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2013 June 24 - 12:00 am

POV: Preparation of Future Leaders Takes on New Urgency

It is not news to community college leaders that the pressures facing our senior administrators, governing boards, and faculty are unrelenting. There has been standing-room- only at recent League for Innovation, Higher Learning Commission, and American Association of Community College conferences by attendees seeking collegial fortification, wishing for magic bullets, and hoping for realistic insights about tackling the issues at their home institutions.

New critical leadership skills are required to deal with the changing environment and daunting issues that challenge our colleges, the plunging U.S. global educational ranking and our nation’s competitive position. “For America and states to compete in the global economy, six out of every 10 adults between the ages of 25 and 35 will, by 2020, need to obtain an associate or bachelor’s degree, or another postsecondary credential,” according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Add to these the recent tragedy in Boston, the trauma of shootings and stabbings on our college and school campuses and not-too-distant memories of 9/11. We have a new era upon us which requires heightened sensitivities, awareness, and ability to anticipate, communicate, and respond as never before.

Accordingly, the conversation has also shifted: What questions do we raise about safety while retaining the value of multicultural appreciation? How do we talk about respect when fingers are so easily pointed at someone who does not look quite like “us”? How do we retain the value of the “open door” when rumblings of “creaming” (limiting access to high-GPA students) are percolating to achieve performance funding goals and increase completion rates? How many colleges are prepared to tackle these challenges?

As major state universities quietly relinquish responsibility for their long-term commitment to higher education leadership development, a chasm is growing in the preparation of future leaders who are equipped with critical competencies. Go further, and one quickly becomes aware that community college leadership development has all but disappeared from flagship universities. How leaders are developed requires reexamination as family, work, and 24-7 Internet connectivity suggest new ways of engaging colleagues who are grappling to find time for professional development.

Fortunately, there are well-grounded community college leadership institutes available for mid-career administrators and presidential hopefuls. Nonetheless, a significant gap remains for acquiring professional degrees so that aspiring leaders have the full complement of scholarly and practical knowledge, skills, and abilities to effectively address the myriad of challenges being faced by their colleges, districts, and state systems.

Demands have never been greater on college leaders. We are all too are familiar with the issues and with putting out fires on a daily basis. Colleges are asked to retain open access while increasing student outcomes in an environment in which already-strained resources are dwindling and global competition is at an all-time high.

Our leaders must grapple with increasing calls for accountability and greater transparency; declining financial support; and, ultimately, improving student learning, equity, success and completion. With changing demographics and many entering students arriving ill-prepared for college, leaders must be adept at developing partnerships, effective practices, and key stakeholder involvement to better serve our students, local businesses, and surrounding communities.

With the “greying” of American higher education administrators and the imminent retirement of college CEOs and other senior administrators, the preparation of future leaders to tackle unprecedented issues is imperative. Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, put it this way in Community College Week last December:

“In the end, it all comes down to dedicated and effective leadership, and it is here that community colleges face perhaps the biggest challenge and the greatest opportunity of all. Within the next decade, recent AACC research indicates that close to 75 percent of sitting community college CEOs indicate they plan to retire. Within the next five years, that number is 43 percent. Similar turnover will be experienced among senior administrators and faculty on our campuses.”

Identifying and preparing the number of highly skilled professionals to replace retirees will be daunting. However, it also offers an unprecedented opportunity to infuse new competencies and fresh thinking into the way our colleges do business.

How do we equip leaders who can navigate the turbulent and often unfamiliar waters of regulation, accountability, continuous improvement, acceleration and technological revolution, while ensuring for transformative education and training that lead to meaningful employment for our students? How do we bring our stakeholders out of their “cave-dwelling comfort” (drawing from Christine McPhail, CCWeek, Jan. 21, 2013) to build ownership of solutions, and embed new cultures of evidence, inquiry, continuous improvement, and excitement for the work upon us?

Terry O’Banion urges, “We need leaders who will “disturb the universe.” If there is a chance to make a positive difference in the next five years, what will this mean for current and future leaders?

It will take finesse, determination, excellent human relationships, and partnership-building skills to involve the many stakeholders who can propel or cripple an institution —knowing the demands upon it! We will need to have leaders who are equipped to work effectively with incoming students, entrenched faculty, adjunct faculty, board members, and partners.

In November 2011, National American University (NAU) convened a National Community College Advisory Board (NCCAB) to assist with the review and development of a critical community college leadership development doctoral program to be offered by NAU, pending accreditation. This board of national leaders has been meeting regularly during the last 18 months to identify challenges and issues facing community colleges, needed competencies for future leaders and designs for effective methods to deliver and hone critical leadership skills.

We have learned from a variety of national initiatives, such as “Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count”, that leadership matters — from the top and throughout the institution. The “how” of one leads, involves, and equips others is equally important. Effective, scalable strategies and institutional transformation require commitment, persistence, understanding of data, and involvement — early and continuously. These require professional and leadership development for faculty, staff, board members, and other stakeholders to achieve critical goals.

Can we succeed? It “ain’t the first rodeo” for our seasoned community college leaders. We know that there are no magic bullets. What we do know is that there is a change of conversation—some familiar — but set within a dynamic context. We must examine our biggest challenges and explore examples of colleges meeting them. We must examine disruptive and effective strategies and learn how to take them to scale to help students succeed and accelerate to completion, while closing achievement gaps.

We must be respectful and aware of the fear and resistance to be expected as we ask people to adapt to change, and foster their development in an unfamiliar and turbulent environment. We must learn how to be innovative, draw on best and promising practices, elicit differing perspectives and underrepresented voices, and adopt pathways to student success and institutional redesign that engage stakeholders each step of the way.

Together, and with dedication, professional development, strategic goal-setting, allocation of precious resources, and knowledge of how to implement, we will have better equipped future leaders to take on our challenges ahead.

John E. Roueche is president of National American University’s (NAU) Roueche Graduate Center. He is the Community College Leadership Program (CCLP) director emeritus and Sid W. Regents Chair Emeritus, The University of Texas at Austin (UT). Margaretta B. Mathis is senior vice president of NAU’s Roueche Graduate Center, and dean of master’s and doctoral programming. She served as senior lecturer in the CCLP at UT Austin, and as the associate director for UT-CCLP’s involvement in Achieving the Dream. This article is the continuation of a series authored by principals involved in NAU’s Roueche Graduate Center and other national experts identified by the center. Roueche and Mathis serve as editors of the column, a partnership between NAU’s Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to mbmathis@national.edu or, call 512-813-2300.

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