Striking a balance

Tim Cook, who became president of Oregon's Clackamus Community in 2018, says using an attorney for his contract negotiation helped to clarify his roles and responsibilities. (Photo: Clackamus Community College)

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 comes from the current issue 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.

Seek assistance

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.

Tim Cook, president of Clackamas Community College in Oregon City, Oregon, went into his talks last spring minus an attorney, believing it would be enough to discuss employment details with past presidents and study contract parameters online. Cook then got what he calls “really good advice” from a colleague who emphasized how that first contract is the foundation for all future negotiations.

“I came in wanting to make a good impression with the board, so I thought doing it informally would be best,” Cook says. “But you only get one shot at this. You should be protected and you’re going to need a professional to weigh that. Some presidents think they’re not in the position to ask questions.”

Clackamas used a previous presidential contract as a starting point, a decade-old document that Cook’s attorney cleaned up. The parties addressed salary early on, spending equal time on intangibles like car and cell phone stipends, along with professional development opportunities allowing the new president to attend leadership seminars and other events.

Cook’s representation also settled on fair dismissal procedures, agreeing to six-month compensation for release without charge and an opportunity for Cook to submit a rebuttal if Clackamas terminates him with cause.

“I thought coming in with an attorney would make it an ‘us versus them’ kind of thing,” says Cook. “But it really helped clarify my roles and responsibilities. It set me up well.”

Money matters

Whether an initial contract or renewal, college and university salaries are receiving heightened attention in light of anemic state funding growth for higher education. Although a Grapevine survey revealed that states spent 3.7 percent more supporting higher education in fiscal year 2018-19, the expenditures were uneven nationwide, reflecting the ongoing struggle for institutions to procure needed dollars. Two-year colleges across the country are feeling the bite of lost funding, leading to painful reductions in programming and staff, alongside an amplified element of caution when it comes to hiring new leadership.

“Money is a sensitive subject for colleges,” Pulliams says. “A board may offer too much and that causes a bind with faculty, staff and the community.”

As removing financial and academic barriers for underserved populations is the community college model, asking for fair compensation over an exorbitant salary stood at the forefront of Cook’s mind during his negotiations.

“We need to be responsive to the community and indicate we’re a good value,” Cook says. “I didn’t want to come in and demand some crazy figure, which is why I wanted to see the compensation around the state.”

While three-year terms are most common among community colleges — per a 2017 study from the American Council on Education — the decade’s administrative churn has some institutions including longevity clauses in new contracts. Under the guidance of Pulliams and Gold Hill Associates, the Clackamas board added a clause to Cook’s contract that places $10,000 in a separate account every year for the next five years. The president will then have access to those funds at the end of the fifth year.

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“We had a give-and-take on that provision before reaching an agreement, but (Pulliams) said if you want to keep your president, you should provide a financial incentive that pays out after X number of years,” says board member Greg Chaimov.

Regarding annual salary, talks briefly snagged when reviewing the contract of Cook’s predecessor and realizing she intentionally underpaid herself. However, researching administrative pay at comparable institutions gave Clackamas a stronger basis to negotiate the right deal.

“We knew what the playing field was,” Chaimov says. “We also knew we had to have a professional and cordial negotiation if we were going to get out of the gate correctly with Dr. Cook.”

A willingness to compromise extended to Cook’s current housing situation, Chaimov says. Typically, Clackamas presidents live within the college district, a provision the board eliminated so Cook could stay in the community where his children attended school.

“We decided early on that we weren’t going to ask him to move,” said Chaimov. “It’s become a win-win for both of us.”

Read more of the story, including contract renegotiations.

About the Author

Douglas J. Guth
is a writer based in Ohio.