When Board of Trustees Chair Dorothy Blakeslee was interviewing applicants to fill the presidency at Bergen Community College in New Jersey last fall, she saw many promising candidates. She also met a few who stood out for the wrong reasons.
“I was most impressed with the people who knew themselves and who gave thoughtful responses to our questions,” she says. “Candidates who weren’t quite sure of who they were, who defaulted to buzzwords that were popular at the time, were not as impressive.”
Individual trustees are often looking for different qualities in a community college president, and it can be challenging for a diverse group of stakeholders to agree on what they want. Boards that function most effectively work together to establish a clear set of criteria at the outset of the hiring process, and they share this list with candidates so there are no secrets.
While the standards can vary widely from one college to another, trustees are generally looking for high-character leaders who communicate well, who are authentic and transparent, and who put the needs of the college community first. These qualities not only make presidents more likely to succeed as leaders of their institution; they can also help presidents forge effective working relationships with the boards who oversee them.
Be open, honest and available
Blakeslee says she and her colleagues hired a stellar communicator in Eric Friedman, who served as executive vice president and provost/chief operating officer at Hudson County Community College in New Jersey before becoming Bergen’s eighth president on Jan. 1.
As board chair, Blakeslee communicates with Friedman on a regular basis to make sure she and her fellow trustees know what’s happening at the college.
“We Zoom fairly often, we text very often, and we talk on the phone at least once a week,” she says. “It’s not uncommon for me to get a text from him every other day, keeping me apprised of how things are going.”
Establishing good relationships with trustees and being open and honest with stakeholders are critical factors in a president’s success, says Barbara Lovenheim, board chair for Monroe Community College in New York.
College presidents can lose the trust of board members when their agenda conflicts with the board’s values or when their vision no longer aligns with the board’s priorities. Lovenheim says that hasn’t happened at Monroe during her tenure — and she credits this to frequent communication with the institution’s president.
“We address any issues head on before they have a chance to become a problem,” she observes.
For Blakeslee, effective communication goes well beyond how the president interacts with trustees. The day after the March 16 spa shooting sin Atlanta that targeted mostly Asian women, Friedman sent out an invitation to the college’s Asian community to gather online and talk about what happened.
“That’s an example of a great communicator,” she says. “He makes himself available even in difficult situations. That’s what you want from any college president. You need to have someone who is there for the larger community.”
At Bergen, the process to replace the college’s seventh president, Michael D. Redmond, began in 2019 after Redmond announced that he would retire at the end of the calendar year. The search process was interrupted by Covid last spring, and it resumed with interviews held via Zoom in the fall.
As a group, the college’s trustees came up with a list of criteria for their search. For instance, they wanted someone who had both teaching and executive experience. Blakeslee had her own ideas of what she was looking for in a candidate as well.
“I wanted someone who was innately a good person,” she says. “Someone who didn’t have any agenda other than moving the college forward, and someone who would operate with a very strong moral code.”
Redmond had been chosen from within after serving in a variety of roles at the college. The trustees hired Friedman from nearby Hudson County, only 20 miles away. Blakeslee says there are advantages and disadvantages to hiring someone from within the college.
“When you hire from within,” she explains, “that person knows the college and its culture well, so the learning curve isn’t as significant. However, you’re apt to deal with public relations questions, such as: Did you really find the right person for the job?”
As with the qualities that trustees are looking for in a president, the board’s approach to oversight can differ from college to college.
“I’ve been told our board is a little more involved with the school than other boards are,” Blakeslee says. “Everyone takes their role as a trustee very seriously. We don’t just show up to monthly meetings and that’s it. We have a real appreciation for how the college is a critical part of the community.”
Monroe Community College also hired a new president recently: DeAnna R. Burt-Nanna, who formerly served as vice president of student and academic affairs for South Central College in Minnesota, was named the college’s sixth president in December. Because Monroe is a member of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, its board worked in conjunction with the SUNY board of trustees on the selection process.
“As a board, we came up with a list of presidential expectations that guided the hiring process,” Lovenheim says. These included the ability to communicate transparently, work effectively with union personnel, and have strong financial knowledge.
Like Bergen, Monroe worked with executive search firm Pauly Group to find suitable candidates. Lovenheim co-chaired the hiring committee along with the college’s faculty senate representative. Each chose 12 people to serve on the committee, drawing from all stakeholder groups when inviting participants.
“I wanted involvement from all areas of the college and also from the Rochester community, so that when the new president came in, everyone would feel supportive,” she says. “I felt like I was directing ‘Ben-Hur.’ But our process gave everyone a sense of ownership, and it worked extremely well.”
Similar to Bergen, Monroe faced challenges in hiring a new president during the pandemic.
“I never met the person we hired to be president of the college face to face,” Lovenheim says. “It was all done on Zoom. How do you make people understand who you are as a community and make them feel welcome from a distance?”
To answer this question, members of the search committee sent each finalist a welcome basket filled with items from the college and the community. To make the online interviews more tolerable, they also had lunch delivered to the candidates from their favorite restaurant.
“We wanted to reach out to them as people and establish a connection,” she notes.