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It’s Time for Our Colleges to Embrace Change

By Rod Risley

The process of institutional change begins with courageous transformational leadership.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”  – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

These words describe the world in which community college leaders operate today.

In my more than 35 years in higher education, there has never been a more exciting time to be a part of community colleges than right now. Our institutions have received national attention from media, foundations, global corporations, even the White House. The nation’s most exclusive Ivy League colleges now aggressively recruit community college transfer students. Yet, our colleges continue to face unprecedented challenges: state funding cuts, enrollment declines, too many students entering college underprepared for the rigors of higher education, rising tuition and increased pressure to demonstrate accountability.

Through the work of AACC’s 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges and other national initiatives, we have come to realize that the entire educational enterprise must be reengineered — and quick. To make these changes, everyone involved in the education of our students, from the front office to the classroom, must embrace change. And that process begins with a need for courageous, transformational leadership.

Top-down transformational change is exciting, but often fraught with peril and largely for one reason: culture. Famed author and management consultant Peter Drucker is credited with the phrase, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That’s certainly true for the nation’s community colleges.

How many promising strategies and innovations have been laid to waste, buried by a culture that supports individual preservation over institutional progress — or worse, institutional survival?

Leaders who leave institutional culture unattended when trying to bring about significant change do so at the risk of their professional future and the future of their institutions.

Research suggests it takes seven years to cultivate an effective institutional culture on campus. That is seven years of day-to-day workers forming expectations, establishing boundaries and norms. If encouraging and rewarding change is not an integral tenet of your approach as a leader, change will come slowly, if at all.

Fifty percent of current community college presidents will retire in the next five years, and a much different skill set will be required for community college leaders in the 21st century. To meet future challenges and continue to drive the educational reforms we know are essential to our future, current and future community college leaders must commit to establishing the kinds of institutional cultures that encourage, support and reward change.

What’s your philosophy for change? Tell us in the Comments.

Rod Risley

is executive director and CEO of Phi Theta Kappa.

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