internal candidate

Tapping Internal Candidates As Leaders

By Sonya Stinson

One community college president shares his perspective on being picked from within.

One of the advantages of being an inside candidate for a college presidency, says Kishwaukee College President Tom Choice, is that you and the institution already know a lot about each other. Choice is one of several Illinois community college presidents who were hired from within the ranks of the colleges’ administrators. He took the reins in 2007, after serving nearly six years as Kishwaukee’s vice president of instruction.

But Choice, who is retiring in December, says mutual familiarity can also present a challenge for the candidate who wants to display a sense of independence along with an understanding of the college’s existing operation and culture. It was important for him to set the tone early in the interviewing process.

“I tried to address it head-on by saying directly that, while I respected the previous president and worked well with him, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to do things and put forth ideas in exactly the same way that he did,” Choice says.

At the same time, Choice notes, his close working relationship with his predecessor gave him a firsthand view of the responsibilities of a president and made for a smooth transition into the role. For other college administrators who might like to lead their institutions someday, Choice offers observations about what to expect and what it takes to succeed:

Have leadership experience at other institutions. As important as his inside experience may have been in his hiring, Choice says it also helped that his resume included leadership roles at another college. Before arriving at Kishwaukee, Choice had spent 16 years at Illinois’ Harper College, where his last post was vice president of academic affairs. Having career experience in both academic and student affairs was a plus.

“I think that has helped in my role as president, because I know a little bit about other parts of the house besides just instruction,” Choice says.

Get ready to answer to a committee of bosses. “We’ve had wonderful boards here, so that’s been a fairly easy transition for me,” Choice says. “But it still takes some getting used to when you report to seven people instead of one.”

Fundraising is your job. Choice also had to get accustomed to his role as the college’s chief fundraiser and ambassador within the community. In fact, because of his preference for working with students and faculty rather than handling those particular aspects of academic leadership, he never really aspired to be president, until the job opened up; time had changed his perspective.

“It was a different point in my life, and I thought, ‘It wouldn’t be so bad to be raising funds for this institution, because I really believe in the institution, and I’m happy to tell the story of the college and ask people for money,’ ” Choice says.

Kishwaukee’s board of trustees has just undertaken a national search for Choice’s replacement, and interested internal candidates have been encouraged to apply. Choice is looking forward to doing some traveling with his wife before considering a possible return to teaching, perhaps in a doctoral program in community college administration.

“I do miss teaching, and I think maybe it would be fun to get back in,” he says.

Sonya Stinson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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