “Being accessible helped me build connections with students and helped them feel connected with the institution,” he says.
Although he has always been the youngest staff person throughout his career, Johnson connects with older team members and works to “engage them and gain their trust.” One lesson he’s learned from his experiences and from seasoned leaders is to slow down when making staffing moves.
“We are the microwave generation; we want things done now,” he says, but sometimes caution is the better approach.
The millennial perspective
Paul Carlsen, who was 33 when he was named president of Lakeshore Technical College in Wisconsin in 2017, reaches out to students by challenging a student to a video game event in a cafeteria once a month with popcorn. (His favorites are old-school Super Nintendo games like Mario Kart.)
He had held several positions with the Louisiana Community and Technical College System – in institutional research, workforce training, and academic and student affairs – when he was named to succeed the long-term president of Lakeshore, who was retiring.
“At first, it was an overwhelming transition,” Carlsen says. “You’re immediately expected to be the walking logo of the institution. It took six months to a year to really feel comfortable.”
The Lakeshore board hired an executive coach to help him grow into the job during his first year. He enrolled in the AACC Presidents Academy, and this summer he is attending the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents.
Carlsen believes the times in which one grows up have a big influence on a leader’s priorities and leadership styles. During his time in high school in Colorado Springs, major events that happened included the massacre at Columbine High School nearby, the 9/11 attacks and the technology bust. Many of his friends’ parents lost their jobs and college savings.
The message Carlsen learned was, “Things can be taken from you pretty quickly.” As a result, “I focused more on experiences than things you can touch and hold.”
There’s always a little tension from the senior staff when someone new comes along with a different way of doing business, Carlsen says. “Most people can get over the age shock if they realize you are hardworking, honest and have the confidence to delegate work to the leadership team,” he says.
One principal Carlsen wishes he knew before he started: “It’s OK to walk before you run.” In one example, he initiated a shift from focusing on full-time enrollment to headcount, and that has taken longer to implement than anticipated.
A focus on vision
For Daria Willis, who started this month as president of Everett Community College in Washington at age 35, “it’s been a really quick progression up the ladder.” She started as an adjunct in history at Tallahassee Community College while working on a doctorate at Florida State University. She moved to Lone Star College-University Park in Texas, where she was named department chair of social and behavioral sciences and president of the faculty senate.
In a relatively short time, Willis served as dean of instruction at Lone Star’s North Harris campus, dean of academic studies at Lee College in Texas, and provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Onondaga Community College in New York.
Willis credits her career advancement to “lots of help from mentors” and “the ability to move around when opportunities presented themselves.”
Every time Willis interviewed for a new job, the question of whether she had enough experience comes up. Her response: “I have enough experience to have made it this far in the process.”
“People told me I should be a dean for at least five years. I rebelled against that,” Willis says. “Being a woman of color can sometimes be a strike against you and the age factor is on top of that. In interviews, I have to compensate for that. I have to prove that I can do so much more, and I focus on the vision.”
People have raised concerns that Willis might find it challenging to supervise older staff members. “I’ve done that my whole career,” she says. She tells staff, “I’m not here to take anything away from you. I want to work with you.”
During an earlier visit to Everett, she developed a good relationship with some students by accepting their invitation to attend a drag show hosted by the student government as a pre-finals stress reliever. “Students were surprised I showed up. I had a lot of time to talk to them,” she says.
While her age puts Willis on a closer level with students, “I can’t say I know all the hit songs, but I have a 15-year-old daughter who keeps me up to date.”
Strong leadership at any age
Ivan Harrell III, who was 41 when he was named president of Tacoma Community College in Washington in May 2018, has always been among the youngest people on staff since his first job as a high school teacher.
“I’ve really had to concentrate on overcoming some people’s thoughts that I was too young,” he says, as he progressed through a series of higher-level roles – as assistant to a vice president at Tallahassee Community College, coordinator for student affairs at Reynolds Community College in Virginia, dean of student services at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland, vice president for student success at Lone Star College-CyFair in Texas and executive vice president at Georgia Piedmont Technical College.
As he’s gained experience and gotten older, it’s become less of an issue. When he applied for the presidency at Tacoma, the board “was yearning for strong leadership,” and it didn’t matter so much how old the candidates were or what they looked like, he recalls.
After having a president who retired after serving the institution for 18 years, the next president left after just a year and a half, he says. Two vice presidents then served as co-presidents as the board searched for the next CEO.
Harrell had a good sense of what was board sought. “They wanted someone who is going to be transparent, decisive, committed to shared decision-making and shared governance and who understands the values of faculty and staff.”
While Harrell understands that his youthfulness set him apart from other presidential candidates, he believes it offers some advantages.
“I’m at the age now where faculty and staff see their children in me,” he says. “They want to act in ways to help protect and support me. On the other hand, there are faculty who are younger and see me as a role model.”
Harrell says his youthfulness shows in his attitude toward life. “I’m serious about the college and the work we do, but less serious about myself. I love to have fun.”
As a result, he says, “students tend to feel a little more comfortable interacting with me.” If he sits down with a group of students playing cards, for example, “they are more willing to share their concerns.”
In relating to older faculty and staff who’ve been at the college a long time, “I let them know I value their longevity at the college and their institutional history,” Harrell says. “I’m also very cognizant of the way I talk to faculty and staff, to give reverence and honor those who paved the way for me.”