What Makes A Good Community College President?
The Northern Wyoming Community College District (NWCCD) involved faculty, staff, and the public in their search for a new president at two forums held at Gillette and Sheridan Colleges on Wednesday.
Room 008 in Sheridan’s Tongue River Campus Center was packed full and organizers even had to bring in additional seating. Norleen Healey, chair of the board of trustees, said it was wonderful that everyone had taken such an interest in the important process of choosing a new president. Healey made a brief introduction before yielding the podium to Pamila Fisher, a consultant hired to facilitate the search.
Fisher lives in Bozeman, Montana and works for the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) providing community college governing boards with a variety of services.
Fisher said her goal at the forum was twofold. First, she wished to familiarize participants with the process. Second, she intended to pick their brains about what they’d like to see in a candidate and what challenges they think the college will face in the next five years.
There are about 1,200 community colleges across the country, the majority of which were born in a boom during the late 1960s. According to Fisher, 50 percent of the leaders of those colleges will be retiring in the next 10 years.
Although there are over 100 community college president openings across the country, there’s not necessarily a lot of candidates lining up to take those jobs. That’s because they offer “a little bit of credit and a whole lot of flak,” Fisher said. “But we don’t care if there’s not a lot. We want to find a good one for you.”
ACCT will provide guidance and support through each stage of the search, from recruitment to reference checks.
Recruitment has already begun. NWCCD Human Resources has placed ads nationwide and a search committee has been selected and appointed by the board of trustees. Fisher encouraged people to discuss the process with members of the committee, but to not even bother asking about the candidates’ confidential information. She said if confidentiality is not taken seriously, the college could lose good contenders and damage their own reputation.
The target date for all applications to be submitted is January 31. In February, the search committee will first select semi-finalists, narrowing the field to the top finalists. Next, the board of trustees will invite finalists to the Sheridan campus for interviews and a forum. ACCT will conduct in-depth, “off-list” reference checks, meaning that they will investigate references not provided by the candidates themselves. Although it could be nudged, the goal is a July 1, 2019 start date for the new president.
Fisher asked the crowd to “look into their crystal ball” and think about what’s coming down the road in the next two to five years for the college. Participants mentioned the growing importance of diversity and the need to increase faculty and staff salaries, among other predictions.
Fisher’s next question was: What kind of person will it take to do all this?
She explained that it takes more than an examination of a candidate’s qualifications to determine the right fit. The importance of personality cannot be underestimated. “Candidates will be eminently qualified,” she said. “But, do you respect them?”
Fisher asked the same question at the Gillette forum earlier in the day. One of the themes that she took away from the responses was that people want a president who isn’t afraid to make a decision and doesn’t try too hard to make everybody happy.
Other desired characteristics that arose at the Gillette forum included approachability without fear of retribution and an understanding of the energy industry that “makes Gillette work.”
In Sheridan, participants brought up characteristics including an ability to interface with lawmakers, a supportive attitude towards athletics, accessibility, a willingness to take on economic development, and an appreciation of the importance of agriculture.
Fisher’s final question for participants was: What is the marketing message? She asked them to tell a story about what it’s like to live in Sheridan. The character of the community would be especially important to candidates with families.
“As wonderful as Gillette and Sheridan are, they’re not for everyone,” Fisher said. “When I have a candidate who asks how far it is to the nearest Nordstrom’s, I know they’re not a good fit.”
Attendees listed a wide variety of items such as quality medical care, polo, great schools, the YMCA, and the library, when recommending Sheridan as a great place to live and work. Also, Whitney Benefits and other donors’ inordinate amount of support for the college was mentioned by more than one person.
Fisher said the college is a big fish in a little pond and has the option and opportunity to do even more. She said the next president will also need to be a leader in the community.
The college has a website dedicated to the presidential search process and Fisher encourages anyone who is interested to send her thoughts, questions, or nominations (including contact info) through January.