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Hung out to Dry

Minority presidents often are brought in to promote diversity, leading to, in some cases, an abbreviated tenure.

It was only three years ago that Dr. R. Wayne Branch was tapped to take over the reins at Clark College, a 70-year-old private college in Vancouver, Wash. As president of the Community College of Baltimore County-Essex, Branch oversaw the reorganization of the college after it was folded into a three-college system. Those organizational skills and his background in counseling led Clark to make Branch the first African-American president in the college’s history. Clark trustees also thought Branch could help mend a bitter rift between the faculty and his presidential predecessor, Dr. Tana L. Hasart.

Now, barely three years after taking the job, Branch is out at
Clark. His dismissal reflects a disturbing trend for minority community college presidents, says Dr. John E. Roueche, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Community College Leadership Program.

“Today, there are only about 39 or 40 African-American presidents of community colleges, and that is less than [it was] 10 years ago,” he says. “And probably 35 percent to 40 percent of that group are graduates of our program.”

Prior to Branch’s performance review this year, the Clark faculty union disclosed to the public a stunning 229-10 no-confidence vote against the president (see Diverse, June 29). The union cited Branch’s abrasive leadership style and an alarmingly high administrative turnover as the primary causes for the decision. A few months earlier, faculty at the Dallas County Community College District had threatened a similar vote against then-chancellor Dr. Jesus “Jess” Carreon, citing the same concerns. Like at Clark, the faculty’s decision prompted DCCCD trustees to force Carreon out of office after only three years.

In both cases, diversity and race issues played significant roles in stoking campus tensions. Carreon’s successor at DCCCD, Dr. Wright Lassiter, the first African-American to lead the district, faulted Carreon for possibly exacerbating animosity with White faculty. “Every senior appointment that [Carreon] made, with one exception, was a person of color,” says Lassiter.

Although the official reasons given for Clark’s no-confidence vote make no mention of race, faculty union president Miles V. Jackson says he believes racism is at least partially responsible. Even before the vote, he had conceded that a “long-term history of institutional racism” at the college could lead some faculty to vote against Branch.

Clark’s trustees almost certainly hired Branch with the hope of promoting diversity at the college. But many faculty apparently were not on the same page. Dr. Joshua Smith, emeritus professor of higher education at New York University and the former chancellor of the California Community College System, says that such a reaction is not uncommon as minorities are increasingly tapped for high-profile presidencies.

“Sometimes, when a person is brought in and all of a sudden they get a mandate for diversifying things, then the question has to be, ‘Is the board serious? Do they mean it? Are they going to be with me on this if we hit a crunch and have some tough things to worry about?’ And sometimes they’re not with you. Or sometimes, they’re not even aware of what you have done. I’ve experienced that,” Smith says.

A college with diversity troubles sometimes reaches out to a minority candidate for help without giving the candidate a frank assessment of a sometimes-hostile environment, adds Dr. Howard L. Simmons, chairman of Morgan State University’s department of advanced studies, leadership and policy.

“Minority presidents are often asked to take over in cases where they’ve had lots of difficulties. A lot of times these institutions already have problems when people go in,” says Simmons, a former executive director of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

“Sometimes, I don’t think they would even hire [minorities] if there were not these looming problems. And then the faculty takes the position that they’re really in charge and that they weren’t consulted. A lot of times the faculty members take the position, ‘If you don’t do what we want you to do, then you’re going to be out the door.’”

Dr. Elva C. LeBlanc, president of two-year Galveston College, says the common faculty complaint of presidential abrasiveness is often simply the result of faculty not getting their way.

“I’ve yet to serve an institution where [faculty] complaints didn’t include a lack of communication. You send memoranda, you have meetings, you send e-mail, but still, that comes up,” LeBlanc says. “When you have this, you have everyone giving their idea, it doesn’t mean that everyone’s idea will get to be implemented.”

She says that when specific faculty recommendations aren’t implemented, angry faculty members lash out by saying, “‘My voice isn’t heard and [presidents] just do whatever they want to do, and they’re abrasive.’”

Roueche suggests that some faculty members are perhaps unwilling to embrace diversity initiatives when they come from a minority president. He says, by way of analogy, that if the chairs of a science department and an English department both argue that writing should be included in every course, the science department chair will carry more weight.

“In my view, a White person carrying the banner of diversity is not going to have the same kind of negative reaction that sometimes minority folks have when they’re carrying the same banner,” he says.

