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Leadership Development Programs Play Key Role in Training Higher Ed Leaders

“There is not a guidebook on how to be a college president. You really can only learn from other presidents,” says Dr. Berenecea Johnson Eanes, president of York College, part of the City University of New York system (CUNY).

Eanes is an alumna of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ (AASCU) Millennium Leadership Initiative (MLI).

“AASCU and MLI has given me a chance to learn from some of the most dynamic leaders in the country,” says Eanes. “It made the difference in my next step.

Some people in academia envision themselves in leadership positions. And for individuals desirous of enhancing their knowledge and leadership skills, there are leadership development programs such the American Council on Education (ACE) Fellows Program and the MLI.

“The ACE Fellows Program is really committed to diversifying the pipeline of leadership,” says Dr. Sherri Hughes, ACE assistant vice president for professional learning, and director of the ACE Fellows Program. “We encourage colleges and universities to identify diverse candidates for the program.”

Preparation to lead

Since its launch in 1965, more than 2,000 emerging leaders have participated in the ACE Fellows Program, a customized learning experience that immerses fellows in the world of senior administration. Approximately 80% eventually work as senior leaders — presidents, vice presidents, chancellors and deans.

Dr. Sherri HughesDr. Sherri Hughes

The ACE Fellows Program lasts one year, and the typical class is between 35 to 45 fellows. Some fellows come from the academic side and others from student affairs, finance or diversity. While fellows are nominated by their home institution, they spend all or part of the year at another (host) institution being mentored by the senior leadership team.

“We ask that they have at least two mentors at the host campus, which is most often the president and the provost,” says Hughes, herself an ACE fellow in 2002–03. “We expect that they spend a fair amount of time with those people as they are doing their work.

“When I was a fellow, I sat in on all the cabinet meetings,” she says. “My other mentor was the provost, and I went with her to everything from faculty council meetings to her deans’ council.”

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are part of the curriculum, and the fellows return to their home campuses prepared to offer “equity-minded leadership.”

Dr. Kenya Ayers-Palmore, an ACE fellow in 2015–16 and now president of Tarrant County College Northeast in Texas, calls the experience game-changing. Knowing it could be, Ayers-Palmore asked to be nominated for the fellowship when she interviewed at Harper College in 2012. The president, an ACE Fellows alum, said he would do it after she’d been at the college for three years, and he honored that promise.

In recent years, Hughes says there have been more women and people of color in the ACE Fellows Program. There is diversity in the institutions where the fellows go on to work — public, private, two-year, four-year, research institutions and minority-serving institutions.

Dr. Kenya Ayers-PalmoreDr. Kenya Ayers-Palmore

Launched in 1999, MLI provides individuals from groups underrepresented in the highest levels of higher education the opportunity to gain in-depth understanding of what such positions entail. Participants are called protégés, and to date, 131 of those protégés have become university presidents or chancellors.

MLI has also seen more female protégés in recent years. MLI was conceived of by five African American presidents who were AASCU members. They wanted to be sure there would be growing diversity in higher education senior leadership.

“They wanted people who had a commitment to access, excellence and equity,” says Dr. Mary Sias, who became director of MLI in 2015 after retiring as president of Kentucky State University.

Sias says MLI, an intensive four-and-a-half-day program that meets at the AASCU conference, helps protégés examine and define the type of institution they’d like to serve — minority-serving, PWI, urban, two-year, four-year, etc. There is even media training, in which protégés are videotaped as presidents facing the media during simulated scenarios.

“We ask them to develop a professional development plan,” says Sias. “We have a group of advisors on the very first day of our institute, which this year was virtual, and those presidents spend time with them on their professional development plan to see where the gaps are.”

Things such as finance, fundraising, governance and athletics are addressed. Sias then matches mentors, largely current presidents, with protégés. Once the match is made, Sias checks in with the mentors and protégés to make sure they’re a good fit.

Experiential learning

Protégés and mentors stay in regular contact. Each MLI protégé visits the mentor’s campus and shadows him or her, sitting in on key meetings for several days.

ACE fellows observe and participate in key meetings and events and take on projects that build leadership skills and insights. Hughes says they get to witness leadership as those leaders deal with challenges and crises.

MLI Cohort of 2019MLI Cohort of 2019

“It’s one thing to read about something and study it; it’s another thing to walk it on a daily basis,” says Ayers-Palmore. “I literally got to go everywhere with one of the greatest leaders in our country in higher ed.”

The best of leadership, says Ayers-Palmore, happens away from the spotlight. Being mentored by a woman of color — Dr. Renu Khator, chancellor of the University of Houston system and president of the University of Houston — gave her confidence.

Eanes applied for MLI because she wanted the company of college presidents and to hear firsthand what it takes.

“One of the things we encourage fellows to do is really see parts of a campus that they don’t usually have access to,” says Hughes, who spent time with the chief maintenance person learning about deferred maintenance (postponing repairs). “I got this deep dive about what the concerns were about deferred maintenance. A few weeks later, I sit in on the budget conversations where I see what he’s asked for and what gets covered.”

If ACE fellows have spent most of their careers as faculty, they’re encouraged to spend time with the student affairs team so they understand the scope of that office. Learning about finances from a leadership perspective is also important, says Hughes. Not all ACE fellows are interested in a presidency, and some may start with an interest in the presidency but their leadership vision shifts over the course of the fellowship.

Building a network

A key component of both the ACE Fellows Program and MLI is developing a network.

“The job of a presidency is not one you can do by yourself,” Sias says. “You have to be able to collaborate.”

In typical years, the MLI protégés get invited to regional conferences and spend time with the presidents in attendance. Sias says, “It’s all about building the network.” The protégés form close bonds with each other and “they help each other as well as the presidents helping them.”

Ayers-Palmore says that having a network has been a crucial part of navigating COVID-19.

“Under COVID, after the CARES Act funding started flowing, my cohort of fellows … started talking about, ‘How is your institution distributing CARES act funding? What are your priorities?’” Ayers-Palmore says. “If there’s something I need to know or understand, I’ve got a network of people all across the country.”

Eanes tapped into her network as York College and the CUNY system navigates COVID-19. She utilized the teamwork mentality she gained in MLI to handle the campus’ rapid transition to remote instruction.

“Our human capital at this point is one of the most important things,” says Eanes, who participated in MLI in 2012 and currently serves as a mentor. “I have a network of sitting presidents that I can call any day of the week.”

In addition to the mentors on host campuses, ACE has seven sages, former presidents who serve as advisors and mentors. Each fellow is assigned to a leadership group with one of the sages.

The MLI connection is ongoing.

“Even though at the end of a year a president and protégé may be done … you don’t lose these people,” says Sias. “You need to develop colleagues.”

Due to COVID-19, the ACE fellows selected to begin their fellowship in August 2020 have been deferred to 2021. Given this year’s experiences, Hughes predicts greater emphasis on agile decision making, strategic planning while in motion and financial/business model work. There will also be increased focus on DEI and student success.

MLI is in hybrid mode this year with much of the programming for 30 protégés happening online. Hope remains for a face-to-face program in January. If not, they’ll push the last part of this year’s program to June and do two programs back to back.     

This article originally appeared in the October 29, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.

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