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Bridging the leadership gap


Graduates of AACC's 2011 Future Leaders Institute Advanced, a five-day leadership program that has been renamed the Future Presidents Institute.

​Retirements among baby boomer community college presidents is prompting higher education institutions to think about new ways to prepare the next generation of college leaders, from grow-your-own campus programs to online doctorate programs at universities.

The community college field has for years known about the impending “leadership crisis” brought on by the expected wave of retirements among its CEOs. In some cases, harsh economic times have prompted presidents and chancellors to postpone  retirement for a few years. In other cases, the financial and political pressures of dealing with decreasing budgets and resulting  cuts in programs and payroll  have moved leaders to retire earlier.

Even though the field has know of the impending retirements, providing a pipeline of prospective leaders has been a problem over the past decade, with high turnover among presidents as well as  vice presidents and deans, noted Terry O’Banion, director of the Community College Leadership Program at Walden University

In addition, even with a gust of new programs emerging in the last few years, there aren’t enough doctoral programs that specifically train community college leaders, O’Banion said.

Growing leaders from within

To deal with this crisis, some community colleges are developing programs to grow leaders from among their ranks. The College of Southern Nevada (CSN) last month held the inaugural session of its Executive Leadership Institute (ELI). Thirteen college employees, from tenured faculty to administrative staff, are participating in the eight-session program, which spans the academic year.

“They’re testing the waters,” said Chemene Crawford, CSN’s interim vice president for student affairs.

Not all participants aspire to be presidents, Crawford said, but ELI will help them understand what executive leadership is all about, and whether it’s something they want to pursue.

CSN is a large institution but “flat and thin” in terms of leadership structure, Crawford said. By cultivating leaders from within, CSN is really doing succession planning, she said.

Throughout the year, participants will assess their leadership style and learn how to lead a  higher education system, and how to handle governance issues, legal issues and finances. Communications is also a major focus of the program. They’ll maintain journals and “inspiration boxes,” write articles for their capstone project, and in May “graduate” together.

Those who don’t move up to executive leadership roles will still benefit from leadership development opportunities, Crawford said.

A system-wide approach

For 12 years, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System has taken a system-wide approach to leadership development with its President’s Leadership Seminar. Nearly 300 people have participated in the program. This year, 17 are taking part in the year-long program. They gathered in October for a three-day intensive to hear from leaders across the nation and also have monthly interactive sessions.

Participants get exposure to different leadership styles and learn about their own leadership style. They also receive three hours of graduate credit from the University of Kentucky.

The program has paid off for both participants and for KCTCS. One of the first participants recently became a college president in the system. Also, 90 percent of participants continue to work in the system, giving what KCTCS President Michael McCall calls  KCTCS “ambassadors” on every campus.

“You can be a leader wherever you are,”  McCall said.

The program has earned support from the KCTCS board. Despite budget cuts, the KCTCS board of director supports the program financially, recognizing it as an investment in employees and in the future of the system.

“The greatest assets we have within our system are our employees,” McCall said.

Revamped AACC programs

Not all institutions or systems have the support and resources for leadership development programs. In response to the need for leadership training, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) runs several professional development programs.

“I think many institutions are looking to us for leadership training,” said Angel Royal, AACC’s associate vice president for leadership development and board relations.

The Future Leaders Institute (FLI) and recently renamed Future Presidents Institute (formerly FLI Advanced) are designed for administrators interested climbing the leadership ladder. The intensive five-day training allows participants to create a leadership plan, meet with career counselors and analyze specific situations that they may encounter as leaders. FLI uses AACC’s publication Competencies for Community College Leaders as a springboard.

But FLI and the Future Presidents Institute aren’t “one-time things,” Royal said. AACC follows up with participants who typically join a network of  leaders in their “class” and develop career-long relationships. They also have opportunities for further professional development through AACC.

For current presidents, AACC conducts the annual Presidents Academy Summer Institute (PASI). Sessions at PASI address issues  presidents face each day.

In an effort to reach more leaders of member colleges, AACC is considering regional  leadership trainings programs.

Changing demands,  programs 

Despite efforts to cultivate leaders, there is still a need for doctoral programs, and not just for presidents and vice presidents. Many colleges are now requiring that division deans and department chairs hold PhDs.

The Community College Leadership Program at University of Texas is well-known for the leaders it produces, and a handful of universities have over the past few years entered the community college doctorate field, including the University of Maryland, University College, which—with former Montgomery College President Charlene Nunley at the helm—has goals of being the premiere doctorate program for two-year college leaders.

However, many universities with traditional community college doctoral programs have scaled back their programs or closed them, according to O’Banion. He noted that many of the larger universities with highly regarded community college research programs or centers, such as Columbia University and the University of California, Berkley, won’t likely create leadership programs anytime soon.

Game changer

Despite the dearth of traditional brick-and-mortar programs, technology is opening up opportunities for new leadership programs. Online programs, such as those offered by Walden University and Maryland’s Morgan State University, are increasingly becoming popular and “feeding a lot of leaders into the pipeline,” said O’Banion, former president of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

The programs are also helping to bridge the minority gap. At Morgan State, a historically black college, 75 percent of the students in the community college leadership doctoral program are black.

Some universities have taken strategies from online programs. In Illinois,National-Louis University (NLU) offers an accelerated three-year program. The face-to-face classes are every other weekend, allowing students to work full-time and attend to other life issues while working on their doctorate.

Whether online or traditional, these doctoral programs have had to adapt to match the changes within community colleges, which have become more complex. Leaders are collaborating more with trustees and unions, and they’ve had to become more entrepreneurial and politically astute. The curriculum at NLU is under “continuous assessment,” said Rebecca Lake, director of NLU’s program.

One leadership skill that will never change, though, according to Lake, is the ability to work with people, from trustees to faculty to students. It’s a soft skill that’s hard to teach, but can make all the difference for a leader.