Academic journal article Community College Review

Leaders as Linchpins for Framing Meaning

Academic journal article Community College Review

Leaders as Linchpins for Framing Meaning

Article excerpt


Community college leaders serve as linchpins for framing meaning on campus. The current pressures on institutions (given declining financial resources, demands for accountability, changing faculty ranks, and societal need for new knowledge) require presidents to juggle multiple priorities while presenting a cohesive message to campus constituents. This study examined how the presidents at nine community colleges communicated with college constituents and framed the meaning of those communications to help the college community make sense of ongoing change. Interviews with the presidents, as well as with key administrators, faculty members, and staff members, revealed that the presidents used emissaries to disseminate information in four distinct ways. Study findings also showed that the presidents framed the meaning of their communications through visionary framing (emphasizing future possibilities), step-by-step framing (emphasizing the immediate next steps required to achieve institutional goals), or connective framing (emphasizing dialogue and collaborative learning).


college presidents, communication strategies, leadership, organizational change


College leaders are judged by what they say and do on campus. Campus constituents come to their own conclusions about what is going on based on how presidents communicate their vision and plans. Leaders, then, must have the ability to frame information on their campuses as well as the ability to frame how constituents make meaning of that information (Eddy, 2003; Fairhurst & Sarr, 1996; Neumann, 1995). When leaders frame information for campus members, they offer their own interpretations above others, much as a picture frame focuses one's attention on a particular view or aspect of a picture or painting. College presidents communicate and frame information for campus constituents in a variety of ways. When choosing how to frame issues on campus, presidents must be mindful of how messages might be interpreted by various stakeholders. How information is relayed on campus is becoming increasingly important during this period of intensive change in higher education as rumors abound, leadership transitions occur, and strategic planning is implemented.

Community colleges provide a useful site for investigating the president's role in framing meaning on campus. Two-year colleges educate nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007). Long touted as a route of access to higher education given their proximity in communities and low cost, community colleges are now in the spotlight as a lever for economic recovery, and associate's degrees are being advocated as the minimum educational requirement for employees. At the same time, these colleges face financial challenges as states cut back funding for these already underfunded institutions (National Center for Education Statistics). A mass turnover of leadership is also anticipated, with predictions that 84% of 2-year college presidents will retire over the next 10 years (Weisman & Vaughan, 2007). Given this backdrop, the research question for the study reported in this article was "How do leaders frame meaning on their campuses to make sense of ongoing change?"

Background Literature and Project Summary

College leaders must pay attention to the messages they send to campus employees, students, and the community because these messages provide a sense of direction. Presidents do not communicate in a vacuum. Both leaders and followers play a role, with leaders providing one way of interpreting a piece of information and followers then interpreting this reality either ill the suggested manner (i.e., in the manner that leaders intend) or in their own, perhaps different manner (Fairhurst, 2001). Both leaders and followers make meaning of what they hear and see through interactions with each other on campus (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). …

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