Serving as president during tumultuous times

By Kathleen Plinske

Strategies that can help bring clarity to the challenging role of the presidency.

The community college presidency represents an amazing opportunity to make a tremendous difference and impact in the community that the college serves.

Along with that opportunity comes an awesome, almost burdensome, sense of responsibility. The work of community colleges is simply too critical and too urgent to not get right.

We must find ways to raise the aspirations of our community, to increase access to higher education, to improve levels of student success and to transform our workforce all while dealing with shrinking budgets, increased regulation, changing labor models and greater scrutiny.

As a young president, this confluence of pressures can initially appear overwhelming. However, there are several strategies that can help bring clarity to the challenging role of the presidency.

Do the right thing for the right reason

As a new president, you may feel tremendous pressure to keep each of the college’s many constituencies happy with your decisions. You tend to question each decision you are faced with:

  • If you don’t renew this underperforming individual’s contract, won’t the union be upset with you?
  • If you sunset this underperforming and costly program won’t the faculty be upset with you?
  • If you don’t go along with this unrealistic proposal, won’t the board be upset with you?

After wrestling with these types of questions, feeling like every decision is a no-win situation, you should also wonder: “But if you don’t make this difficult decision, won’t students ultimately suffer as a result?”

Rather than attempting to prevent others from being unhappy with you, you must discover that the most satisfying criterion for decision making is simply to do the right thing for the right reason. If a decision seems attractive because it would likely increase your popularity, you can discard that option because it probably isn’t the right thing for the right reason. If a decision seems attractive because it represents the path of least resistance, then it likely is not the right thing for the right reason.

One of the very first things that you must learn as president is that it is entirely impossible to make everyone happy. No matter how much you analyze a decision and commit to selecting the best possible outcome, it is inevitable that someone will either be unhappy or will disagree with your decision. It is a fool’s folly to believe that a utopian decision exists, and trying to find the solution that will make everyone happy is nothing but a waste of time.

Ultimately, keeping students’ interests first and foremost in every decision reduces much of the agony in choosing between multiple options. While most decisions that reach the president are inevitably lose–lose decisions (the issues with obvious solutions are solved long before they reach you), choosing to do the right thing for the right reason often helps you sort through myriad possibilities and solutions.

Bring your identity to the presidency

In addition to agonizing over many decisions, a new president may be challenged to try to determine how one is supposed to act as president. The question of wondering how a “real” president is supposed to act may ruminate. It may be comforting to know there is not a uniform description of how a president is supposed to act.

Accept that you are the president and that you inherently bring your identity to the role. The sooner you do this, the sooner you will feel at ease in your position. You cannot separate who you are from the position you hold, and you should not try to. Creating a separate persona for yourself while you are on the job will limit your ability to lead from a place of authenticity. And the reality is, you are on the job all the time. Once appointed, you cannot escape the role of the presidency, so you might as well bring yourself, your entire self, to the role.

This is an excerpt from the recently published book Generation X Presidents Leading Community Colleges: New Challenges, New Leaders by Martha Ellis and Linda Garcia.


Kathleen Plinske

is campus president of the Osceola, Lake Nona and Poincinana campuses at Valencia College in Florida.