Last month, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) held its annual four-day seminar for midlevel administrators aspiring to step into higher levels of leadership. Presidents, chancellors and others gathered in Las Vegas to share their expertise with the field’s rising stars at the John E. Roueche Future Leaders Institute (FLI).
Debbie Derr, of Mt. Hood Community College (MHCC), in Gresham, Oregon, was among the presidents to impart wisdom to future leaders. Her focus: organizational culture and its significance on community college campuses. Leaders must understand the delicate balance between respecting a college’s way of life and implementing desired and necessary changes, she says.
Derr worked at MHCC for 15 years, left for 11 and then returned as its 10th president —and first woman president — in the college’s 49 years. It’s her second presidency and fourth community college position, so she has plenty of personal experience on which to draw.
It can be equally challenging for a sitting president or a newly hired one, she explains.
“As an administrator and leader, you have to make decisions and solve the puzzle to respect and honor the culture at the same time that your Board is saying to you there’s some things that need to change. How do you make that happen?” she asks.
In an interview after the conference, Derr shared this guide for aspiring leaders.
What’s the meaning of culture? As Derr explains: “It’s captured through a college’s values, communication methods and strategies — both formal and informal — and how people behave with one another.”
Asking lots of questions is a good place for leaders to start, she suggests. “What is it that you value at the college? Do you practice it through your communication and behaviors? As a leader you have to ask yourself first and observe others to see if you’re acting in a congruent manner,” she says.
Why it matters
“Negative culture impacts the ability for the institution to support the success of students and needs of the community,” Derr says. She adds that it infiltrates the classroom, the faculty, even the work that students are doing outside the community.
“If you say respect and dignity are important but don’t feel it’s being reflected, it will be present in the students out in the workforce,” she adds.
“A formal climate study can be very scary for a president, whether you’ve been president for a while and there are challenges, or you’re a new president,” Derr says. “The most important thing is to do something about it — engage the college to improve the climate and morale.”
Derr explains that a survey can help a president determine a course of action to develop a grassroots, measurable plan for improvement. “See it as a tool, not a threat.”
“At Mt Hood, we had traditions we had given up but were really important to the culture of the institution,” Derr says.
She brought back the preconvocation breakfast, which had been eliminated for budgetary reasons. It allows faculty to have informal conversations and share ideas and strategies in a relaxed setting.
The school also reintroduced its mascot, a Saint Bernard, to promote school spirit. “The students didn’t understand that tradition and why we were the Saints,” she says. “It has helped people reconnect with the college and the culture of taking care of one another.”
Derr acknowledges that presidents feel pressure to get to know people within the college and in the community. To that end, she established monthly “Chats with the President,” open to the public.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for them to get a sense of what’s happening, bounce ideas off of you, and it’s a way to show that you’re not a big scary person in this office on a pedestal,” she says. In the end, “the goal is to have a high functioning institution that is serving the needs of your students and your community.”