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What does it take to be a successful community college president?

This is the second article in a series on community college presidents. To read the rest of the series, click here.

On March 12, my colleague Alli Lindenberg and I visited Haywood Community College, our last visit before the coronavirus changed life as we know it. As we toured the professional crafts and forestry programs, the news that all UNC System schools were moving instruction online and pausing face-to-face instruction reverberated throughout the campus. That afternoon, we joined new Haywood Community College president Shelley White and her team to listen to a system-wide conference call about COVID-19.

White, who came to Haywood from neighboring Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, started her new role on Jan. 1, 2020. Little did she know that after only two months on the job, she would be leading her college’s response to a global pandemic.

White joins a growing list of new presidents at North Carolina’s 58 community colleges. Since 2015, 39 of the 58 community colleges have had a new president or will have a new president by the end of this year, and four more have open presidential searches.

Incoming community college presidents are entering the job at a time when the role of president has become increasingly challenging, and not just because of the pandemic. Presidents today are dealing with a number of factors that have made the job more difficult, from financial pressures to changing student demographics to a hyper-polarized political climate to increasing safety and student mental health concerns. Add a global pandemic that is likely to exacerbate these factors to the mix, and presidents have their work cut out for them.

What skills do community college leaders need in order to be successful?

“To be a successful president today, you cannot be one-dimensional,” said David Shockley, president of Surry Community College. Presidents need a different set of skills than what was required 15, 20, or 30 years ago. And as higher education deals with the effects of COVID-19 over the next year, these skills will matter even more.

Through a series of interviews and a survey of North Carolina’s community college presidents, several skills emerged as necessary for the 21st century president, including: financial acumen and resource development, collaboration and partnership building, and political savviness.

Financial acumen and resource development

The most commonly cited skill presidents believe community college leaders need to be successful is financial acumen.

“Higher education has been funded at lower levels since the last recession,” said Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. “It’s come back some, but we are expecting unfortunately to see a shift now. Colleges will have to figure out how to do the same or more with less resources from the state,” he added, alluding to the likely financial impact of COVID-19.

“You definitely have to understand finances,” said Shockley. “Coming in and not understanding a macro budget would be a huge disadvantage.”

Not only is understanding the financial management of the institution critical, but fundraising has become an increasingly necessary skill for presidents.

“One skill set that’s increasingly in demand is resource development, fundraising,” said outgoing Durham Technical Community College President Bill Ingram. “We need to be a lot more strategic in finding the resources that our faculty and staff need to deliver the highest quality of instruction and support that they can. And that’s something that when I came into the office 12 years ago, we were just beginning to talk about it.”

Patricia Skinner, former president of Gaston College, agreed, saying, “There are so many more organizations competing for funds now. The whole role of fundraising, while it was important, continues to be really important now.”

Collaboration and partnerships

Presidents also highlighted the ability to collaborate and build partnerships as a key part of their job. These partnerships include those with business and industry, K-12 schools, and other colleges and universities.

“The president’s job is all about relationships, and cultivating those relationships will either make a president a success or a failure,” said one survey respondent.

Wyner stressed the importance of partnerships, especially with four-year colleges, during economic downturns: “I think partnership will matter more and more. When you have less money in your institution, you can still partner with other institutions. By working with four-year colleges, you can help students make sure every credit counts.”

On the other side, Ingram emphasized the importance of partnerships with K-12 school districts, especially with the growth in dual enrollment.

“The next president [of Durham Tech] will need to understand how the convergence of the high school curriculum works,” Ingram said. “Developing seamless pathways with K-12 school systems is going to be important.”

Skinner summed it up, saying, “Partnerships are so critical with the other colleges in the area and with the schools. Presidents need to work with other people in the community — the business community is so critical.”

Political savviness

Finally, presidents spoke to the importance of being politically savvy, both externally and with their boards of trustees.

“You have to have [a] reasonable amount of political skills. Not R and D partisanship, just a sensitivity to the people and relationships that make up your community,” one survey respondent noted.

As we explored in the previous article of this series, boards of trustees have become increasingly political and presidents must be able to manage them effectively.

One survey respondent explained, “Presidents must be astute in working effectively with boards of trustees and skilled in working with political, community, and business leaders.”

Another survey respondent said presidents must have “political acumen … and the ability to navigate potential perils with the board of trustees.”

Opportunities for professional development

Community college presidents take a number of different routes to the presidency. In our survey of North Carolina’s community college presidents, 65% of the 20 respondents said they previously worked in curriculum/academic affairs, 10% said workforce/continuing education, 10% said student support services, 10% said other, and 5% said they were previously a K-12 administrator or educator. As Shockley’s career path indicates, presidents can benefit from serving in a number of these roles throughout their career.

While previous experience, especially in the community college system, helps prepare new presidents, historically there have been limited formal professional development opportunities for presidents. The North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents (NCACCP) serves as one professional development opportunity. The group, made up of all community college presidents in the state, meets quarterly to discuss issues impacting community colleges and to develop a legislative agenda. Presidents also have the opportunity to attend conferences hosted by the American Association of Community Colleges.

