Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Op/Ed: Change at N.C. Community colleges shouldn’t disrupt the system

Dr. Tony Zeiss is the former president of Central Piedmont Community College. Business North Carolina asked him to comment on the impact of Thomas Stith’s departure as president of the N.C. Community College System. Stith was the sixth president in the last seven years.

Asked for my advice regarding the N.C. Community College System’s future, I Google-searched through recent higher education research to put the current situation into a clear focus. That situation includes two primary issues, 1. The State Board’s response to the recent vacancy of its President and 2. The suggestion that perhaps the independent State governance of Community Colleges be folded into the University of North Carolina System.

I do not know the former recently retired president of the Community College System, nor have I been engaged with the N.C. system since I retired five-and-a-half years ago as president of Central Piedmont Community College. My only motivation is to provide some observations and recommendations regarding the two issues.

Don’t Get So Alarmed

Turnover rates for college presidents and state system presidents have been accelerating for the past 40 years all over the country. It will be useful for college and state system boards to look at the reasons for the turnovers, but not panic when they occur.

The Baby Boomers have been retiring in droves for the past decade and college presidents are climbing career ladders faster than in the past. George Mason University researchers Judith Wilde and Jim Finkelstein have tracked these turnovers and found that in 1975, the average tenure of a president was 9.1 years, while in 2005, it was down to 7.7 years, in 2006 it was down to 6.5 years. Today, if you can keep a college president, superintendent, or state system president for three years, you are fortunate.

North Carolina isn’t the only state facing this turnover issue. Virginia’s fine Community College System CEO, Glenn Dubois, has retired, but his replacement canceled before moving to Virginia. The California Community College System leader recently moved off to another career opportunity. Leadership change is ubiquitous and not to be feared.

Of course, there are other reasons behind faster turnovers of educational leaders including personal reasons and hiring the wrong person in the first place. In one study on this topic by Wilde and Finkelstein, it was observed that “people hiring presidents don’t have experience as college presidents.” If no one on the search committee or the search firm has ever been a community college or state community college system president, they will not realize the diversity and number of stakeholders their new leader must balance and lead toward common system objectives.

My Suggestions to the State Board

  1. Make sure to invite one or two existing or retired state system leaders to aid in developing the hiring criteria, work with the search firm, and participate in the interviewing process. Past North Carolina leaders like Scott Ralls, Peter Hans, Martin Lancaster and Glenn Dubois of the Virginia system come to mind.
  2. Do proper diligence before hiring a search firm. Do they have expertise that understands the duties of a state system leader?
  3. Don’t base your hiring decisions on instinct, emotions, personalities, or personal agendas.
  4. Try to hire people with the best chances to thrive in the position. Avoid the lure of a highly successful person in a non-educational field. It is almost impossible to lead 58 presidents without this community college background. Experience with governors, legislators, employers, community leaders, and fundraising is also desirable.

Response to a Change in Governance

Whenever there is the appearance of a weakness in one form of educational governance it is predictable that someone will suggest merging it with another. They reason it will save public money and will be more efficient, especially if they standardize all the courses and administrative procedures. I have seen and heard subtle references that it might make sense to move the N.C. Community College System under the University governance system.

I have some serious concerns with this suggestion.

  1. The current system in North Carolina includes three distinct governing boards for K-12 schools, community colleges, and universities.
  2. Our community college system is one of the best, if not the best, in the nation because our 58 colleges have the liberty to be responsive to unique community and employer needs.
  3. Our community colleges are the economic engines for recruiting new companies and providing them with customized training they need. This produces upward mobility for a great diversity of students who, most often, have the common characteristic of being financially challenged.
  4. Community colleges were designed to be open-door, low-cost, responsive, and high-performance institutions with a much different mission than Universities.
  5. It is a huge leap in logic to assume our State Community College System is somehow damaged by having this leadership turnover and that moving them under the University Governance System will fix that perceived weakness. Our fine universities have a different mission, and they have a full plate of challenges themselves.

I could find only four states where community colleges are governed by the University System: Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, and New York. I can tell you by personal experience that the enthusiasm, quality, creativity, and financial support of the Alaska and Hawaii community colleges were reduced when those transitions took place. They faced compliance with new standardizations and efficiencies versus creativity and innovation.

Bottom Line

  1. We must avoid any proposed seizure of our State Community College System which would turn our extraordinary colleges into subordinated institutions.
  2. Let’s all get excited about the state presidential search process and look forward to a new day of educational creativity, economic development, student success, and service to North Carolina’s citizens and employers.
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