Leadership turnover plagues California community colleges

Kindred Murillo, acting superintendent/president of Santa Barbara City College, came out of retirement in the fall of 2021 to help stabilize the struggling institution. Murillo, who previously led the Lake Tahoe Community College District and Southwestern College, is the fourth person to hold the position in the past three years.

The college’s last president, Utpal K. Goswami, resigned after less than two years in the post. His predecessor, Anthony Beebe, unexpectedly left due to health issues in 2019 after serving for three years. Helen Benjamin, former district chancellor of Contra Costa Community College, stepped in as president and acting superintendent twice after the departures of Beebe and Goswami, The Santa Barbara Independent reported. The college has not had a president for more than four years since 2008.

For Murillo and other California community college presidents in similar situations, stepping in after multiple leaders exit has meant trying to bring coherence and consistency to institutions that find themselves in various states of flux. This could mean implementing strategic plans that have had multiple starts and stops, overseeing neglected hiring processes, or fixing misaligned budgets.

“I think systems have stopped being respected and planning has stopped, and if you’re not planning for the future then you’re stagnant and you’re not really focused on doing a very good job,” Murillo said of his experience. “And I think there’s been a level of internal division, which is what we’re trying to heal right now.”

Leaders of the California community college system say this continued leadership turnover is a big problem, and the pandemic has only exacerbated it.

The demands of the president’s job and the emotional toll of the pandemic have led to burnout and prompted early retirements at all higher education institutions, including California. At least 17 of California’s 137 community college leaders retired between January 2020 and March 2022, said Larry Galizio, president and CEO of the Community College League of California, an association of 73 public community college districts. local.

A study 2020 by the association also found that the average term of office for a chancellor, superintendent or president of a community college in the system has fallen to 5.1 years over the past decade, from an average of 6.9 years from 2000 to 2010. Of these leaders, 46.1% have retired or died. during their tenure, 21% were fired or left for other reasons, and 31.1% took another job.

Keith Curry, who served as president and chief executive of Compton College for 12 years, said some community college presidents are questioning whether the job strains are worth it amid a public health crisis and a sharp decline in enrollment. He also believes presidents who are people of color, like himself, have felt added pressure to close equity gaps and diversify the ranks of faculty and staff after the nationwide racial reckoning following the killing of George Floyd. by the police.

Curry said it’s easy for “work-life balance” to fall by the wayside when presidents are balancing so many responsibilities.

“When I talk to my colleagues about the work we do, it becomes overwhelming,” he says. “We have a lot to deal with at the moment. And the question is, how long will you be able to do this type of work and sustain it? How do you continue the work you do and maintain your mental and physical health? »

The political dynamics of states also pose unique challenges.

Galizio of the Community College League of California said some community college districts across the state have particularly strained relationships between their boards and chancellors. He and system leaders attribute this dynamic in part to active, active faculty and staff unions that tend to have strong alliances with boards of trustees. When union leaders, administrators and the chancellor disagree on district goals and policies, “it can be difficult to find consensus.” He noted that because California community college trustees are elected, not appointed, as they are in other states, some may use their positions as stepping stones to run for other political office and may not be also invested in leading their districts.

He thinks these leadership roles at community colleges are among “the toughest in the country.”

Negotiating politics can be “so difficult that people lose their jobs or get stuck in such a way that they no longer feel like they can be effective where they are, and so they start looking,” said said Galizio.

Galizio said there are also often superintendent, president and chancellor positions open in the system – there are currently around 18 openings – because it is so big, and that fosters a culture of leaders passing from one role to another and the colleges regularly poaching each other administrators.

“We have a lot of churn,” he said. “We have a lot of people who, if they’re doing well in a district, start getting calls very quickly.”

Sunita Cooke, superintendent/president of MiraCosta Community College since 2015, said she receives several calls and emails from headhunters each week. She fears the continued rush to fill vacancies in the system will mean that some trustees step into roles of president or chancellor before they are ready.

She also thinks California community college presidents are under heightened stress due to the impending rollout of the California program. student-centred funding formula, which is expected to come into full effect in 2024. The new formula bases state funding on various metrics of student success, including enrollment and completion. Community college presidents worry that declining enrollment will affect student outcomes, such as graduation rates, and jeopardize funding. California also has a law that requires community colleges to spend at least 50% of their budgets on classroom instruction, which means less money is available for tutoring, Cooke noted.

“There’s a lot of anxiety about it,” she said of the funding formula. “It’s the topic of conversation at almost every CEO gathering.”

While this may be an extreme case, California’s community college system isn’t alone in struggling with leadership turnover. Presidential terms have been getting shorter over time across the country. The average tenure of a college or university president in their current job was 6.5 years in 2016, down from seven years in 2011 and 8.5 years in 2006, according to the latest report from the American Council on Education. . Study of the president of an American college. The average term for a community college president was 6.2 years, and these presidents tended to have shorter contracts. More than half of community college presidents had three-year contracts, while more than half of presidents of doctoral-granting institutions had contracts of five years or more, said Hironao Okahana, assistant vice president of the ACE for research and ideas.

Judith A. Wilde, a research professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government who studies presidential hires in higher education, said the trend is partly due to an overreliance on recruitment firms. She and a colleague conducted a study of job vacancies for presidential positions in The Chronicle of Higher Education and found that in 1975, only 2% of ads involved outside companies, but in 2015, 92% involved an executive search firm or consultant.

She said recruiting firms tend not to make candidate names public or involve faculty members in the process, which can make it difficult to recruit leaders who are suitable for institutions.

“If you really want to control someone, the best network available is the teacher network system,” she said. “If you ask me about someone, I may not know that person, but I can probably find someone who does. I’m not saying we have to look dirt on people, but we have to know enough about them to know if they’ll be a good match for us.

California community college leaders fear the rollover could cause harmful disruption to institutions and students.

Curry said when leaders constantly change, “institutional knowledge” is lost and long-term plans come to a halt.

“The impact he has on students, you won’t see it in the short term, but you will see it in the long term,” he said. “Because when new people come in, it’s hard for them to focus on some of the core issues that students face as they try to learn the organization.”

Murillo, of Santa Barbara City College, said sudden changes in leadership “can really hurt students” because leadership vacuums can lead to “toxicity” and “infighting.”

“On a daily basis, I would like 90% of my work to make the world a better place for students,” she said. “And if a college is in turmoil, 90% of my job will be to fix the problem.”

But she said the turnover is not so bad. She thinks most leadership positions should change every five to seven years, giving those leaders enough time to “change the culture of the institution” but not enough time to “be complacent”. . She also said faculty and staff can often insulate students from the negative effects of leadership turnover by keeping campuses running smoothly.

“For me, if I’m comfortable, it’s time to move on,” she said. “New leadership brings new eyes and new ways of doing things.”

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