To address the twin problems of increasing presidential turnover and a lack of professional development for new presidents, two organizations have stepped up: the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research and the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program.

The Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research

The Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research at NC State University was established in 2018 thanks to a grant from the John M. Belk Endowment. The mission of the Belk Center includes to “develop and sustain exceptional community college leaders who are committed to advancing college access, the social and economic mobility of their colleges’ students, and the economic competitiveness of their regions.”

“The impetus for our work started when we saw in North Carolina what was happening on a national basis with the transition of presidents primarily because of retirements, but that has also increased by the fact that presidents are staying in their jobs less time than they have in the past,” said Audrey Jaeger, executive director of the Belk Center. “We have the opportunity to provide sustained professional development for presidents during their transition into their role where it hasn’t existed in the past, aside from an orientation.”

The Belk Center provides professional development primarily through the Presidents’ Academy, an executive leadership program that helps community college leaders use evidence-based decision-making to increase student success. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Belk Center has also offered one-on-one support for presidents.

One area the Belk Center has focused on is helping presidents use data to make difficult decisions. “We can provide them data to help them make the decisions, but also help them in the decision making process,” Jaeger explained. “How do you use this data to support changes on your campus?”

Most colleges do not have the resources to have a strong data team, Jaeger said. Colleges might have one data person, but because of the many national and state reporting requirements, they don’t have time to gather and analyze the data presidents actually need.

“We provide a space in which [presidents] can come together and focus on these really important decisions with the data and their team in front of them, and not be distracted by all the other things they have to do in their jobs,” Jaeger said.

Before everything changed due to COVID-19, the presidents and their teams were looking at credential completion and coming up with a plan to increase completion rates. Belk Center staff were helping them develop those plans and connect them to the work of myFutureNC and the statewide attainment goal.

Now, the Belk Center is supporting presidents as they deal with COVID-19, offering webinars, hosting a series of “critical conversations” with presidents, and offering coaching. Read more about the Belk Center’s work here.

Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program

The Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program runs two leadership development programs for aspiring and new presidents. The Rising Presidents Fellowship serves people within five years of assuming a presidency who show “the capacity to be transformational leaders,” according to Wyner. The New Presidents Fellowship serves presidents within the first five years of their tenure.

The Rising Presidents Fellowship, now in its fifth year, is a 10-month fellowship that enrolls 40 fellows each year from colleges across the country. Fellows are assigned to a mentor who is either a sitting or retired president and complete a capstone project focused on a big, institutional reform idea at their current institution. Along the way, they receive training in a number of key skills and participate in three four-day residential seminars with the group.

The New Presidents Fellowship was launched earlier this year, and focuses singularly on student success, including, “student outcomes in completion, learning, transfer, employment and earnings for graduates, and equity for low-income students and students of color.” Four North Carolina presidents are part of the first cohort of 25 fellows.

According to Wyner, both leadership programs focus on student success and collective impact. They teach that student success must be seen as more than just completing the degree.

“Often if you go into colleges, it’s all about completing the degree,” Wyner said. That’s not enough. You’re going to have hollow degrees that do not yield learning or prepare students for the next stage in their lives, and those degrees may mask deep inequities.”

On the collective impact side, they teach fellows how to work both inside the institution and with key partners outside the institution to achieve student success. Wyner quoted Scott Ralls, president of Wake Technical Community College, who says, “We’re not a to college, we’re a through college,” to highlight the importance of partnering with four-year universities and employers.

The importance of mentorships

Finally, one form of professional development has been around for years: mentoring among presidents. As many of you know from your own experience, some of the best professional development comes from those who have been through a similar experience and can guide you and answer your questions, no matter how trivial. Many presidents spoke to the importance of both formal and informal mentoring relationships.

“You always need someone to talk to,” Skinner said. “Sometimes these roles are lonely, and you’re the only one.”

When she started as a president more than 25 years ago, Skinner said she participated in a formal mentoring program in the community college system. She also leaned on a few presidents she knew who had been in the system for a while.

One survey respondent highlighted the value of being a mentor: “I don’t need a lot of help, but I enjoy my role as mentor. I have a group of five ‘future presidents’ with whom I meet fairly often to talk about their careers. That ends up inspiring me!”

Another responded, “Our Presidents do a good job of supporting the new ones as we work together to solve regional issues.”

Shockley has also benefited from mentoring relationships. “I have mentored a few presidents that are now lifelong friends so they still call me, and I’ll call them,” he said. In addition, he is now mentoring three doctoral students at NC State through the Belk Center. But, Shockley pointed out that mentoring is only as good as the relationship between the mentor and mentee.

“When we have the turnover that we’ve had, it’s hard to build those relationships,” he said, referring to the high rate of presidential turnover in the last five years. “You don’t have many of those 20-year veterans, so you don’t have that institutional history of knowledge, and that hurts.”

Some of those recently-retired veteran presidents are now serving on the advisory board and as professors of the practice at the Belk Center. And the importance of presidents like Shockley and others who have been in the role for more than 10 years will only continue to grow.

Molly Osborne Urquhart

Molly Osborne is the vice president and director of operations for EducationNC.