Laying the groundwork for future presidents, leaders

Gateway Technical College President Ritu Raju (in green jacket) accompanies Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers on a tour of Gateway's Inspire Center on its Kenosha Campus. Among Raju's experiences that prepared her for the pathway to the presidency was the AACC Future Presidents Institute. (Photo: Gateway)

Community college leaders are both born and made.

Key to the latter are leadership professional development opportunities like the Future Presidents Institute (FPI) and Future Leaders Institute (FLI) offered through the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), both of which will be held this year from June 24-26 in Washington, D.C.

FPI is geared toward those aiming explicitly for the top spot, providing content based on deep research into what new CEOs wished they had known before assuming their roles. AACC’s John E. Roueche FLI provides similar wisdom to those still moving toward the senior ranks, whether or not they hope to reach the pinnacle of their respective institutions.

Developing ties with experienced leaders

Clarissa Cota, vice president of the North Las Vegas campus of the College of Southern Nevada, attended FLI in 2017 when she was business department chair and FPI in 2018, by which time she had ascended to interim vice president of academic affairs.

Cota, who moved into her current position in 2019 and aspires to become a president, advises those looking for leadership development opportunities to start with FLI.

Register for FLI or FPI by June 4.

“It is an excellent opportunity,” she says. “Panelists provide practical advice that might allow you to network with these leaders, who can provide mentorship that is so needed when you are looking at how you move up.”

Cota says mentorship, which addresses gaps in experience among other issues, is critical to creating diverse pipelines of future leaders.

“How are you going to get that experience that’s needed?” she says. “You could stay in the whirlwind of your own particular title or job. But you won’t be able to then move forward.”

Cota found the presidents’ panel at FLI to be particularly informative.

“Each individual had a different journey that you could learn a lot from,” she says. “The Leaders Institute also introduced us to AACC standards and frameworks, which for community college leadership was very effective.”

Learning from similar challenges

Stephanie Fujii, president of Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, Colorado, attended FLI in 2015 when she was dean of workforce at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona.

“I didn’t start attending AACC conferences … until I was at the dean level,” she says. “A lot of my colleagues were at the same place. It was valuable to have the networking and learn about different kinds of systems, and districts and states.”

The training sessions and the emphasis on networking were especially helpful in learning the implicit lessons about leadership, especially for someone who was a first-generation college student, Fujii says.

“We talk about the hidden curriculum for students. There’s also a hidden curriculum for leaders,” she says. “AACC leadership programs work to make explicit the implicit — the things you did not know, the things you did not think about.”

FLI facilitated conversations about the realities college leaders face, bringing in speakers who can share not only their successes but also their hurdles, Fujii says.

“When the shining stars talk about how challenging their job is, there’s something very comforting about learning that even exceptional leaders have had challenges, too,” she says.

This especially resonated for someone coming from the faculty ranks, Fujii says.

“It’s very, very different when you become an administrator,” she says. “Those programs try really hard to prepare us as leaders moving through the ranks to be mindful of the ways in which we are present. … I’m always so very, very grateful for the people I’ve met nationally, and the vulnerability with which people will share their experiences.”

Exploring options

Jason Dockter, vice president of academic services at Lincoln Land Community College in Illinois, attended FLI in 2018, when he was an English faculty member moving into an interim associate vice president for academics role. Five years later, he became vice president for academic services.

“First and foremost, it helped me broaden my perspective,” he says. “I was very focused on teaching and trying to improve my craft as an educator. Obviously, I was aware of other departments and other functions, but this helped expand my horizons and made me more aware of the range and scope of the work we do as a community college.”

FLI provided insights into the types of challenges administrators face, particularly executive-level administrators, and a preview of how to work with different types of internal and external constituencies, Dockter says.

“It gave me a preview into thinking about leadership in ways I hadn’t thought of before,” he says. “The underlying theme that was pervasive was reinforcing the focus on being student-ready; reinforcing the notion that we are here to serve students, no matter where they are and where we are.”

AACC Competencies For Community College Leaders — $35 for AACC members/$50 for non-members

FLI helped Dockter begin to form a network of peers and colleagues outside his college and the state where he’s worked for his entire career.

“I had other people I could reach out to, for advice and perspective,” he says. “I’m in touch with folks who have gone on to become college presidents or provosts or are in other high-ranking positions.”

The institute also helped him better understand different aspects of Lincoln Land, like financials, institutional relations, fundraising, communications and change management.

