Real change requires a long-term commitment

By Ellie Ashford

Presidents share how they stay fresh and passionate about their work.

These days, a growing number of community college presidents stay at their institution for five or six years before moving on, but leadership experts observe that presidents who stay a decade or longer typically make lasting improvements in student success.

The current board chair of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and two previous AACC board chairs – all of whom have served their colleges for about 16 years – will discuss this further at a session during the AACC Annual Convention in New Orleans April 22-25.
Mary Spilde, who headed the board in 2009-10, says maintaining a “very active engagement in the life of the college and the real work of the college” has helped her stay energized as president of Lane Community College in Oregon.

“These jobs are way more complex than when I started 16 years ago,” says Spilde, who plans to retire in June. Budgeting, accountability and accreditation have become more complicated, as funding has shrunk and new demands have been placed on community colleges. But those parts of the job are just a means to an end.

“Engaging students and faculty is what’s really important to me,” says Spilde, who enjoys talking with students about what makes them successful.

Lane is part of the Achieving the Dream (ATD) network of colleges, and Spilde finds “learning about where we go next with ATD and student success strategies is very energizing. That goes to the core mission and the heart of what we do.”
She also finds that teaching in a doctoral program at Oregon State University for future community college leaders “keeps me alive in my work” as a president.

Building relationships

Jane Karas has had a long tenure at Flathead Valley Community College (FVCC) in Montana – a couple of years as a vice president before being named president in 2001 – because “I love the community, the students and faculty,” she says. “I have a great board. It’s been a great fit.”
“Having been here for long time, I’ve been able to build positive relationships with business and industry,” says Karas, who served as chair of the AACC board of directors in 2013-14.

It’s a challenging job, but keeping energized is critical to the college’s success, Karas says. She keeps the commitment alive by continually finding ways to engage with students and faculty, connecting with the community and learning how the college can better meet the community’s needs. Strategic thinking and planning are integrated into everything she does.

Among the changes during her presidency: FVCC doubled in size; many new programs were added, including a study abroad initiative; and partnerships with K-12 schools and four-year institutions have expanded. At FVCC, “we focused on how we can meet the needs of our students and ensure they can succeed in a global economy,” Karas says.

A covenant with the board

A new president who plans to stay for the long term needs to start by establishing a good relationship with the board, says Daniel Phelan, who served as president of Southeastern Community College in Iowa for about 14 years before becoming president of Jackson College in Michigan in 2001.

“To keep yourself and your institution fresh, you need to have the latitude to take risks and to fail sometimes,” says Phelan, who is the current AACC board chair. That means developing “a covenant with the board to effectuate change that is sustainable in the long term” and encourages the board and president to support one another through good times and bad.

But it takes time for the board and president to trust one another enough so they can “weather through the difficulties and take risks,” he says.
“In most cases, if you’re not going to be around for seven to 10 years, it’s best not to make any big changes,” Phelan says. “Quick fixes aren’t going to be successful in the long term.”

He notes that the presidents of community colleges that have won the Aspen Prize have been in their positions for at least 10 years. “These are presidents who’ve been toiling in the fields of cultural development and have a long-term vision of what the culture should be,” he says.

Understanding the culture of the college is critical, Phelan says. “It’s a multifaceted beast,” incorporating the college’s values, mores, problems, failures and hopes – everything from the impact of budget woes to enrollment traumas and union issues.

This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in Community College Daily. Read the full article here.

Ellie Ashford

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.