Serving as president during tumultuous times

The community college presidency represents an amazing opportunity to make a tremendous difference and impact in the community that the college serves.

Along with that opportunity comes an awesome, almost burdensome, sense of responsibility. The work of community colleges is simply too critical and too urgent to not get right.

We must find ways to raise the aspirations of our community, to increase access to higher education, to improve levels of student success and to transform our workforce all while dealing with shrinking budgets, increased regulation, changing labor models and greater scrutiny.

As a young president, this confluence of pressures can initially appear overwhelming. However, there are several strategies that can help bring clarity to the challenging role of the presidency.

Do the right thing for the right reason

As a new president, you may feel tremendous pressure to keep each of the college’s many constituencies happy with your decisions. You tend to question each decision you are faced with:

  • If you don’t renew this underperforming individual’s contract, won’t the union be upset with you?
  • If you sunset this underperforming and costly program won’t the faculty be upset with you?
  • If you don’t go along with this unrealistic proposal, won’t the Board be upset with you?

After wrestling with these types of questions, feeling like every decision is a no-win situation, you should also wonder: “But if you don’t make this difficult decision, won’t students ultimately suffer as a result?”

Rather than attempting to prevent others from being unhappy with you, you must discover that the most satisfying criterion for decision making is simply to do the right thing for the right reason. If a decision seems attractive because it would likely increase your popularity, you can discard that option because it probably isn’t the right thing for the right reason. If a decision seems attractive because it represents the path of least resistance, then it likely is not the right thing for the right reason.

This is an excerpt from the recently published book Generation X Presidents Leading Community Colleges: New Challenges, New Leaders by Martha Ellis and Linda Garcia (Rowman & Littlefield and American Association of Community Colleges, 2017).

One of the very first things that you must learn as president is that it is entirely impossible to make everyone happy. No matter how much you analyze a decision and commit to selecting the best possible outcome, it is inevitable that someone will either be unhappy or will disagree with your decision. It is a fool’s folly to believe that a utopian decision exists, and trying to find the solution that will make everyone happy is nothing but a waste of time.

Ultimately, keeping students’ interests first and foremost in every decision reduces much of the agony in choosing between multiple options. While most decisions that reach the president are inevitably lose–lose decisions (the issues with obvious solutions are solved long before they reach you), choosing to do the right thing for the right reason often helps you sort through myriad possibilities and solutions.

Bring your identity to the presidency

In addition to agonizing over many decisions, a new president may be challenged to try to determine how one is supposed to act as president. The question of wondering how a “real” president is supposed to act may ruminate. It may be comforting to know there is not a uniform description of how a president is supposed to act.

Accept that you are the president and that you inherently bring your identity to the role. The sooner you do this, the sooner you will feel at ease in your position. You cannot separate who you are from the position you hold, and you should not try to. Creating a separate persona for yourself while you are on the job will limit your ability to lead from a place of authenticity. And the reality is, you are on the job all the time. Once appointed, you cannot escape the role of the presidency, so you might as well bring yourself, your entire self, to the role.

Find a mentor outside the institution

As a newly appointed president, you suddenly find yourself with no peers at the institution. While a strong executive team and a supportive Board can help reduce feelings of isolation, the fact remains that every employee at the college ultimately reports to you and every trustee ultimately supervises you. The role of president can often be lonely, and there will be times when a confidant outside of the college will be an exceedingly valuable ally.

Learn to improvise

There is no prescripted solution in response to your registration system crashing on the same day you miss payroll. There is no instruction manual for the myriad challenges a president faces. Rather, a successful president is often called upon to be an artful improviser, and sometimes you must “fake it ‘til you make it.” The role of the president is to consider all facets of the situation at hand and determine the best course of action given the information available at the time.

It may be tempting to think that you are not yet ready for the role of the presidency because you haven’t yet experienced all situations presidents might find themselves in. While you can learn by observing a president from the ranks of the executive team, there is simply no substitute for being the one who ultimately has to make the final difficult decisions.

Just as you can learn a lot about improvisation from watching and observing a jazz pianist, nothing can fully prepare you for the experience of putting your fingers to the keys. Ultimately, nothing can fully prepare you for all the difficult decisions you will have to make as the president.

Keep the main thing the main thing

Despite the turmoil that may be happening at the college, a reassuring event regularly happens: students walk through the doors, they attend classes and they learn. An important role of the president is to deflect the distractions that can find their way into the college, and allow faculty and staff to focus on serving students. While the distractions can sometimes make it easy to “major in minor things,” it is important to keep the main thing the main thing, and   in the case of a community college presidency, the main thing must always be student learning.

Find time to get out of your office and interact with students. Despite the challenges that you may face on any given day, make time to connect with students, learn their stories, and understand how the college is encouraging them to pursue their dreams. It is the best antidote to the stress that is inherent in senior leadership.

About the Author

Kathleen Plinske
is campus president of the Osceola, Lake Nona and Poincinana campuses at Valencia College in Florida.
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