The Two Doors to the Community College Presidency.
Regardless of work experiences, educational preparation, community involvement, fund-raising, or other qualifications included in position announcements for community college presidents, only two doors lead to employment as a community college president. The purpose of this paper is to allow the reader to walk through both doors by delineating the differences and identifying the similarities of entering the president's office through either route. Before beginning the trek, it is important to read the messages on the doors. Fortunately, the labels on the doors designating gender, ethnicity, national origin, age, color, religion, and disability status are fading. Other words on the doors are bold and fixed: they are inside and outside. A person enters the presidency through the inside door when he or she is an employee of the college upon selection or enters through the outside door when he or she is not employed by the college at the time of selection.
My first community college presidency followed my employment as dean for student development in the institution where I became president. The board of trustees conducted a national search, and I was the only internal candidate. My second community college presidency came while employed as dean of arts and sciences in a multi-campus community college in a different state than where I first became president. I was also a finalist as an outside candidate in presidential searches in four other community colleges in three states.
Deciding to Apply
The decision by an outside candidate to apply for a presidency is often made privately or in consultation with a few trusted colleagues. Conversations with a mentor, with a fellow administrator, with someone who can obtain information as to whether or not the position is "really open," and with one's family are often all that precede an individual's becoming an outside candidate. Frequently, individuals can advance to the latter stages of a selection process without anyone other than a small group of confidants knowing about their candidacy.
A decision to become an inside candidate for a president's position is similar to the circumstances faced by an 18-year-old who is deciding among college, employment, and the military. Everyone in the family has an opinion about the best option. Even neighbors or church members are enlisted by family members to help the teenager "make the right choice." Of course, the right choice appears to be what is best for the teenager, but an element of what is best for the person trying to influence the decision is often present. Similarly, an individual trying to decide about becoming an inside candidate receives input from various sources, both solicited and unsolicited. Much advice is offered out of friendship and an interest in the college; some of it includes elements of selfishness or self-protection. Abilities, position, and connections make certain individuals obvious potential inside candidates. An insider rarely makes a decision in private about becoming a candidate. Furthermore, if a potential inside candidate chooses not to apply for the presidency, this person must be prepared to explain the decision to inquisitive family, colleagues, and community members.
The period between the closing date for applications and interviews by the selection committee gives an outside candidate an opportunity to learn about the college from publications, by anonymously visiting the community, and through talking with trusted colleagues. Much of this data gathering and analysis can be done with a degree of objectivity and with comparisons to other institutions. The inside candidate also can use this period to prepare for interviews. Objectivity about programs, however, is sometimes tempered by knowing the individuals who manage them. It is a challenge for the inside candidate to prepare statements for interviews that demonstrate a willingness to "move the college to the next level," while acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of programs and colleagues, including the college's current president. Possibly the area needing the greatest change in the eyes of the inside candidate is the area most revered by the current president or trustees, or both. Also, during this period, self-appointed informants try to keep the inside candidate abreast of the latest rumors about developments in the selection process. In my experience, it was necessary to avoid conversations with campus rumormongers while awaiting a decision about the interview schedule. Additionally, previously normal conversations between me as a senior administrator and the president and trustees (some of whom were my neighbors) were modified by my candidacy.
The interview process is both exciting and stressful for inside and outside candidates. Frequently, inside candidates know many or all the people involved in the selection process. This familiarity means that expectations and presumptions based on prior behaviors are more likely to influence an evaluation of an inside candidate's performance in an interview than an outside candidate's. Candidates who are known to members of a selection committee may be afforded leniency when responses are different from expectations, and there may be circumstances when nothing an inside candidate says will erase an opinion based on previous interactions. Succinctly, being a known entity can be an advantage or disadvantage in the selection process.
In my interview as an inside candidate, the first question from the trustee chairing the search committee was as follows: "We know you are a good person; what we need to know is whether or not you can be an `s.o.b'." During an interview as an outside candidate, I was asked a question about a strong intrastate rivalry between major universities. I said a key component of a relationship with trustees should be honesty and proceeded to reveal which university I supported when the two met in athletics. A trustee's response was, "Well, you are sitting in a room full of ... fans." I got the job anyway.
For the outside candidate, the interview process can be more of a time for exploration and discovery than for the inside candidate. The outside candidate can use the interview process to do what is necessary to be selected for the job as well as use the experience to evaluate whether or not to accept the job if it is offered. The inside candidate's familiarity with the community and the organization leads to greater concentration on activities to secure the position. Many inside candidates go into the interview process with more certainty about accepting the job if offered. As noted below, an inside candidate who is not successful in seeking a presidency is faced with different pressures and decisions than an outside candidate who is not selected.
The Selection Process
The inside candidate who is not selected for the presidency or who declines the position needs to be prepared to leave the institution. Although this is not always appropriate or necessary, the possibility is a reality. This uncertainty and the familiarity among the players leave the inside candidate with fewer options in negotiating salary and other benefits. The inside candidate may see accepting a presidency for a few thousand dollars less than expected or without an automobile allowance as minor inconveniences as compared with the prospects of leaving the institution or working with a new president who has questions about his or her loyalty and commitment. If a board of trustees uses an inside candidate's selection as an opportunity to save institutional resources, it is inviting discontent as the new president wrestles with the pressures of the job.
An outside candidate often has more options in negotiations and can be more selective in a presidential search. Sometimes the problems in a college or the relationships with a board are so difficult that a sitting president feels he or she must take the first new offer available. The intense competition in presidential searches and a burning desire to be a president may lead a senior administrator to believe any offer is acceptable if it means obtaining a president's position. Periodically during a coffee break at a presidents' meeting, one hears the comment, "He or she must have wanted to be a president very badly to go there." Generally, individuals chosen for the presidency are people others do not want to lose. Outside candidates may receive a counter-offer from a current employer or a reaffirmation of commitments from colleagues, trustees, and others involved with the candidate in his or her current position. The involvement in a search for a presidency gives an individual an opportunity to compare current and proposed employment. Sometimes this comparison results in a new commitment to an old position.
Inside candidates are often known by and more accessible to the local media. A few days before the board meeting to announce the person chosen for the president's position, a reporter from the daily morning newspaper called me. The reporter asked, "Will you be named as president on Thursday?" I referred the reporter to the chairman of the board of trustees. He refused to comment. The reporter called my wife at her workplace to ask if she would be at work on Thursday. When my wife answered positively, the reporter said she would see her at work. My wife asked the reporter why she was coming to her office, and the reporter responded that she meant she was coming to the board of trustees' meeting. Of course, my wife told the reporter she did not plan to attend. On Thursday morning, the newspaper story by the reporter said I was expected to be named president at the trustees' meeting and that my wife said she would be present. The reporter's story the morning following the board of trustees' meeting reported correctly that I was chosen as president but reported incorrectly that my wife was present for the meeting. The reporter was the same person assigned to cover board meetings and other news from the college, so as a new president I had to be sensitive to her previous behaviors as I carried out new tasks in public relations.
As an outside candidate, however, I learned I was not selected for a presidency from a friend visiting the city where the college was located. The friend read the announcement in the local newspaper within 24 hours after the last candidate's interview. Of course, the publication of a newspaper article about the trustees' choice of a president before notification of the persons interviewed said more about the board's professional courtesy than media relations.
A Period of Discovery
Changes in personnel bring a period of discovery for persons assuming new positions and for others in the organization. The discovery period for an inside candidate assuming a presidency is different in content and time from the discovery period for an outside candidate who becomes a president. Although other executive positions have an institutional perspective, none of them reach the breadth of involvement required of the president. Therefore, inside candidates who become presidents frequently realize that individuals' behaviors and institutional operations are different from presumptions or previous observations. In other words, regardless of one's former position, the organization looks different when viewed from the president's office.
An outside candidate is "the president" the first day on the job. An inside candidate is "the president" in title the first day on the job, but this person and his or her colleagues need an adjustment period for the impact of the change to become reality. A faculty or staff member who was comfortable confiding in a dean about a president's decision is often reluctant to talk about the president's decision with the former dean who is now the president. The mentality in an institution following the selection of a new president is like a first grade show-and-tell experience. Many people are anxious to give the new president an opportunity to see the fruits of their labors and to ask the new president for directions on fitting into a new era of leadership. Employees' openness to the president's leadership and their willingness to adjust to new directions are characteristics of a "honeymoon period." An inside candidate selected as president has the advantage of being able to differentiate between the employees who will throw birdseed and those who are likely to throw stones as the honeymoon begins. A new president from the outside probably will trip over a few stones before learning who to disarm and where to walk.
Important issues for inside and outside candidates for a community college presidency are preparation, involvement, objectivity, accessibility, and discovery. Although variations of these issues are inherent in a search, the extent to which secondary factors drive the selection process can be influenced by the college's trustees and the candidates. Recent research conducted by Vaughan and Weisman (1997) indicates that one-third of new community college presidents move into their positions as inside candidates. Because the employment of a president is the most important task of a board of trustees, the search process must minimize the existence of extraneous factors that impede the selection of the best person for the organization.
In conclusion, a community college's focus on serving the community in which it is located often leads to media access to presidential candidates. This interaction between a reporter and candidates can begin a positive relationship or a recurring source of tension. A board's recognition of reasonable differences in responses to interview questions by inside and outside candidates can reduce the potential for positive or negative bias influencing members' impressions. This recognition also encourages board members to evaluate candidates by stated criteria, rather than using the incumbent, the first candidate interviewed, or another arbitrary focus as the basis for their evaluations. Boards and presidents must acknowledge the discovery period for new leaders. Although preparation for the search process gives trustees and candidates insight into the college's strengths and weaknesses, the change in perspective for the successful candidate that comes with actually occupying the president's office cannot be overstated. Trustees and new presidents need to avoid a "good news--bad news" mentality and should treat discoveries about each other and the college as facts, procedures, or circumstances to be evaluated. Keeping an open mind brings opportunities for changes that are consistent with a new vision, rather than wasting resources identifying blame for problems. Problems for a new administration might have been solutions in a previous administration.
Evidence shows that both the inside and outside doors to the presidency can be opened. The individuals who receive a key need a positive relationship with trustees, a commitment to change, a vision for leadership, and a willingness to work tirelessly for the continuous improvement of the college.
Vaughan, G. B., & Weisman, I. (1997, April). The community college presidency in the 21st century. Paper presented at the 77th Annual Convention of the American Association of Community Colleges, Anaheim, CA.
Dan W. Moore has served as president at Southeastern Community College in Whiteville, North Carolina, and at Haywood Community College in Clyde, North Carolina. He now directs New Member and Nurture Ministeries at Asbury United Methodist Church in Madison, Alabama (email to firstname.lastname@example.org).
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|Author:||Moore, Dan W.|
|Publication:||Community College Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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