“There’s a looming leadership void across all of higher education,” said Josh Wyner, vice president and executive director of the College Excellence Program at The Aspen Institute. Nearly 50 percent of community college presidents are predicted to retire over the next five years, according to research by the American Association of Community Colleges.

Many presidential search committees look for someone who will replicate what they already have. They assume that the landscape in the future will be the same as it has been in the past, Wyner said. But the environment colleges operate in has changed. “Presidents in the future will need to understand how to deliver more degrees, at a lower cost, to a more diverse group of students,” Wyner said.

The Aspen Institute has developed a set of tools to help community colleges through the presidential hiring process. Hiring Exceptional Community College Presidents: Tools for Hiring Leaders Who Advance Student Access and Success contains a set of tools designed to help search committees and boards of trustees identify and hire presidents who have the right qualities and abilities to improve levels of student success.

Officials for Aspen, in speaking with search committees, found that boards often overlooked certain key qualities that make community college presidents exceptional, Wyner said. Wyner said some of the most important of those qualities are:

  • Deep commitment to student success. “I’m not talking about if they care, but is it a top priority?” Wyner said. It should be an even bigger priority than institutional advancement, he added. That’s not to say that presidents should abandon fundraising and marketing. But student success should be in their top two or three priorities — if not number one, Wyner said.
  • Change management skills. “It’s time to get a whole college moving in the same direction,” Wyner said. For example, Valencia College doubled the number of degrees it awarded over a seven-year period, he said. To achieve this type of success, a community college president needs to be able to get the entire campus to rally around specific goals.
  • Willingness to take risks. A president should be willing to push through cultural norms and habits, Wyner said. For example, at Valencia, a gym was shut down to make room for a tutoring center.

In combination, those qualities have a strong impact. For example, sometimes college presidents need to take risks to support their commitment to student success, said Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System. For example, the decisions that lead to increased enrollment and its resulting revenue might not be the same as those that lead to increased completions, he said.

Hiring Exceptional Community College Presidents describes the essential qualities search committees should seek and outlines a process they can follow for hiring. The seven tools it includes are:

  1. Protocol to align student access and success priorities to hiring criteria.
  2. Job announcement language.
  3. Scenario-based writing exercise.
  4. Questions for in-person interviews.
  5. Rubric for evaluating candidates.
  6. Scoring sheets to aggregate reviewer assessments of candidates.
  7. Protocol for reference checks.

When Ralls meets with officials starting the presidential hiring process at his system’s 58 colleges, he shares Aspen’s research presented in its earlier Crisis and Opportunity: Aligning the Community College Presidency with Student Success report that outlines the qualities exceptional community college leaders have in common. Now that the tools are available, he will also share those.

Each campus makes its own hiring decision, but Ralls emphasizes the importance of finding a leader who is fully committed to student success.

Aspen officials expect hiring committees to customize the tools for their specific needs, Wyner said. They would be happy to speak with members of hiring committees about how to implement them to meet their needs.

For more information, contact The Aspen Institute at aspenccleadership@aspeninstitute.org. To review Hiring Exceptional Community College Presidents: Tools for Hiring Leaders Who Advance Student Access and Success in PDF format or online, go to www.aspeninstitute.org/policy-work/college-excellence.

Review key qualities of exceptional leaders

Aspen’s hiring tools grew out of the institute’s work for its report Crisis and Opportunity: Aligning the Community College Presidency with Student Success. That report identified the qualities that are essential for presidents to be successful. The 10 qualities of exceptional community college presidents are:

  1. Committed to student access and success.
  2. Takes strategic risks.
  3. Builds strong teams.
  4. Establishes urgency for improvement.
  5. Plans lasting internal change.
  6. Results-oriented.
  7. Communicates effectively.
  8. Financial and operational ability.
  9. Entrepreneurial fundraiser.
  10. Develops effective external partnerships.

Review Crisis and Opportunity: Aligning the Community College Presidency with Student Success at www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/crisis-opportunity-aligning-community-college-presidency-student-success.

Prepare to be a strong candidate for a president position

Ralls observes many individuals who have the potential to be great leaders. He’s not worried about whether talent is available to fill presidential positions when they open at the 58 colleges in his system. But he is worried that some of those leaders will not choose to apply for presidential positions.

Many leaders at the provost/chief academic officer level have demonstrated leadership with student success initiatives and have taken the kinds of risks that show they are ready to be presidents, Ralls said. Community college leaders need to understand academic programs, he said. Many people think the president’s role is to deal with external issues and not to get involved in programs. But from a student success perspective, the leader needs to understand the academic functions, Ralls said.

If you’re considering seeking a community college presidency, Ralls suggests you keep the following advice in mind:

  • Understand yourself and your weaknesses. Many potential presidents think they need to be strong in every area their position will entail. “No one goes in who has mastered all those areas,” Ralls said. Instead, as president, you will build on your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses.
  • Thoughts like “I’m not a great public speaker” or “I don’t have expertise in this area” shouldn’t deter good candidates from pursuing presidencies, Ralls said.

    “You don’t have to know everything but you need to know what you need to know,” he said. That will help you determine how to compensate and who you need to have around you.

  • Let your vision emerge after you become president. Many people feel like they should go into the presidency — and the search process — expressing what the vision should be for the college. But the vision needs to emerge as you engage with the faculty and others on campus and come to understand the college’s strengths and culture. “The vision is not something you bring in. It’s what emerges. You don’t unpack it from your car when you’re taking your books into your office,” Ralls said.
  • Focus on student success. Great presidents need a strong understanding of student success, but they don’t need to know all the answers, Ralls said. Instead, they need to know where to look to find best practices.