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Community College Presidents: What Does It Take?

Leadership Abstract

June 2013, Volume 26, Number 6

By Patricia Konovalov and Roberta C. Teahen

“Keep learning. Volunteer to take on tasks you haven't done before; be creative; be confident; never be afraid of asking the hard questions; make the hard decisions, and stand behind them.” These are a few of the many suggestions offered by one community college president who participated in a 2012 survey of community college leaders in the Midwest.      

For this multi-state study, the researchers sought the opinions of presidents and other top community college leaders, including chief academic, financial, development, and student affairs officers. This abstract will focus on the perspectives of current presidents about the required skills, experience, leadership attributes, and priorities for today’s leaders. Their perspectives will be considered in the context of the evolution of presidential leadership roles and responsibilities over the past six decades.

When current presidents were asked to think about the requirements for the next generation of community college leaders, the most significant theme that emerged was the overwhelming need for adaptability. In this turbulent environment for higher education, leaders must be able to navigate the complexities of leadership. Successful next-generation leaders may appropriately be referred to as Adaptive Presidents.

Leadership in community colleges has changed dramatically over the past several decades.  Despite the pace of change, we are reminded that “what have remained during these iterations are the qualities and values of resiliency, adaptability, and resourcefulness that have become hallmarks of community college leadership” (Luna, 1998, p. 44). Those observations are echoed in the responses from presidents more than a decade later.

Today’s Presidents

Leaders were asked about the knowledge and skills that they see as essential in their current roles. Twenty-eight presidents from eight states responded. Although the response rate was only 10%, respondents appear representative of the population of presidents in this region; 27% are female, 23% lead institutions with at least 10,000 students, and 52% are from institutions that enroll fewer than 2,500 students. From a long list of options, leaders were asked to identify the top five knowledge or content areas required for presidents. In the views of these 28 presidents, in priority order, they are:

  • Retention
  • Accreditation
  • Enrollment management
  • Continuous quality improvement
  • Workforce development/jobs/employment

At least three of these areas reflect an internal focus, while two are more external (accreditation and workforce development). Each can be explained by thinking about the current environment. Retention represents having more students and more student credit hours, which result in more tuition and fees, the major drivers of institutional revenues, while also meeting goals for completion. Enrollment management is closely aligned with the interest in retention, yet it is interpreted differently in different contexts. For some, it means enrolling more students, while for others it includes strategically enrolling more students in high-employment-demand areas, in under-subscribed areas, etc. In either case, there are financial implications—more revenues and/or efficiency.

It is not likely that even ten years ago accreditation would have been near the top of the list, but the scrutiny of the U.S. Department of Education regarding many campus functions, including how student financial aid is awarded and used, how a credit hour is interpreted, and how online students’ participation is verified, have resulted in accreditors’ increased efforts to assure appropriate federal compliance and institutional quality. Indeed, accreditors themselves have been subjected to greater scrutiny.

Historically, community colleges have responded to community needs through various avenues, including workforce and economic development. Because it is a frequent community college mission component, the inclusion of workforce development in the top five is not surprising, especially when considering the national challenges of unemployment, underemployment, skills gaps, and the increasing calls for education to produce qualified employees. Yet the inclusion of continuous quality improvement in the top five may be surprising to some, when one considers the disdain many have for incorporation of typical business processes into educational decision making. It appears that the total-quality culture (or whatever terminology is used) has been embraced by presidents, even though its acceptance more broadly within organizations is still limited. A review of the participants in the Higher Learning Commission’s Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP) suggests that community colleges have more frequently selected the accreditation pathway, further affirming that many community colleges willingly embrace this philosophy.  

Presidents were also asked about the administrative skill areas they considered to be important for their positions. In large part because of survey design considerations (avoiding lists that were too long), knowledge or content areas were separated from skill areas. Presidents identified the following top five skills or abilities important for their roles. In priority order, they are:

  • Board roles and governance
  • Community relations/engagement
  • Funding models/financial management/budgeting
  • Resource development
  • Politics (local, state, and national)

Given the current economic and political environment, these findings are somewhat predictable. However, it is not likely that either our Founding Fathers or Good Managers (eras described below) would have identified these. Financial issues, politics, community building, and fundraising have moved to the forefront of the required skill sets for leaders. A review of position postings for community college presidents reveals the increased emphasis upon recruiting a generation of presidents skilled in developing relationships, engaging with communities, making friends, and raising funds. 

The need for presidents to possess budgeting and financial skills is also consistent with the findings of a feasibility study conducted at Ferris State University in 2008 as the Doctorate in Community College Leadership (DCCL) program was being developed. At that time, presidents in Michigan reported a need for college leaders to be more conversant with financial topics (Hernandez & Ewigleben, 2008). Skills with board relations are also of prime interest for aspiring and current presidents, as the president’s relationship with the Board is vitally important to the success of the president and the college.

Evolution of the Community College Presidency

Exploring how the community college presidency has developed over the years will illustrate how roles have changed. Sullivan (2001) succinctly categorized the history of the community college presidency into four generations. He characterized the first generation as that of the Founding Fathers, who built the earliest colleges. The Founding Fathers were known as creative, daring, and unrestricted. He describes the second generation of presidents as the Good Manager presidents. Good managers continued to carry out the work of the Founding Fathers while they expanded the community college mission. This group led colleges through the 1960s and 1970s, a period of rapid growth and abundant resources.  Good Managers also expanded the foundations laid by the Founding Fathers, and by the 1990s, most of this group had retired.

Third-generation presidents were known as Collaborator Presidents. They inherited more complex organizations and were dealing with issues of institutional control. This generation dealt with economic recessions, public distrust, underprepared students, and technology expansion—all considerations for today’s presidents, along with additional imperatives.

