The Cohen Contribution to Community College Leadership

By Eaton, Judith S. | Community College Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview
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The Cohen Contribution to Community College Leadership

Eaton, Judith S., Community College Review

Arthur M. Cohen has spoken to community college leaders on a diverse array of issues for many years. This article focuses on his contributions to this leadership in three major areas: (a) providing a vision of community colleges as collegiate institutions, (b) offering valuable and thought-provoking insight into the current context for community college operation and its future operation, and (c) sharing probing commentary on enduring community college issues.

Keywords: leadership; Florence B. Brawer; collegiate institutions


Cohen and Brawer are the most prolific contributors to the community college literature in the past thirty years.

--Eaton (1994, p. 47)

I wrote those words more than twelve years ago, speaking to the voluminous body of literature contributed to the community college field by Arthur M. Cohen and his spouse and colleague, Florence B. Brawer. Today, that contribution is even larger. It is simply impossible for community college leaders--presidents and chancellors, chief academic officers, or leaders of organizations of community colleges--to study the community college seriously without relying heavily on the work of Arthur Cohen.

To speak of the size of the Cohen contribution does not entirely capture its richness and value. Cohen and Brawer have also produced four editions of The American Community College, the definitive text on the community college and the centerpiece of research that is essential to understanding its history and preparing for its future (1982, 1989, 1996, and 2003). And as director of the ERIC Clearinghouse for Community Colleges since 1966 and president of the Center for the Study of Community Colleges since 1974, Cohen established himself, unquestionably, as the key leader in the creation of a comprehensive research and database for the community college.

These contributions to community college leadership fall into three major categories. Cohen has provided (a) a clear and carefully articulated vision for community colleges as collegiate institutions, (b) useful and provocative insight focused on the current context for community college operation and its future direction, and (c) ongoing thoughtful commentary on a range of enduring community college issues.

A Vision of Community Colleges as Collegiate Institutions

All college leaders must have a vision for the institutions they manage.

--Cohen, Brawer, and Associates (1994, p. 476)

Collegiate community colleges are characterized by their dominant collegiate function, defined by Cohen as "an amalgam of liberal arts curriculum and efforts to promote student transfer" (Cohen & Brawer, 1987, p. 5). Liberal arts study engages principles related to rationality, inquiry, awareness of history, sensitivity to cultures, judgment, and disciplined creativity. The liberal arts are also a way of organizing curriculum, something inherited from universities and modified to meet community college needs. Finally, the "conversion of the liberal arts to something practical" provides the general education that students need (Cohen & Brawer, 1987, p. 11). This is in contrast to treating the liberal arts as an introduction to an academic discipline.

With regard to the collegiate function and transfer, Cohen concentrates on student flow and the portability of liberal arts and other study from one community college to another or to a 4-year institution. Cohen has spent many years working to strengthen transfer in the community college, persuasively arguing for its importance and providing the field with tools essential to determining transfer effectiveness. Since 1989, he has developed and applied one of the earliest definitions of transfer rates that institutions could use to determine their respective levels of transfer success. His efforts resulted in the first generally applicable baseline definition of transfer and initiated an era of calculation of transfer success for public institutions, which is currently used by many states.

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