The Need for Leadership in Community Colleges

In our almost 120-year history, the community college has evolved through many stages, and each stage has required a different kind of leader – leaders who build, leaders who consolidate, leaders who negotiate, leaders who partner. At this stage in the continuing evolution of the community college, national leaders from the White House to the State House and from major foundations are calling on the community college to play a key role in the student success agenda which has become the overarching mission of the contemporary community college. If we are to achieve even a modicum of success in reaching the goals of the student success agenda, we need leaders who will, in the words of poet T. S. Eliot, “disturb the universe.”

The 21st Century Commission on the Future of the Community College warned us that “The American dream is at risk. Because a highly educated population is fundamental to economic growth and a vibrant democracy, community colleges can help reclaim that dream. But stepping up to this challenge will require dramatic redesign of these institutions, their mission, and, most critically, their students’ educational experiences.”

The commission report concluded that “Change cannot be achieved without committed and courageous leaders… Community colleges have been developing leaders to maintain the inherited design. They need now to develop leaders to transform the design.” That is to say, we now need leaders who will “disturb the universe.”

In our Community College Leadership Program at Kansas State University, we are looking for current and aspiring leaders “who are willing to disturb the universe.” Such leaders are risk-takers. They have a strong set of values. They are known for their integrity. They are robust and energetic. Their reward is providing quality and timely education and service to our students, college, district, and the community. They believe that it is possible to revive, redesign, and transform an institution. They understand the value of fostering a shared vision for what a college should and can be.

Without this kind of effective leadership, the student success agenda will never reach its goals or full potential. To succeed, the numerous foundation-funded initiatives; the adoption of high impact practices; the partnerships with secondary schools, universities, and business and industry; the creation of a culture of student success require strong leaders.

  • George Boggs: “For community colleges to realize their maximum impact, strong, stable, courageous, and effective leadership is essential.”
  • The 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, Reclaiming the American Dream (AACC, 2012) noted that “While many things need to happen to accomplish institutional transformation, none of them will happen without leadership. The leadership challenge becomes all the more critical in light of three trends:
    • The pool of current leaders is graying and approaching retirement.
    • The pool of potential presidents is shrinking.
    • The continuous rotation and re-composition of governing boards mean that at any given time a significant number of board members are relatively new to their responsibilities.”
  • In the report, Renewal and Progress: Strengthening Higher Education Leadership in a Time of Rapid Change, The Aspen Institute, May 2017 the authors suggested that “The ability of higher education to flourish will require an expanded and more diverse pool of talented individuals who aspire to and are prepared for the college presidency. Developing and supporting these new leaders is urgent.”
  • Competencies for Community College Leaders: “Institutional transformation cannot take place without the development and continual improvement of a college’s leadership. Successful leaders move institutions to achieve high and improving student success rates. We need dramatic steps—a greater sense of urgency and alignment—if we wish to change the student success results. The expectations we have of our leaders are different from past expectations; priorities must shift to accountability for improving student success. There needs to be deliberate preparation in order to produce leaders with the right competencies, particularly competencies in risk taking and change management” (AACC, 2013).

The pool of potential applicants for the CEO and other senior community college positions being hired with the requisite skills required to “hit the ground leading” is shrinking. Between May 1, 2012, and April 15, 2013, approximately 146 first-time presidents were hired, with many not having had professional development in the essential areas of budgeting, academic management, and fundraising. In addition, many CEOs have to build new leadership teams that may be in the same position as the CEO, not having had extensive and meaningful professional development in the areas in which they are expected to lead. Each year since 2001, more than 500 new, senior level administrators (e.g., chief academic, student services, or business officers) have been hired, and 80 to 100 new, first-time community college presidents have come on board.

Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of AACC, recently said“According to AACC’s membership database, there have been a total of 703 presidential transitions in community colleges since July 1, 2011. That is more than one-half of all public community colleges in the nation. Transitions included interim appointments, new CEO appointments, and appointments of veteran presidents from another college. From 2011 to 2012 there were 134 transitions, from 2012 to 2013 there were 158 transitions, from 2013 to 2014 there were 178 transitions, and from 2014 to 2015 there were 229 changes.” Bumphus referred to these events as a “tsunami of transitions.”

"Akin to the idea of a “leadership lab,” the cohort prepares current and aspiring leaders to go beyond learning transactional skills, to honing strategic transformational leadership that equips them to address societal and economic challenges while serving students, the college, and the community-at-large. From the initial orientation, doctoral students identify and foster shared values and a culture for their respective cohort and institution. By using college/district data and projects, students have opportunities to apply theory, participate in learning communities of inquiry, and gain from the knowledge and experiences from incoming faculty and other national leaders who serve as distinguished lecturers."
Margaretta B. Mathis, Ph.D., Senior Director, John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership and Professor of Practice, Department of Educational Leadership, K-State College of Education

Community College Leadership Program

Margaretta B. Mathis, Ph.D.
Senior Director

Dora Pérez, Ph.D.
Assistant Director, Programs and Projects