Higher Learning Commission

2014 Collection of Papers

Anticipating the Community College Leadership Void
with an Internal Leadership Development Plan

Jonah Rice and Steve O’Keefe


Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is often quoted on his view on the difficult duty of having to say “no” as a leader: “The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes” (Brainyquote.com 2014). In a twist on Blair’s quotation, it seems as if more people are going to need to say “yes” to becoming community college leaders in the coming years. Community colleges throughout the nation are and will continue to experience dramatic losses in senior leadership due to the massive retirements of baby-boomer-generation employees.

The September 2013 issue of Data Points reports that 75 percent of community college presidents will retire within the next ten years, with slightly more than 40 percent of those presidents retiring in the next five years (Phillippe and Tekle 2013). Given the retirement of the baby boom generation in higher education, particularly in community colleges, a leadership void has developed. Significant retirements have diminished pools of seasoned leaders. Community colleges that face leadership turnover in the coming years would benefit from implementing a similar internal leadership program.

This paper explores the current and growing predicament of the loss of experienced leadership in community colleges and presents practical, informal, and formal strategies for leadership development. The paper includes original quantitative research from Illinois community colleges, as well as an ongoing qualitative case study to demonstrate a leadership development program. Questions that will be engaged include: How vast is the leadership void that is occurring? What challenges for future leadership development exist? What can colleges do to prepare future leaders for tomorrow?

Leadership Void

As the community college system grew throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, so did the number of employees at the institutions, which, by 2000, created a crisis for community colleges. Cohen and Brawer (2008); Campbell, Syed, and Morris (2010); Basham and Mathur (2010); and Fulton-Calkins and Milling (2005) all agree that community colleges have faced considerable challenges throughout the twentieth century and early twenty-first century, with possibly the most significant challenge evolving from their own success. Levine et al. (2004) note that as community colleges experienced tremendous growth throughout the 1960s and 1970s, they struggled to find faculty members and administrators to staff the growing campuses. The authors describe the current problem as being the result of baby-boomers hired during the period noted above having their careers come to a close, beginning in the late 1990s and continuing through today. Consider the following statistics:

  • Forty-five percent of the nation’s more than eleven hundred community college presidents indicated that they planned to retire by 2007. Further research shows that the trend will continue through at least 2016. (Phillippe and Tekle 2013)
  • Community college presidents are getting older: in 1986, their average age was 51; in 1998 it was 57. In 2011 37 percent of community college presidents indicated that their age demographic was 55 to 59, while 22 percent indicated that their ages fell in the 50–54 demographic, and 25 percent were in the 60–64 demographic. (Shults 2001)
  • The number of advanced degrees conferred in community college administration decreased 78 percent from 1982–1983 to 1996–1997. (Shults 2001)

Calling the problem a “crisis in leadership,” in 2001 the American Association of Community Colleges commissioned a report on the effects that massive retirements would have on community colleges. The report (Shults 2001) describes the crisis as evolving from leaders who had spent thirty to forty years building the community college system from the ground up. In retiring, those long-term employees would take or already had taken with them extensive knowledge of the system and individual institutions. Weisman and Vaughan (2007) and Shults (2001) reported that seven hundred new presidents and thirty thousand new faculty members would be needed to fill the void left by retiring baby boomers. Weisman and Vaughan’s 2007 study revealed that 84 percent of community college presidents planned to retire within a ten-year period.

Replacement Challenges

Community colleges face the choice of bringing into leadership roles those who may have little to no experience with this venue of higher education or identifying potential leaders and provide adequate training to prepare them for senior administrative roles. Breen (2012) identifies key issues associated with the current state of the leadership pipeline, including the lack of a plan for recruitment, selection, preparation, placement, and professional development. While some may call for casting the net wide for leadership recruitment, others embrace succession planning as the key to assuring college sustainability. Ebbers, Conover, and Samuels (2010, 59) conclude that existing leaders need to identify, train, and “grow their own” to meet the increased need for new leadership. Perhaps Lewis (2004, 4) best observed the void: “Not only are we losing current executives to retirement, we are losing the leaders that know how to develop future leaders all the way through retirement.”

O’Keefe’s (2013) research on leadership in Illinois community colleges reveals incredible hurdles in coming years regarding the coming void. This research serves as an example for other systems. As an example, the state of Illinois continues to face fiscal challenges and competition for funds as well as students that will require leaders who know and understand the community college system as well as political culture. In a survey of 435 respondents in leadership roles, 64 percent indicated that their institution did not have a succession plan in place for retiring administrators. Only 14 percent indicated that their institution had a plan, while 22 percent indicated that they were uncertain as to whether or not their institution had a plan in place.

Leadership Training Program

In an effort to anticipate this void and maintain consistent and reliable leadership, Southeastern Illinois College has employed practical informal and formal strategies for leadership development. In fall 2012, the college designed and implemented a leadership development program that had elements of cross-training, including topics such as negotiations, and process documentation, including topics such as hiring processes and budgeting. Such initiatives led to an ease of transition during leadership vacancies.

A more formal and codified leadership development program was designed and implemented in fall 2013 to support emerging leaders. The program was modeled somewhat after a leadership development program created as a statewide initiative from college presidents and trustees. This coordinated effort covered a variety of relevant issues, ranging from the theoretical/philosophical to the practical. Guest speakers and rotating sites provided a broad view of leadership and effective practices.

Informal Elements

Cross-training efforts were important as leadership departures and retirements resulted in voids that diminished institutional functions. For instance, when the chief financial officer, who also served as the chief negotiator, left a number of years ago, few remaining staff members had any real experience in negotiating. A significant effort was made to cross-train multiple administrators on negotiating teams. Rotation of administrators also occurred among the different bargaining units to provide a breadth of experience on similar subjects, such as wages, healthcare/benefits, and different bargaining unit negotiating styles.