Fourth-generation presidents are referred to as the Millennium Presidents. Typically, Millennium Presidents are technologically experienced, skilled collaborators, trained for top leadership positions, and focused on workforce development, fundraising, and relationship development (Sullivan, 2001). So, how do Sullivan’s classifications resonate with the views of today’s presidents?  And, what might the current and imminent generations of leaders reflect? 

Based on current trends, we propose that fifth-generation presidents (2010 and beyond) will be recognized as Adaptive Presidents, as they are challenged to guide colleges through economic, political, social, and global uncertainties that are far more complex than those earlier generations experienced and that may require colleges to embrace entirely new models. 

Top Priorities as Identified by Current Leaders

Presidents were asked to identify the three issues that would be their highest priorities in the next three years. The number one priority presidents identified involved budgeting and funding.

The fact that 96% of our survey’s respondents said that budgeting skills are essential or very important for their position is significant and illustrates the prominence associated with the need for business acumen in the current environment. This need for business skills is sure to influence the development and hiring of future leaders.

Advice for Tomorrow’s Presidents

Today’s leaders are generous in their advice for other leaders. In response to this question—What advice do you have for individuals striving to achieve a key leadership role? —presidents offered the following:

  • Be humble, while maintaining your ego. Never assume you are indispensible--everyone is replaceable, including the president. Own your mistakes and learn from them; know that anything that happens on your watch or under your leadership is your responsibility and you must be accountable for it all. (Don't blame others or whine!) Always look for new and different ways that an issue can be solved; don't fall back on tradition or how we have done it in the past. Again—learn, learn, learn. (This first contribution is a continuation of the contribution from the opening paragraph of this article.)
  • Be a team player.
  • Make certain that you have the stomach for it and enjoy a life of learning, conflict, and interdependence with a fickle public, and a real desire to have an impact.
  • Get as much experience as you can in all aspects of higher education.
  • Learn more; talk less. What you think you already know is not enough to ensure success; you must always be a learner as much as a leader.
  • Be able to work under pressure. Be able to serve as an oasis when others perceive a storm.
  • Read, listen, study. Then speak.
  • Accept that you are one player on the team and neither you nor your area is more important than any other area on campus.
  • You need a variety of skills. Find a mentor that can help you gain experience in many areas.

Presidents reinforced the need for continuous learning. The importance of gaining a breadth of experience, maintaining humility, and working collaboratively were other key components of their advice. So what lies ahead?

Looking Ahead

According to Eddy (2010), “A variety of challenges face sitting leaders, potential leaders, and institutions as they prepare for the leadership openings anticipated in the next decade in the leadership ranks in the nation’s community colleges” (p. 137). Leadership skills are acquired through on-the-job experiences, doctoral education, mentoring, networking opportunities, and professional development (McNair, Duree, & Ebbers, 2011).

Future community college presidents must be more agile, flexible, collaborative, budget-conscious, and technologically adept than presidents of the past. They will be breaking new ground in a changed game. The rules are different; there are, for example, changing expectations for accreditation, revenue sources, and political dynamics. The players are different, with students, faculty, communities, politicians, board members, and other stakeholders all having distinct expectations. Students are more diverse—economically, demographically, and experientially—and they often come to us with greater emotional, economic, and academic challenges. Our colleges face more competition.

Today’s leaders must balance the demands of all of these groups and their expectations while engaging diverse constituencies in the process. The model of the Founding Fathers is less viable today, as stakeholders expect to share in decision-making, evaluating performance, and holding colleges and their leaders accountable. Today’s leaders must demonstrate their accountability through performance measures such as completion rates, retention, financial stewardship, and student achievement of learning outcomes. The presidents in our survey reinforce these expectations as they plan to focus on finances, while being knowledgeable about accreditation, workforce development, and more. 

Playing on this new turf requires flexibility, agility, and the ability to respond intelligently and quickly. A sense of humor will play well too. Tomorrow’s presidents must be Adaptive Presidents.

Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky define “adaptive leadership” as the practice of mobilizing people not only to survive difficult challenges but to thrive.  “Thriving” in this sense means growing, improving, capitalizing on the change. Adaptive leadership involves deep or second-order changes that alter existing values and norms in the organization. (Daly & Chrispeels, 2008)

Beyond thriving and changing existing values and norms, adaptive leaders will also shepherd fundamental organizational changes.


Daly, A. J., & Chrispeels, J. (2008). A question of trust: Predictive conditions for adaptive and technical leadership in educational contexts. Leadership and Policy in Schools, (7), 30-63. London: Routledge.

Eddy, P. L. (2010). Community college leadership: A multidimensional model for leading change. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Hernandez, L., & Ewigleben, R. (2008). Doctorate in community college leadership feasibility study. Big Rapids, MI: Ferris State University.

Luna, G. (1998). Breakpoint! Community college leadership in the new millennium. Michigan Community College Journal, 4(2), 43-51.

McNair, D. E., Duree, C. A., & Ebbers, L. (2011). If I knew then what I know now: Using the leadership competencies developed by the American Association of Community Colleges to prepare community college presidents. Community College Review, 39(1), 3-25. doi: 10.1177/0091552110394831

Sullivan, L.G. (2001). Four generations of community college leadership. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 25(8), 559-571.

Vaughan, G. B., & Weisman, I. M. (1998). The community college presidency at the millennium. Washington, DC: Community College Press.

Patricia Konovalov is a graduate assistant and doctoral candidate in the Doctorate in Community College Leadership Program at Ferris State University.

Roberta C. Teahen, Ph.D., is director of the Doctorate in Community College Leadership Program and associate provost at Ferris State University.

Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 06/01/2013 at 12:46 PM | Categories: Leadership Abstracts -