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Fellowships let future leaders see what presidents do

It was in the midst of a frank conversation about a proposed tuition increase—a discussion driven by concerned student leaders at Harper College in suburban Chicago—that Harper President Ken Ender looked over at J. Michael Thomson and asked: “Are you sure you still want to be a college president?”
It was a question Ender would pose frequently; Thomson’s answer was always a resounding “Yes.”
Today, at the end of a yearlong run as one of 39 American Council on Education (ACE) Leadership Fellows nationwide, he’s even more emphatic. 
Thomson, a first-generation collegian who recently became interim vice president for academic affairs at Cuyahoga Community College (CCC) in Ohio, spent six months shadowing Ender through the ACE fellowship—sitting in on difficult meetings, advocating at the Illinois capitol, learning the basics of developing strong student and board relationships, and watching and listening as Ender launched a new initiative to increase completion rates that required community-wide buy-in.
“It was important to me that I spend significant, quality time with J. Michael,” says Ender, who, as an ACE Fellow himself 15 years ago, cut his teeth as a community college leader under the guidance of CCC President Jerry Sue Thornton. “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted him to leave here with, but I knew I wanted him to take away everything he could possibly know about this role.”
What he learned, Thomson says, is that the best college presidents work hard and, more importantly, take on the hard work. They have honest discussions with students and then, when making a tough decision later, they take into consideration what those students said. They develop real working relationships with their board members—a mystery to Thomson, he says, until now. And they have to know what needs to get done, know who needs to do it, and still be the calm voice in the midst of the storm.
“Could I have led a campus myself without this experience? Sure,” Thomson says. “But now, I’ll be able to do it a whole lot better.”
Thomson calls his ACE fellowship “fundamentally transformative” as he prepares to step up as a campus president at CCC, taking the reins of the college’s newest campus this fall.
In a time when community college presidencies are seeing large turnover rates, he says it’s paramount that more two-year leaders have the opportunity for experiences like his.
“We have to find a way to encourage more community colleges to pursue these fellowships,” Thomson says. “While some people are ready to apply for a presidential position, they’re not necessarily ready to be a president. This gets them to that critical next step, in a time when community colleges are as important, or more important, than ever. This is a monumental turning point.”
A dearth of community college fellows
Launched in 1965, the ACE Fellows Program aims to increase the number of candidates well-prepared for a higher education presidency or other top administrative position, strengthening the U.S. higher education system in the process. To date, more than 300 of the 1,500 fellows have become CEOs. More than 1,000 have become provosts, vice presidents or deans.
However, few fellows in each year’s class come from two-year institutions. Thomson was one of only three for the 2009-2010 academic year. Among the 47 fellows selected for 2010-2011, only one hails from a community college.
Both Thomson and Ender say they’d like to see more community college leaders participate as fellows or as host institutions when possible—even accommodating fellows from universities—and suggest creating even more fellowship opportunities, amid a national message from President Barack Obama that community colleges play a critical role in providing affordable, accessible access to higher education.
“Where are small and medium two-year schools going to go when the president of 15 years steps down?” Thomson asks. “We desperately need a large cadre of leaders who are well-prepared and willing to take on the critical challenges of two-year institutions and help transform these community colleges into what President Obama—and the individual communities—truly need them to be.”
In the weeds for months
Sharon McDade, director of the ACE Fellows Program, agrees the program can play a significant role in addressing the specific leadership needs of two-year colleges, adding that the program offers flexible placement options and scholarship monies to help support their participation.
“Our fellows experience decision-making in a larger context that prepares them for assuming leadership roles,” McDade says. “You simply cannot learn such a complex and demanding job, and develop the mentors and colleagues you will need along the way, in a few days or even a few weeks.”
Ender, an ACE fellow in 1994 and 1995, was a university leader when he came into the program. Eager to examine two-year colleges, he spent a year with Thornton at CCC. Serving this year as a host president himself—particularly for one of CCC’s own administrators—was a unique, full-circle twist, and part of the pay-it-forward mentality that he and Thomson say the fellowship encourages.
“Harper may not have had Dr. Ender as president were it not for his ACE experience,” Thomson says. “Dr. Thornton saw the jewel of a leader in Ken Ender 15 years ago, and now Harper is reaping the benefits. Now, I’m thankful to him for seeing the same things in me and being so gracious.”
Ender still considers Thornton a mentor. She recommended him for the Harper presidency. Not realizing that at the time, Ender called her for advice on whether he should consider the position. In fall 2009, she attended and spoke at his installation at Harper.
“Presidents, as a rule, don’t ask for help too often, but if I do need help, I’ll call her in a heartbeat,” Ender says.
The deadline for the next round of fellowships is Nov. 1. Click here for more information.