In terms of human resources, process documentation and training became crucial as new leaders were faced with replacing their employees. The college has a strong history of shared governance in hiring, and communicating the culture’s hiring committee system was paramount in terms of process sustainability. Such documentation grew into an extensive internal hiring and recruiting process manual.

Budgeting and risk management also required much process documentation. The college’s budgeting process includes a long-standing tradition of open budget hearings. In addition, budgeting history process documentation led to a much-needed financial modeling for the institution. Risk management process documentation is also being finalized, as that activity is and should be comprehensive throughout the organization. Leadership training has begun in this cross-training effort.

The cross-training effort that was realized at Southeastern grew into the idea of an internal leadership development program. As the face of the college changed to many newcomers, it was apparent that a more formal program was required.

Formal Elements

In fall 2012, the college president challenged his administrative team at their annual retreat with the task of helping to develop a leadership development program. The purpose of the program was twofold: (1) assist in training new leaders at the college who had little history or experience; and (2) assist in training those who may assume progressive leadership roles in the future. Using a variation of nominal group technique, the president facilitated discussion that ultimately led to a cross-referenced list of key topics that should be included in an institution-specific leadership development program.

Topics that surfaced for leadership training included a variety of subjects, including shared governance, leadership and the law, loyalty and tradition, servant leadership, blame in the workplace, risk, and finance, among others. A key element of the program was that it ultimately should be specific to the institution. While general subject matter and popular theories of leadership style are valuable to the process, the unique and culture-specific style dictated a “one size doesn’t fit all” approach. The design of the program went through multiple revisions and screenings with cabinet and human resources before it was placed online as a Web-based module program. The basic format features included:

  • A year-long program, culminating in a dinner and awards ceremony
  • Monthly meetings with guest speakers pertaining to assigned monthly topics
  • Online postings regarding leadership reading prompts
  • Online written reactions to leadership quotations
  • Online journal, culminating in a personal leadership philosophy reflection essay
  • Certificate of completion placed in the personnel file

Once the program was developed, cabinet members were asked to submit names of exempt employees for the development opportunity, and academic division chairs were given the opportunity to undertake the training or nominate someone from their division.

Results from the program have been positive thus far, but the fruits of this labor will not be fully seen until some time after the program has come to an end. A second cohort is planned for the future, with revisions to the program based on end-of-program evaluations.


As Shults (2001) predicted just over a decade ago, presidents, senior administrators, and faculty leaders were beginning to retire at alarming rates, a trend that he predicted would continue for several years as baby boomers continued to age. The leadership void will happen, and leaders must be ready to assume vacancies to provide stability. These emerging leaders will face a significant loss of experience and understanding. Thus, community colleges have an urgent need for succession planning and leadership development programs.

Original research conducted by O’Keefe regarding the leadership void in Illinois suggests a need for leadership training programs. While some plans are underway with the Illinois Community College Trustees Association to develop a comprehensive leadership development program in the future, internal college programs like the one at Southeastern Illinois College may serve emerging leaders well as community colleges confront the leadership void.


Basham, M. J., and R. O. Mathur. 2010. Dynamic leadership development in community college administration: Theories, applications, and implications. New Directions for Community Colleges 149: 25–32.

Brainyquote.com. 2014. Tony Blair. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/t/tonyblair384839.html.

Breen, T. 2012. Biden touts community colleges in NC visit. Community College Week 24: 16, 5.

Campbell, D. F, S. Syed, and P. A. Morris. 2010. Minding the gap: Filling a void in community college leadership development. New Directions for Community Colleges 149: 33–39.

Cohen, A. M., and F. B. Brawer. 2008. The American community college, 5th ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ebbers, L., K. S. Conover, and A. Samuels. 2010. Leading from the middle: Preparing leaders for new roles. New Directions for Community Colleges 149: 59–64.

Fulton-Calkins, P., and C. Milling. 2005. Community college leadership: An art to be practiced: 2010 and beyond. Community College Journal of Research and Practice 29 (3): 233–250.

Levine, A., R. Templin Jr., C. McPhail, J. E. Roueche, H. D. Shannon, and B. Omundson. 2004. The biggest challenge for community colleges: 6 views. Chronicle of Higher Education, October 29. http://chronicle.com/article/The-Biggest-Challenge-for/28226.

Lewis, B. O. 2004. Performance-based succession planning. Chief Learning Officer. http://clomedia.com/articles/view/performance_based_succession_planning.

O’Keefe, S. 2013. A looming crisis in leadership: Massive retirements and the concerns for future leadership at Illinois community colleges. PhD diss., Oakland City University.

Phillippe, K. A., and R. Tekle. 2013. Pending CEO retirements. Data Points. http://www.aacc.nche.edu/Publications/datapoints/Documents/PendingCEO_9%2011%2013.pdf.

Shults, C. 2001. The critical impact of impending retirements on community college leadership. Washington, DC: American Association of Community Colleges. http://www.aacc.nche.edu/Publications/Briefs/Documents/11062001leadership.pdf.

Weisman, I. M., and G. B. Vaughan. 2007. The community college presidency, 2006. Washington DC: American Association of Community Colleges. http://www.aacc.nche.edu/Publications/Briefs/Documents/09142007presidentbrief.pdf.



About the Authors

Jonah Rice is President of Southeastern Illinois College in Harrisburg, Illinois, and Steve O’Keefe is Director of College Relations at John A. Logan College in Carterville, Illinois.

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NOTE: The papers included in this collection offer the viewpoints of their authors. HLC recommends them for study and for the advice they contain, but they do not represent official HLC directions, rules or policies.

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