The Community Role and Challenges of a College Leader
Strong and innovative leadership collaborations keep the college in the community landscape. Today, the president and the college’s leadership team are invaluable resources to states and to the nation—they educate the many talented people who work in our industries, businesses, and civic sectors. Chief executive officers address the overall balance of education at their institutions by looking at community advisory council input, educational trends, and state needs.
As technology, competition, and products change, the college leader needs to ensure that the institution’s teams quickly respond to these demands by creating new programs, practices, and organizational structures. Some universities struggle with the nimbleness needed to react to regional economic educational demands. However, in our knowledge-based economy, postsecondary education must seek to quickly align its offerings—curricula, innovation, and partnerships—with the needs of the marketplace. This requires adeptness with inspiration and communication with the faculty.
The college president and the leadership team should embrace the public agenda and need to be engaged in the community. This ensures that the college’s education policies, programs, curricula, and resources address current, emerging, and future economic realities. Forging strong contacts with regional workforce development boards, hospitals, area legislators, social service and civic organizations, and many other partners in the community requires competence, confidence, and participation. The advantages to a college’s and a community’s growth are significant, and the college’s derivatives are a consulted educational agenda and the power to advance.
Presidents are charged with the task of staying visible to local and state politicians. As the chief advocate for a college, the president has a continuous duty to keep legislators informed of the college’s state of affairs and the resources needed to maintain currency for growth initiatives for their students and their community. Presidents can demystify the complexities of postsecondary education to legislators and must be advocates for appropriate levels of state, federal, and industry support. They can become trusted advisors when state initiatives, rules, and regulations may have an impact on postsecondary performance.
Also, while presidents are accountable and responsible to the larger community, they provide leadership and inspiration to the campus so that its culture is vibrant and welcoming to the public it serves. Offering social and cultural programs and opening the college’s facilities to its varied constituents are what deeply weave the college into the fabric of its community.
Marshaling resources to meet the needs of students at our institutions today requires a well-conceived strategic plan that identifies the goals and needs of the colleges. Strategic planning prioritizes such goals based on college mission, and through consensus it provides the compass. Once a president has listened to all the stakeholders of the institution and the community, priorities and fiscal needs can be aligned.
Resources come in two forms: human and fiscal. The personnel colleges require to conduct their programs and services to support student success include high-quality faculty and advisors, retention specialists, counselors, curriculum and technology specialists, skills center and activities professionals, tutors, grant writers, foundation members, and advisory councils; in reality, it’s the entire college community. Some of these contributors have real operating overhead, while foundations, advisories, and supportive committees and teams do not. They are all central, however, to achieving the college’s mission.
Presidents work with their foundations for fund raising and gifts, mine for dollars appropriated to local community agencies that partner with the college, engage in grant writing, connect with alumni, and work with local legislators to communicate the college’s agenda for its constituencies. If necessary, realigning existing resources may be called for.
As an outcome of good leadership that creates a noteworthy, stimulating, and engaging culture, student enrollment will increase along with satisfaction and success, and, therefore, funds.
Leading and managing an institution of higher education’s resources
Experience in leadership and entrepreneurship both internal and external to higher education is helpful. Knowledge of planning and assessment, strong skills in program and curriculum development, teaching experience, computer literacy, proficiency in enrollment management, a broad understanding of budget and campus operations, and great enthusiasm and confidence are all necessary. One of the most important responsibilities is hiring the right people. This can’t be emphasized enough!
Good leadership style includes an element of magic. College personnel usually enjoy working with people and promote innovative, participatory leadership and decision making. Everyone likes a collaborator. While it may take longer for projects and programs to get started when using a collaborative approach, once the culture is in place, projects can be completed in a reasonable period of time. Collaborating is an important, unique feature of college life. It keeps the wheels turning, since people are the batteries of these organizations. The magic is appealing and draws people to you as a leader. Elements of personal leadership style representing respect and trustworthiness make people feel safe and cared for.
As leaders, presidents can become isolated and feel alone. The job is complex, exhausting, and replete with many extraordinary occurrences. It is impossible to work alone and not seek the experience and acumen of peers. Utilizing the expertise and wisdom of mentors is very important, as is achieving a good foundation of personal balance. (One thing I have learned is that I can never say I have seen it all!)
Data to support decisions
Data informs decisions and enhances strategic planning. Colleges are accountable to many constituencies: students; federal, state, and local governments; taxpayers; accrediting bodies; parents; boards of trustees; and employers. As a result, the use of performance and needs assessments; student attitude surveys; learning outcomes assessments; degree completion, retention, transfer, and job placement rates; and other key performance indicators is necessary. They are compulsory measures of accountability for planning and development. Almost every decision should be informed by data and research. These accountability systems help target and leverage educational resources more efficiently and effectively for immediate utility and for future capacity building.
Overcoming resistance to change
There will always be people who are comfortable with the status quo and reject efforts to change. A proven textbook approach is to fully educate those affected by new processes or ideas so they understand the goals of changes. This is where data can be helpful. Another strategy to overcome resistance is to enlist respected faculty and other leaders at the college to influence their peer resistors. As always, it is best if negativists are part of the process as collaborators. While this may not be so appealing, using their disapproving information can be constructive, since the project’s informed shortcomings can be overcome early. Some will be so intractable that any effort to move the person forward with a change won’t work. The best thing to do is to neutralize the person’s ability to build adversarial coalitions and mobilize other potential resistors. This is why a full understanding of project goals by many is vital. In every case, it is hard to argue against trying something new that endeavors to benefit students in a positive way.
Jean A. Wihbey is the provost of Palm Beach State College-Palm Beach Gardens.