Information for reference

The Future Presidents Institute built upon the FLI experience but in a more intensive, personalized way, says Cota of Southern Nevada, prompting attendees to ask themselves, “Do you want to become a president? And what is the why?” she says. “And the importance of grounding your approach and your professional ascension upon core values.”

FPI differentiated for Cota the role of a president vis-à-vis vice presidents, deans or department chairs.

“It’s not so much about how to manage divisions, which are large and complex,” she says. “But it’s also much more about vision and mission of the entire institution.”

Cota appreciated the candid advice given throughout the three-day session.

 “Even down to information about your interviews, who your key stakeholders are, what you should be doing in your first 100 days,” especially if you are new to the institution, she says. “We still have an active listserv through our text messaging, of original fellows who were part of our institute. … As a college president, you need this national network.”

Budgets, boards and more

Ritu Raju, president of Gateway Technical College in southeastern Wisconsin, attended FPI in 2022 when she was vice president of academic affairs at Tarrant County College in Texas. She says FPI provides leadership and career guidance on three different levels:

  • The sessions themselves, given by facilitators with diverse expertise, such as a budget session by a president who previously served as a chief financial officer.
  • Networking with the facilitators one-on-one through coaching sessions and CV reviews.
  • Networking with the other participants.

“It creates the proverbial village,” she says. “The session about budget was extremely helpful. In general, to me, the key piece was understanding that it’s a very external role with a very strong internal component. Hearing from a seasoned president about the expectations of the role and realistic perceptions of what the role involved, and also understanding ahead of time of the areas where you might trip up; knowing that if I came across this situation, it’s a good time to reach out for some guidance.”

At the end of the three days, attendees gain a clear understanding of the complexities of the role, Raju says, starting with boardroom issues.

“It was helpful in understanding the role the board plays, and the president’s role in that equation,” she says. “Understanding how to set up those connections with the board and the importance of listening to each board member.”

Building relations with and becoming embedded in the community was another key takeaway for Raju.

“You have a very strong connection with industry partners, with community leaders, with state and regional agencies, with chambers of commerce,” she says. “Understanding that community relationship piece is very important.”

Raju suggests that future participants in FPI go in with an open mind, be fully present, and make sure to learn, network and ask questions as much as possible.

“Also, go in with an updated CV,” she adds.

A day-in-the-life exercise

Jermaine Whirl, president at Augusta Technical College in Georgia, attended FPI in 2019 when he was vice president of learning and workforce development, academics and continuing education at South Carolina’s Greenville Technical College. Whirl wanted to reach the top spot but opted to get some more seasoning first.

The most vivid FPI memory for Whirl is the session in which attendees worked in teams of three and served as president for a day.

“We had all of these different e-mails coming in from board members, students, angry parents, members of the media — a hodgepodge of what a president would encounter,” he says, adding that the teams prioritized which to respond to first and how. “Why is the senator sending me this? How would you respond to him or her?”

Jermaine Whirl (center), president of Augusta Technical College and alumnus of the AACC Future President Institute, visits an early childcare class at his college. Each semester, he attends a classroom to meet with students and faculty and to participate in a hands-on activity. (Photo: ATC)

Whirl has stayed in touch with two teammates, one of whom also has become a president, and the other of whom immediately knew she did not want to do so and has remained a provost. “She was like, ‘No, I’m happy. I don’t want to deal with this.’”

Whirl has developed a leadership institute at Augusta Tech that includes a similar “day in a life” session for 20 full-time employees each year. Three years in, about one-third of attendees have been promoted from the position they held upon enrolling.

“It’s had the same effect on my employees as it had on me,” he says. “What happens if you have a shooting on your campus? What happens if you have a controversial speaker? What happens if a senator’s daughter applied to your competitive nursing program and she didn’t get in? What if you have a RIF due to a shortfall?”

Open to resume critiques

Another valuable aspect of FPI was the thorough resume critique, Whirl says.

“They gave harsh feedback — in a professional manner — to put us in the best position,” he says. “And you got to understand the comprehensiveness of being a president. How do you protect your public image … How do you balance your workload. We talked a lot about board relationships — that helps keep you hired or fired. We had a whole section on finances — how you bond a capital project. It was really powerful. They hit you on all sides.”

In 2023, Whirl came back to FPI to speak, and he underscores that the experience helps attendees determine whether a college presidency is for them.

“By the end of those three days, you will have clarity,” he says. “To me, that is a true outcome. … People look at it as glamorous, from a title or from a salary perspective. This throws you into a tornado.”

About the Author

Ed Finkel
Ed Finkel is an education writer based in Illinois.
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