Preparing New Leaders for New Challenges

Dr. Karen A. Stout responds to UC Davis School of Education survey report regarding the challenges and longevity of California community college CEOs.

The survey report just released by UC Davis School of Education’s Wheelhouse: The Center for Community College Leadership and Research reveals opinions about the challenges and longevity of California community college CEOs. For scale, there are 137 community colleges in California, led by chancellors, presidents, and superintendent-presidents (CEOs). It’s our nation’s largest system of higher education and has one of the highest rates of leadership turnover.


On average, community college presidents remain in their leadership positions for three and a half years. By comparison, presidents at four-year institutions remain in their positions for an average of seven years.


Many studies and articles about the shrinking tenure of the community college presidency point to a handful of issues and harsh realities, including those outlined in the Wheelhouse report. At Achieving the Dream, we believe strongly in developing ways to address this problem that is, and will continue to affect higher education. Research suggests that 40 percent of our nation’s 1,200 community college presidencies will turn over in the next two years, creating a crisis in leadership that we believe can be moved to an opportunity to further improve the success of thousands of students, by bringing in a new generation of presidents.


In June 2013, together with Aspen Institute and funded by the Kresge Foundation, Achieving the Dream called for urgent action to address this pending crisis. We released a report at a national forum in Washington, D.C., Crisis and Opportunity: Aligning the Community College Presidency with Student Success, which addresses how the next wave of community college presidents and CEOs can improve student success for almost half of all U.S. college students.


In the report, we underscored the need for community college leaders who are able to tackle the challenges that are emerging, including building multi-cultural communities that foster inquiry and action throughout institutions, reforming developmental education, and using technology effectively.


“Community colleges will for the foreseeable future be expected to produce more degrees of a higher quality at a lower per-student cost to an increasingly diverse population. Gone are the days when expanding access alone will be equated with success. Meeting new expectations will require a new vision for leadership. The skills and qualities that made community college presidents effective when the dominant benchmark of success was access alone are no longer the same now that expectations extend to higher levels of completion, quality and productivity.”



Our work at Achieving the Dream includes a commitment to solving this national problem by providing resources for community college presidents. Earlier this summer, we completed the fourth and final session in our 2015-2016 Presidential Symposia, using curriculum for presidents developed by the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. Participants work with national experts in research and practice in a two and one-half day symposium which addressed student success in one of four areas: Engaging Four-year Institutional Partners to Ensure Strong Transfer Outcomes; Implementing Guided Pathways as Structural Reform; Working with Employers to Create Sustained Economic Impact; and Engaging Faculty in Scaled Improvements to Teaching and Learning.


In each symposium, presidents participate in reflective discussion and problem solving, using each other and national experts as sounding boards and advisors for change strategies. These leaders are exposed to best practices for leading institutional reforms drawn from the experiences of Achieving the Dream Leader Colleges and Aspen Prize finalists. They develop personal plans for how they will apply lessons and new skill sets. Presidents report back periodically over the following year on the impact of their plans. 


We believe strongly that educational and professional development programs for our nation’s community college presidents need to emphasize the development of several critical skills common among president who had led community colleges to high levels of student success. Our own research combined with studies such as the one released by UC Davis shine a bright light on the fact that now is the time to prepare a new kind of leader for the presidential pipeline in order to fulfill our promise to improve student success.



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