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Being a college president has become more demanding

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Ann Marie Murray (right), president of Herkimer County Community College (New York), sets aside time to talk with students.​

Ann Marie Murray had been well prepared when she became president of Herkimer County Community College in New York in August 2008, but she was still surprised by some aspects of the job.

“I had no idea how much you need to know, the amount of information I have to have at my fingertips,” Murray said.

That includes information on government agencies, advocacy and legal issues, along with “business savvy,” she said, adding: “You have to immerse yourself in the culture of the campus and the community.”

The biggest surprise for Murray was realizing how “important your fortitude and strength of character need to be. Decisions have to made very quickly.” 

Even if you’ve worked for a president, as Murray had as a vice president for academic affairs at another community college, the breadth of the job is not understandable until you sit in the president’s chair, she said.

To prepare for her new job, Murray had taken part in the American Association of Community Colleges' Future Leaders Institute (FLI).

“That was very, very valuable,” said Murray, who will be a presenter at the upcoming FLI/Advanced June 26-30 in Baltimore. She will discuss transitioning to the presidency and the lessons she learned.
 
 
What makes the top job more difficult are tight budgets and increasing numbers of  underprepared students, said Helen Benjamin, who is in her sixth year as chancellor of the Contra Costa Community College District (California) after spending more than seven years as president of Contra Costa College.
 
“Fundraising is a major, major part of the job,” she said. “A president has to be very knowledgeable about a variety of funding sources.”

That means creating a foundation or expanding the mission of an existing one to cover operations and instruction, as well as funding scholarships, Benjamin said. It also means working with external groups and non-profits to seek grant money.

Today’s community college presidents need to be more entrepreneurial and more collaborative, noted John Roueche, director of the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin.
 
“The funding colleges had in the past will never come back, so presidents need to do more fund raising and work with other entities on innovative projects, such as developing libraries that are shared with the community or public schools,” Roueche said.
 
There are also new pressures for accountability and transparency, said Charlene Nunley, director of the doctoral program in community college policy and administration at the University of Maryland-University College. Presidents have to understand data and evidence, she said. They also must be adept at advocacy and politics and have a clear sense of priorities and ethics.
 
The main priority for college presidents must be students and academic programs, Nunley said. Whenever faced with a decision, she said, presidents should consider “which decision is better for students.”
 
Succession planning
 
As the CEO job becomes more complex, colleges are having a tougher time finding qualified people. Several years ago, AACC estimated a looming wave of retiring college presidents. That was delayed, however, as the sluggish economy and declining investment income prompted many presidents to put off retiring, Roueche said.
 
Meanwhile, those in position to became presidents—mainly vice presidents in charge of community college academic programs—are also nearing retirement age.

“Almost all community colleges have very senior leadership teams,” Roueche said.
 
Nevertheless, one of the best ways colleges can cultivate a new president is to develop the talent they already have on staff and prepare them for more senior leadership positions. In fact, that’s how Nunley got her previous job as president of Montgomery College (Maryland). She served at the college as a senior administrator when then-President Robert Parilla “gave me every opportunity to take on new challenges and develop,” Nunley said.
 
When Mary Ellen Duncan told the trustees of Howard Community College (HCC) in Maryland that she was considering retiring from the presidency several years ago, they asked her to give two years notice and develop a succession plan. They wanted to make sure the next president would maintain the college’s strategic and facilities plans and continue its work on the Baldrige quality criteria.
 
Duncan then asked all the vice presidents if they were interested in her position. Kathleen Hetherington, vice president of student services, answered the call, so Duncan shifted to her some legislative advocacy, fundraising and other responsibilities. 
 
When Duncan retired in 2007, Hetherington, who had been promoted to executive vice president, was prepared, although the board did review her background before making the appointment, Duncan said. During that period, Hetherington was recruited by other colleges, but she agreed to stay at HCC. And the board agreed that, if it preferred another candidate, it would compensate Hetherington for passing up other job opportunities.
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