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2008 August 29 - 12:00 am

POV: Dancing with Porcupines

Philosopher and thinker Peter Drucker has said, “Every few hundred years throughout western history, a sharp transformation has occurred.  In a matter of decades society all together rearranges itself—its world view, its basic values, its social and political structures, its arts, its key institutions.  Fifty years later a new world order exists. . . Our age is such a period of transformation.”

Drucker has also considered the situation of schools in this age of transformation and observed, “It is a safe prediction that in the next 50 years, schools and universities will change more and more drastically than they have since they assumed their present form more than 300 years ago when they organized themselves around the printed book.”

Community colleges, closely connected to their communities and responsible for the toughest tasks in higher education, are subject to more change than most institutions of higher education.  Providing leadership in a community college in the early years of the 21st century is like dancing with porcupines:  all the challenges are prickly ones.

Here are some of the questions confronting community college leaders.

How many paradigm shifts can we manage at the same time—shifts in learning and teaching, in governance and management, in federal and state funding, in our basic mission?  To what extent are these shifts the fads of the moment?  If these are substantive and long-term shifts, how do we prepare our institutions, our faculties, our trustees, our communities for the changes?  How do we prepare ourselves to provide leadership for these changes?

What are the limits of our mission as a college of the community?  What should we emphasize?  Give up?  Add on?  What does the community want and need? What can we afford?  How far are the faculty willing to go?  How far are the trustees willing to go?  How far are the leaders willing to go?

What is the nature of change?  Can it, should it be managed?  How is today’s change connected to the change addressed yesterday and to the change to be addressed tomorrow?  What are the consequences of ignoring change?  How much change can an institution tolerate? Is chaos our friend?

How do we plan for technology, knowing that our costly equipment will be out of date in a few years?  Will our faculty use the technology to improve teaching and learning in dramatic new ways or only to extend what they are already doing?  Where can we find and how can we afford the expertise to help us create technology plans and staff training programs? How much should we invest in distance education?  How can technology help us manage change?

How do we change the policies that limit our ability to lead change—federal and state policies, policies embedded in traditional education, policies we have created ourselves?  Would we know what to do if there were suddenly no limiting policies?

How do we fund the changes?  Do we become more entrepreneurial than we already are?  Do we have to seek more support from the community?  Do we create more beneficial alliances with business and industry?

What is our role as leaders in the political arena?  Do we try to directly influence the political power base in our community, our state or province, the nation?  If so, how do we do this without getting caught in the crossfire of partisan politics?

Where can we find and how do we hold on to a core leadership team to help manage the change?  Where will we find program managers and department chairs to lead front-line changes?  Where will we find the new faculty to replace the retirements?  Where will we find the diverse faculty and staff we need?

What is the proper role of a leader in managing institutional change?  What are the limits of leadership, the limits of authority, the limits of power?  Who has the right, the responsibility, to summon the institution to embrace change?  How do we tap into the natural needs for change that exist in all organizations?  Does the leader herald change, herd change, ride change, follow change, or lie back and enjoy change?

These questions raise thorny issues for community college leaders, issues for which there are no easy answers.  The instructions for dancing with porcupines have yet to be written.  But the leaders of the 21st century community college have been invited to the dance, and dance they must—awkwardly or gracefully—and always very, very carefully.  

— Terry O’Banion
President Emeritus, League for Innovation

Reprinted courtesy of the Community College Times

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