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FLI prepares the next wave of community college leaders

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​A participant at the Future Leaders Institute gets one-on-one coaching from facilitator Pamila Fisher (right). ​​

​Zarina Blankenbaker has a plan. In five years, she’d like to become a community college president.

She is currently the interim vice president for teaching and learning at Richland College in Texas, and before she attended the Future Leaders Institute (FLI) in 2006, she was a dean at the college.

Blankenbaker credits some of her success as a rising leader to FLI. The program, run by the American Association of Community Colleges, aims to give mid-level community college leaders practical guidance about what it takes to be an effective leader at a two-year institution.

When she completed the five-day training, Blankenbaker said she had the confidence to apply for an associate vice president position.

“I interviewed better because of the topics I was exposed to at FLI,” she added.

In 2003, Lawrence Rouse was thinking about reaching the next level in his career—a community college presidency—and wanted to enhance his skills and knowledge.Click here to read his story.

The topics included leadership styles, community engagement and partnerships, and understanding legal issues. These are practical topics that leaders deal with daily. But the program is also about making sure rising leaders have the drive to champion for their students and communities. 

“They may learn to be an administrator or manager, but we also want them to be passionate about community colleges,” said Margaret Rivera, director of member services at AACC.

Filling the leadership gap

AACC launched FLI in 2003. At the time, many community college staff members, from presidents and senior administrators to faculty, were speeding toward retirement. A leadership gap was feared.

Applications for this summer’s FLI and FLI/Advanced are due April 1. 

Desna Wallin developed the first curriculum for both FLI and FLI/Advanced. A lifetime educator, Wallin served in faculty and administrative positions in community and technical colleges in Illinois, Iowa and North Carolina. She was president of Clinton Community College in Iowa and at Forsyth Technical Community College in North Carolina.

Pamila Fisher, a longtime FLI facilitator and former chancellor of the Yosemite Community College District in California, credits Wallin for designing a program that exposes participants to the concept and context aspects of leadership.

There are other leadership programs, but FLI is the “gold standard,” Fisher said. In fact, in the last year, 17 FLI alums have become first-time CEOs.

At FLI, participants are first asked to assess their own skills and determine any gaps. They are given time to reflect and ask, “What should my next career move be?  What do I have to do to get ready for my next career move?”

Faculty members for the institute are current community college presidents, who are candid about what works at their colleges—and what doesn’t. They are also frank in answering participants’ questions.

Participants also get the chance to meet one-on-one with former presidents, who act as career counselors during the institute.

“I do believe the reason it works so well is that we manage to create a climate that causes a lot of introspection and reflection and the opportunity to share with others in a safe environment,” Fisher said. “A lot of personal stuff that comes up that you would never see written on our agenda.”

About 45 people from across the country are selected to attend each institute. This year, FLI will be held June 26–30 in Baltimore. There also is a shorter seminar, known as FLI@WDI, every January at AACC’s Workforce Development Institute.

Creating a network

When DeRionne Pollard attended FLI in 2005, she was the assistant vice president at the College of Lake County in Illinois. She welcomed the opportunity to expand her professional development. She also appreciated the opportunity to immerse herself into the “discourse of community college leadership” with people from different backgrounds and with different perspectives.

Pollard recently began her second presidency at Montgomery College in Maryland. Much of what she learned at FLI is now “intuitive,” such as helping other future leaders.

“Each of us who are in these types of positions must have a commitment to giving back,” Pollard said.

FLI also develops networks. When Pollard has a problem and needs some advice, she knows she can reach out to the FLI network.

That network is one of the favorite aspects of the program of Jowel Laguerre, who is president and superintendent of Solano Community College in California. In 2005, he attended FLI/Advanced, which is designed for senior-level administrators at community colleges for whom the next career move is a presidency. 

“At the time, it was the most significant professional development activity that I had been involved with,” Laguerre said.

He was then working as the vice president of academic affairs at Truckee Meadows Community College (Nevada). The diversity of participants and the collegiality allowed Laguerre to not only learn from presenters, but also colleagues.

“I had 30 or 40 colleagues who had the same intention and vision and goal and purpose as I did,” Laguerre said.

Both Pollard and Laguerre have maintained relationships with people in their classes.

“The job of being a CEO is very lonely. You don’t have too many friends. Having FLI participants as colleagues and friends that you can rely on is very powerful,” Laguerre added.

FLI/Advanced

Christine Johnson McPhail will facilitate FLI/Advanced this summer, which occurs at the same time as FLI. This year’s program will address the politics of leading, “beyond theory, beyond books,” said McPhail, founder of the Community College Leadership Doctoral Program at Morgan State University. Previously, McPhail served as president ofCypress College in California. 

FLI/Advanced participants will learn to navigate the selection process for getting hired as a president, engage boards and trustees once they are presidents, and encourage constituencies to embrace idea of success and completion.

“We can look forward to a very focused, intense and stimulating program for future leaders,” McPhail said.

Blankenbaker, who also is president of the National Asian/Pacific Islander Council, said she intends to participate in FLI/Advanced in the future to prepare herself for a community college presidency.

Registeration for this summer’s FLI or FLI/Advanced sessions is due April 1. 

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