Often, many say, trustees and faculty have very different sentiments about the merits of promoting diversity. That disconnect then leads to president-faculty clashes.

“Unfortunately, [presidential] search committees look for candidates that reflect them in many ways, not just ethnically, but educationally, in terms of interest and commonality. And search committees, for the most part, are made up of faculty. Meanwhile, you may have a leader that knows that the institution is ready [for] leadership that is of color or female because of the demographics,” says Palm Beach Community College Provost Dr. Maria M. Vallejo. “Boards of trustees may not be looking for people that have started off as faculty. … [Faculty] are looking at it and saying, ‘What’s happening to my institution; it’s changing.’ Trying to get those two visions to merge is very difficult, and it takes time.”

However, Roueche says numerous minority community college presidents have had enormous success implementing diversity initiatives while at the same time promoting harmony with faculty despite existing racial tensions. Roueche points out that Dr. Walter G. Bumphus, outgoing president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, has been a champion of diversity and “is one of the most respected, honored, admired presidents in the country.”

Roueche also notes that former Northern Virginia Community College President Belle S. Wheelan championed diversity at NOVA, but was very well regarded by faculty. Also, “Just this last month, Dr. Zelema Harris retired as president of Parkland College and brought a great emphasis on diversity, a great emphasis on quality, a great emphasis on improved teaching and learning, and was a much, much beloved president. In fact,” Roueche says, “there were many, many wet eyes the day
she retired.”

A hard-charging style can strain the president-faculty relationship even further, especially when dealing with often-sensitive diversity issues. Carreon, for example, was known for his aggressive approach.

“How you do something [is] almost always more important than what it is you’re doing,” Roueche says.

What’s in a Title?
For many community colleges, the contentious relationship between faculty and administration can be traced to a change in title. The move from calling the institution’s leader “president” to “chief executive officer” has been blamed for much of the controversial top-down leadership styles employed by many contemporary college chiefs. Critics of the title change say presidents have historically embraced an academic consensus-builder model.

The influx of CEOs coming from the corporate world has opened increasingly vital private fund-raising avenues for their institutions. But the management style many CEOs have brought with them has been met with stiff resistance from faculty members nationwide. But despite the confrontations, not everyone is convinced that the shift toward “CEO” is a bad thing.

According to Ricardo Castro-Salazar, dean of Pima Community College’s instructional division, the CEO debate within community colleges “is a false debate. What it boils down to is the sound management of resources. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the Red Cross or the cancer society or an educational institution or IBM, the more efficient you are in handling and managing your resources, the more able you will be to do what you’re supposed to do. In the case of the community college, that would be to serve the community.”

However, many scholars and administrators disagree. According to NYU’s Smith, “There is a bit of a problem” with the CEO model. “I understand the shorthand of people saying the chief executive officer, the chief academic officer, the chief business officer or chief fiscal officer. I can understand that,” he says. “But I think that it is a mistake if you then use that and you start to follow corporate models without remembering how higher education has been traditionally constructed — faculty have always been at the core of the college.”

Dr. Brenda Simmons, executive dean of Florida Community College at Jacksonville’s North Campus, says presidents need to be part business executive and part academic consensus-builder to succeed.

“In some cases, a leader can strike that balance and know when to exert the leadership from the CEO vantage point — it’s almost a schizophrenic kind of thing — and more importantly, know how to be that academic leader. If you can get it in one person, that’s perfect,” she says, although that task may be too much for one individual at some colleges.

 “Some of the institutional models are going to the business-like CEO type as the president, and then the chief academic officer achieves that goal of consensus building with the faculty,” Simmons says. “The 21st century is demanding that you have someone who can build partnerships within the local communities and reach out and bring in dollars … but we are an academic institution, and there has to be academic leadership from some source at the top.”

Smith, the former chancellor of the California Community College System, says he’s relieved he no longer has to live the hectic life of a community college president. He says the job is akin to operating a three-ring circus.

“To call [the community college presidency] a high-wire act, I think, is quite appropriate,” he says. “Sometimes, you’re going to wind up with a board member or two yanking the high wire up and down. And the president or the CEO’s job is to stay on the high wire. It’s just the nature of the game. It’s political, it’s tough, and I hope both [Branch and Carreon] pick themselves up and go back into the fray.”

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