Why Some Presidents Postpone Retirement

By Emily Rogan

While community colleges face a leadership crisis, there are some presidents who are sticking around. Here’s why.

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the percentage of adults who continue working after age 65 has increased 6 percent, from 11.7 to 17.7, over the past 10 years. In fact, that same age group has seen the largest growth, compared with other age groups, and is predicted to increase to 31.9 percent by 2022.

At the same time, concern over the number of predicted retirements of presidents and CEOs — often described as the leadership crisis — has been growing in the community college world.

However, while many presidents have recently retired, says Narcisa Polonio, executive vice president for education, research and board leadership at the Association of Community College Trustees, others are taking longer than they originally planned.

“They’re doing well, and they’re healthy,” Polonio says. “Boards are wise to recognize good talent; it takes a lot of years, and they don’t want to lose that.”

Benefits of an older leader

Polonino says community college presidents often stay for the excitement and the love of the job.

Such is the case with Glen Gabert, president of Hudson County Community College (HCCC). Almost 71 years old, Gabert has been in his position for 23 years and has been in the field for 44 years.

“There are a lot of projects here that I want to finish,” Gabert says. “The politics are complicated and layered; knowledge and experience are crucial.”

According to Gabert, an older leader brings to the position several qualifications that a younger, less experienced president might not have. These include gravitas within the community; a certain level of earned respect; politically useful resources to protect the college against encroachment; influence with other organizations; and long-standing relationships.

“The longer you are president, you become the brand of the institution,” Gabert says. “Not in an ego way,” he adds, but in terms of relationships with the board, political partners and the community.

Continuity in leadership matters

Gabert points out that almost half of his 11-member board are his age. Boards worry about losing top leaders and finding qualified replacements to step in, Gabert says.

“I have personal reasons to stick around a few more years,” he says. He’d like to see the newest addition to the campus — a $25 million STEM building — completed.

Gabert knows other presidents who are choosing to delay their retirements for similar reasons. For example, colleagues his age whose schools were affected by Hurricane Sandy want to work a few more years to make sure their colleges have fully recovered.

Concerns about succession

The business of community colleges has changed significantly over the years, according to Gabert, and he believes that trend will continue. As such, future leaders need to be both suitable and qualified.

“Our whole industry is going to change,” Gabert says. “Technology is going to make us more competitive, credit hours will change, semesters will change and enrollments are falling.” The role of president, Gabert adds, is to “steer that change” and to be “someone who understands and can lead.”

To that end, Gabert believes that many older presidents are being “profoundly” encouraged to continue. “They understand in a meaningful way the collaborative nature of the board and the chief operating officer.”

Emily Rogan

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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