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College presidents reflect on when to move on

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Former Chancellor Augustine Gallego finds time to balance personal and professional interests.

Make sure your college is on sound financial footing. Think through a plan for your next steps. Don’t commit yourself to too many projects. This is some of the retirement advice offered by current or former community college presidents.

A growing number of presidents are approaching the age when they must confront the tough decisions about what to do next. According to forthcoming study from the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), about 75 percent of presidents plan to retire within the next 10 years. 

“I wanted to work until I felt I had accomplished what I had set out to do,” said Augustine Gallego, who retired in 2004 after spending nearly 30 years at the San Diego Community College District (SDCCD), including 15 as chancellor. “I wanted to leave the institution in the very best financial condition.”

At age 62, he felt “the time was right” to move on. Being chancellor is “so intense, so demanding and so structured,” he said. “I’ve never been able to take more than one week of vacation at a time.”

When he decided to leave, “there was a significant operating reserve, a very distinguished cabinet was in place and the financial condition of the district was exceptional,” he said. SDCCD’s first bond issue, for $685 million, had been passed in 2002.

To have a successful retirement, “you have to have things in place in advance,” Gallego said. “I knew I wanted to stay involved with higher education and wanted to travel to places I’ve never been.” He relocated to Portland, Ore., which is closer to his grandchildren, and finds time for personal interests, such as organic gardening.

Staying connected

Gallego, AACC's 1998 board of directors chair, has maintained strong connections to community college issues. He co-chairs AACC’s 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, which in April issued the landmark report, Reclaiming the American Dream.

Gallego is also involved as a coach with the Achieving the Dream initiative, a trustee of the University of California San Diego Foundation, a resource specialist for the Salzburg Global Seminar, an advisor to the International Community Foundation and a board member for the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

He’s constantly asked to get involved in many other projects, but said, “I’ve had to learn to say no. I retired for a reason.”

“Don’t get hooked into so many activities that the purpose of retirement gets lost in the swirl of activity,” Gallego advises presidents contemplating retirement. Also, incorporate a “quality of life component,” he said. “Now is the time to do those things you always wanted to do but haven’t had a chance to try.”

Peter Contini retired in December 2011 as president of Salem Community College (SCC) in New Jersey, but he prefers the term “step down,” rather than “retire.” At age 68, he was seeking “more flexibility in my personal and professional life” and said, “After 14 years, it was time to move on.”

He’s kept pretty busy serving a six-month stint as part-time executive director of the New Jersey Community College Consortium for Workforce and Economic Development and also doing some community college-related consulting focusing on articulation issues.

When the job with the consortium is finished, Contini doesn’t plan to look for another permanent position—he turned down several graduate-level teaching offers—and intends to continue consulting, do more traveling and continue as chair of the board of a community bank.

When he was selected as president of SCC, he saw it as a retirement from his previous jobs—he had been assistant state education commissioner and school superintendent—and only planned to stay for three to five years.

He stayed much longer because “the work was extraordinarily challenging but also very rewarding.” During his tenure, SCC saw record increases in enrollment, revitalized its nursing program and started niche programs—including nuclear technology and fine arts in glass—to attract more students from outside the county.

For community college presidents looking toward retirement, Contini recommends maintaining one’s health and making sure there’s a balance between family and career—so you’ll be able to enjoy life after leaving the pressures of the job.

If you’re not happy in the position, don’t wait until you can retire, he said. It might be better to find another position that’s a better fit.

“It’s great to have the compensation and external rewards” that come with a high-profile job, Contini said, but “it’s the intrinsic rewards that really matter. Do you really believe in what you’re doing?”

A change of pace

When Charles Chrestman retires from Robeson Community College (RCC) in North Carolina at the end of the year, he will have spent 40 years at the college, including 10 as president.

“It’s time to take a little break from the education business,” said Chrestman, 62. He’s looking forward to a change of pace, although “I could have worked another five years and enjoyed every day of it.”

He plans to return to northeastern Mississippi, where he grew up and owns property and hopes to get involved in economic and community development initiatives.

For RCC, “it’s a good time to bring in someone fresh,” he said. “The college is in good shape financially. We have good programs, enrollment is strong with sustainable growth of 3 to 5 percent a year, and we’re reaching one in five people in our community.”

He timed his exit so the new president will be on board for a few months before beginning work on the college’s budget.

When contemplating retirement, Chrestman urges presidents to talk through the decision with the board president first. The two of them can then decide how to proceed before the rest of the board is informed.

For Kennebec Valley Community College (KVCC) President Barbara Woodlee, making the decision to retire has been especially difficult and emotional because “it’s been my life’s work.” When she leaves at the end of 2012, she will have served as president for nearly 30 years.

She started at the Maine college in 1976 as an adult education coordinator and has seen it grow from a “second-shift” vocational program at the back of a local high school—it offered evening courses only back then—to a 68-acre technical college and now to a nearly 700-acre institution with two campuses.

This will be the second time Woodlee announced plans to retire. When she arranged to leave in 2010, a search for a successor was unsuccessful. Also, at that time, the college had received a major donation—600 acres of land with 13 buildings—so Woodlee agreed to stay and develop a new campus on that property, which had housed a residential facility for disadvantaged youths.

After leaving KVCC, Woodlee will stay involved with community colleges as a part-time chief academic affairs officer for the Maine Community College System.

On her days off, she hopes to spend time with her grandchildren, as well as find time for volunteer work, get more involved in church activities and possibly develop a literacy initiative with another college president.

Meanwhile, “I have not slowed down,” she said. “It’s business as usual. I’m doing everything I can to leave the college in the best state I can.”

She said it’s important for retiring college presidents to understand that “the college will go on and do great things without you.”

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