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Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the June/July edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).
These are perilous times for community colleges. State and federal departments of education are pressing the nation’s two-year career and technical colleges to be accountable while the colleges experience reductions in state funding and try to streamline services.
That pressure is intensified by a growing national expectation that community colleges should be at the forefront of our nation’s economic recovery, educating people who aspire to return to the middle class. One wonders how community colleges can manage these expectations.
Like a captain guiding his ship through troubled waters, college presidents depend on more than their own abilities. They must have the support and input of an able and capable crew. A safe journey begins with the relationship between the college president and the institution’s board of trustees.
Aligning a vision
Perhaps the most important function of a board of trustees is to secure a president who shares its vision of the role and mission of the community college. One of the most important functions of the president is to develop and implement a plan to make the trustees’ vision a reality.
Before the president can develop a plan, trustees must also understand the mission of the college and the external forces that continue to redefine the role of community colleges.
The community college mission had for a long time been to provide open access to a higher education. Now, access is being linked more closely with student success. Trustees need to be aware of the implications of this new challenge and understand that enrollment must be aligned with such important elements as retention and completion.
Trustees expect great work from their president and believe there are certain qualities a president should have to be a successful leader. The most important quality is integrity.
Throughout my career as CEO of three social service organizations and as a longtime trustee of a small rural community college, I have learned that integrity is an umbrella under which a number of virtues are found, including prudence, trustworthiness, humility, courage, intellectual honesty, justice, responsibility, fidelity and credibility.
Trustees will judge the core values of their president by his or her actions. And there are similar expectations of trustees.
It takes two
A common set of principles combined with integrity and a common vision of the community college mission will bring to bear the most value in the relationship between the community college president and his or her trustees.
To ensure one another’s success, and the success of the college, these two forces must work in concert. Such collaboration requires trustees to develop policies that give the president freedom to manage the day-to-day operations of the college. The president, meanwhile, needs to seek trustees’ advice and counsel for direction. Together, they provide necessary checks and balances to maintain the credibility and success of the college.
The president and trustees must give each other freedom to engage in their respective lines of work—trustees discussing, suggesting and acting on policies for the growth of the college and the president assisting trustees in their deliberations.
The relationship should be built on mutual trust, with each respecting and valuing the other’s roles, responsibilities and boundaries. It’s important that the president and trustees resist the temptation to cross these respective boundaries.
Trustees employ the president to manage the operations of the college, and there is no need for trustees to intervene in the function and work of the president. The president must respect the trustees’ obligation to represent the constituents of the college and their need to know the college’s plans to meet the mission’s expectations.
A partnership is valuable, given the difficult times community colleges are facing. The integrity of both trustees and the president is what enables these leaders to engage in courageous conversations about the state of the college. Courageous conversations occur when both parties respect the other’s ability to be honest without being critical.
Trustees must be open and responsive to new ideas the president presents to improve the college’s services and image. It is important to discuss internal and external challenges that may impede the operations of the college. There should be no surprises between trustees and the college president.
Bad things will happen. It is the responsibility of the president and trustees to resolve them and move on. A viable partnership enables participants to engage in conversations that lead, in the end, to problem- solving. It is easy to be a partner when the college is succeeding.
It is trying for both the president and trustees when the winds of change and challenge begin to blow. But the roles and responsibilities of trustees and the president meld when seeking solutions to difficult issues for the betterment and safety of the institution.
Perkins is a trustee for Western Nebraska Community College.
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges