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The high turnover rate among top executives at California’s community colleges is a worrisome trend that could have harmful implications for schools, students and communities, according to a study by a new research arm of UC Davis’ School of Education.

A survey by Wheelhouse: The Center for Community College Leadership and Research found that the average job length for a college president or district chancellor is only 3.5 years – half the tenure of similar leaders at four-year schools in California. The poll’s respondents cited conflicts with their governing boards as by far the most common reason for leaving jobs, followed by such motives as retirements, taking a better-paying job, and conflicts with a constituency group or community leaders.

“This high rate of leadership turnover in the California Community Colleges, the nation’s largest system of higher education, is a major concern with strong implications for students, faculty, employees and the regional economies that depend on the colleges’ success,” said the report.

The survey found that 60 percent of the top administrators had been in their jobs less than four years and only 13 percent more than 10 years. A majority – 52 percent – said they anticipated staying no more than three additional years and nearly a quarter expected to hold on for less than one year.

In a telephone interview, recently retired statewide Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris said he hoped the report would “start a conversation” among boards and executives about how to increase the longevity of leadership posts.

“These are really, really tough jobs, especially in this day and age with the myriad of challenges we are facing,” said Harris, who is on Wheelhouse’s advisory board. College trustees need to understand that it takes several years for a new president or chancellor “to get his or her feet on the ground,” he said. And on the other side of the equation, new executives should commit to staying at least five years and resist the lure of executive search firms dangling higher salaries and adding to the churn rate, he said.

Brice Harris, chancellor emeritus of the California Community Colleges system.

Brice Harris, chancellor emeritus of the California Community Colleges system.

If education reforms are to take hold, it “really requires some sustained leadership,” said Harris, who served as chancellor of the Los Rios Community College District for 16 years and then as statewide chancellor for 3.5 years.  Harris, 67, said he was clear from the start of the statewide job that he was already at retirement age and would not stay beyond his first contract. He said he expected his successor, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who is 51 and headed the Long Beach Community College District for nine years, to remain statewide chancellor much longer.

Wheelhouse Managing Director Susanna Cooper said that stable and strong leadership is crucial for efforts to improve rates of community college student retention, completion and transfer. “Leadership matters a great deal,” she said in a telephone interview. “Efforts to make positive change about student success are impacted by the quality and sustainability of leadership for sure.”

Wheelhouse sent its poll questions to 135 community college leaders around the state. Sixty-four, or 47 percent, answered. Cooper said she did not know whether the answers might have turned out differently with a larger response but she said the profiles of those who responded appear to match the overall group of executives.

The survey also asked about the most important issues that a college president or chancellor must tackle “in providing effective leadership to their colleges.” The top-ranked tasks were working effectively with the boards of trustees and with internal constituent groups such as faculty senates and staff unions. Also important were building an effective team and developing and implementing clear plans for success and use of resources.

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  1. NetDoc 1 year ago1 year ago

    Having worked at a community college for more than a decade and seeing the turnover at the President's position, the most common cause always ends up being conflict with faculty. Shared governance is a neo-buzzword for "Give faculty a voice in institutional management" but when the voice becomes a blood-curdling scream, the President ends up taking the shaft for a disgruntled Academic Senate. Put another way, if the President tries to manage the campus in … Read More

    Having worked at a community college for more than a decade and seeing the turnover at the President’s position, the most common cause always ends up being conflict with faculty. Shared governance is a neo-buzzword for “Give faculty a voice in institutional management” but when the voice becomes a blood-curdling scream, the President ends up taking the shaft for a disgruntled Academic Senate. Put another way, if the President tries to manage the campus in a logical, business-like manner, expecting faculty and staff to be on time and do the job for which they are well-compensated, the sensibilities of the chattering elites become chafed and the stage gets set to send the leader packing.

    It is actually quite simple for faculty to oust a leader in which they are disillusioned. All that is necessary is for the loudest mouth pieces in the teaching ranks (and we all know who they are) to spend two minutes in front of the Governing Board at the next meeting promising them that if the President is not replaced, then their spot on the Board is also in jeopardy. Essentially, “We got you elected to the board, we can get you removed at the next election.”

    The power wielded by the Academic Senate, through Shared Governance, is an abomination.

  2. Mark Wilson 1 year ago1 year ago

    In the six years I've been in the "Community College Trap" of the Peralta Community College District in Oakland, California, I've seen four Chancellors and a dozen college Presidents in the four college district. (not counting interims) http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/01/how-to-escape-the-community-college-trap/355745/ I can't count the number of Vice Presidents, and the new Chancellor recently added several new administrators without engaging with the shared governance committees. PCCD is now more top heavy with less institutional memory than most California Community … Read More

    In the six years I’ve been in the “Community College Trap” of the Peralta Community College District in Oakland, California, I’ve seen four Chancellors and a dozen college Presidents in the four college district. (not counting interims) http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/01/how-to-escape-the-community-college-trap/355745/
    I can’t count the number of Vice Presidents, and the new Chancellor recently added several new administrators without engaging with the shared governance committees. PCCD is now more top heavy with less institutional memory than most California Community Colleges. Will the accreditation teams mention this in their upcoming responses to the District’s recent accreditation reports?

  3. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman 1 year ago1 year ago

    The community college link in California's idealistic great chain of higher education is weakened by rapid turnover of leaders, for sure, but more importantly by the failure to establish strong faculties of full-time educators who work with one another and with their students in classrooms. The "community" in community college is lacking. What is the ratio of adjunct teachers to fulltime staff, campus by campus around the state? What is the salary for adjunct teachers … Read More

    The community college link in California’s idealistic great chain of higher education is weakened by rapid turnover of leaders, for sure, but more importantly by the failure to establish strong faculties of full-time educators who work with one another and with their students in classrooms. The “community” in community college is lacking.

    What is the ratio of adjunct teachers to fulltime staff, campus by campus around the state? What is the salary for adjunct teachers compared to fulltime faculty? Any benefits for adjuncts? Any hope for advancement? My impression is that the community college system is a step-child that suffers from neglect and abuse from top to bottom.