Background Factors Common among Outstanding Community College Presidents

By McFarlin, Charles H.; Crittenden, Barbara J. et al. | Community College Review, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Background Factors Common among Outstanding Community College Presidents


McFarlin, Charles H., Crittenden, Barbara J., Ebbers, Larry H., Community College Review


A survey instrument requesting demographic and background information mailed to a population of 975 presidents of public two-year college elicited 718 responses. Based on peer selection, 622 respondents were classified as normative and 96 as outstanding. The authors compare responses from both groups, create a profile of an outstanding president, and discuss recommendations for practice and future research in light of that profile.

What makes some community college presidents outstanding to their peers and what factors contribute to their development as outstanding leaders? Answering this question could provide insight into how to strengthen community college presidential leadership through improved preparation and selection of candidates. Harold Stoke, cited in Kerr (1984, p. iii) stated, "One thing is clear: colleges must have presidents and it makes a great deal of difference: who they are." In their book, Presidential Leadership: Making a Difference, Fisher and Koch asked the question, "Do college presidents make a difference in the lives and prospects of their institutions?" They responded with "a resounding YES !" (1996, p. vii). Roueche, Baker, and Rose echoed this idea when they claimed "leaders make a difference" (1989, p. 17), whereas Murry and Hammons (1995) maintained that both the current and future success of community colleges depend on the skill of the institution's leaders.

Other authors have suggested that a leadership crisis has developed within the American community college. "In issue after issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, we read of another troubled presidency, another leader worn down or driven out, in distress or under fire" (Hahn, 1995, p. 1). Fisher and Koch stated "it is generally agreed today that the college presidency, once the situs of many such powerful, effective, and inspirational leaders, has decayed and all too frequently now is a refuge for ambivalent, risk-averting individuals who seek to offend no one, and as a consequence arouse and motivate no one" (1996, p. viii). There is, on average, a 30% turnover of community college presidents every two years: Approximately one quarter to one-third of all community college presidents are in some stage of leaving or thinking of leaving, voluntarily or involuntarily, during a two-year period (Kerr, 1984, p. xviii). More recently, Vaughan and Weisman (1998) reported the average tenure of a community college president to be between five and seven years.

Harris (1996), Banach (1994), Cohen, Brawer, and associates (1994), Hammer and Champy (1993), and Vaughan (1986, 1989, 1995) have indicated that developing a new generation of senior leadership for America's community colleges is imperative if these institutions are to successfully operate in increasingly complex environments. Contrarily, Birnbaum stated that education has a historic reluctance to paying serious attention to developing higher education leaders. "It is no wonder that the programmatic efforts are relatively few and the research scarce" (1992, p. 18).

Are there systematic differences between the backgrounds of "powerful, effective, and inspirational leaders" versus the backgrounds of "ambivalent, risk-averting individuals" (Fisher & Koch, 1996, p. viii)? What factors (if any) contribute to preparing exemplary community college presidents? What role does academic preparation play in developing community college leadership, and which activities outside of academic preparation contribute to the development of exemplary presidents? The research described in this report was designed to investigate these questions.

Methodology

Nine factors that may contribute to the development of exemplary community college leaders were identified based on a review of the literature for the purposes of the study: (a) possession of an earned doctorate, (b) the specific study of community college leadership as an academic major, (c) an active personal research and publication agenda, (d) preparation as a change agent, (e) previous career position, (f) relationship with a mentor, (g) development of a peer network, (h) previous participation in a leadership preparation activity, and (10) knowledge of technology. …

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