Leadership Turnover in the Community College System Can Pose Challenges

New report suggests some California higher education administrators stay in roles for too short of a duration

A recent Inside Higher Ed article, “A Culture of Leadership ‘Churn,’” suggests a pandemic exacerbated revolving door within higher education leadership positions in the California Community College system. GCC’s incoming Superintendent and President, Dr. Ryan Cornner, is the current and soon to be former Vice Chancellor of Educational Programs & Institutional Effectiveness for the nine college Los Angeles Community College District. His transition may seem on point. However, GCC is unique in that most people in executive leadership positions have been in those positions for a while.

The article cited the 2020 California Community College CEO Tenure & Retention Study, which reported that in the last 10 years, the average tenure of a California CEO was 5.1 years, a decrease from 6.9 for a similar 10-year period from 2000 to 2010.

There are several reasons for the churn, the article contends. Retirement, death (while in office), resignation, terminations, stress because of the new student-centered funding formula, workload (specifically the inability to have work-life balance), and fraught state political dynamics were primary. It goes on to say that “Leaders in the California Community Colleges system say this continual leadership turnover is a big problem, and the pandemic has only exacerbated it.”  

One structural reason for the turnover is the size of the community college system. Sources for the article say there are currently 18 openings in the superintendent, president, and chancellor positions. The sheer number of jobs and corresponding openings within the community college system creates an environment of career climbing, the desire for individual advancement, higher titles, and the corresponding income increase. It becomes a process where colleges within the system poach from each other. The article contends that the pressure to fill job openings inevitably leads to circumstances where administrators are stepping into president or chancellor roles before they are ready.

Curtis Potter, Division Chair of the Technology & Aviation departments, began his career at GCC as an adjunct faculty in 1999. “I didn’t pay too much attention to administrative comings and goings as an adjunct,” he said. He views the turnover rate of GCC college leadership as normal. “The current superintendent/president, Dr. Viar, has been here nine years. Among other administrators, the turnover has been mostly the result of retirements.”  

The effect of leadership turnover on faculty, staff, and students can be profound and have a lasting impact. “The impact of leadership changes on faculty and staff is significant,” Potter continued. “Policy changes may not garner the same support from all stakeholders. For example, one of the first policy changes made by Dr. Viar was to make the campus smoke-free. This was very controversial (you can’t please all the people all the time). Other policy changes may not be so visible.”

The impact of rapidly revolving leadership allows little time to gain traction and build momentum. “It is the leadership that sets the tone and controls the ‘culture’ within the entire organization,” said Potter. “I believe the single biggest issue for college leadership has to do with the mission. In its simplest form, the mission is student learning or student success. This involves not only teaching, but also mentoring.”  

Another detrimental aspect of churn was highlighted in the Higher Ed article by Keith Curry, president and CEO of Compton College for 12 years. “When leaders are constantly changing, ‘institutional knowledge’ is lost and long-term plans grind to a halt,” Curry said.  

According to Potter, the impact of leadership turnover “is nearly 100% dependent on how the transition was handled.” Having adequate onboarding and training are requirements for a successful transition. “I have observed that there are leaders on campus that are literally the only person with institutional knowledge of their tasks. There is huge risk in having only one person who is able to complete the loop or perform important functions. Even if that person takes a sick day, there is often no one else to fill in. This ‘shut-down’ has a trickle-down effect on many other employees and potentially students. No one should be indispensable. And in cases where ‘no one else knows how to do what I do’ a smooth transition plan and training arrangements must be in place,” Potter said.  

“The greatest challenges college leadership faces are societal change, staying ahead of the technology curve, and the ongoing priority of attention and assessment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility,” Potter said. “​Sound leadership, in my opinion, is no different at colleges than it is in business, the military, government, or elsewhere. Leaders must be fair and honest. They must be good listeners and willing to make the best choice for the good of the organization even when not universally accepted (non-smoking). They must keep their eyes on the mission yet be forward-looking and proactive. The best leaders recognize hard work and achievement, not just the ‘bad stuff.’ They must practice what they preach and demonstrate loyalty.”

With the new wave of leadership churn, the California Community College system leaders are leaving much more quickly than in previous years. This is not the case for GCC. There have been 15 Superintendent/Presidents since the college was founded in 1927, an average tenure of 6.3 years.

The Tenure & Retention Study, created just a few months into the pandemic, cited 2020 as the year of challenge and opportunity: pandemic, recession, and racial reckoning. The actual impact on community college leadership longevity due to the pandemic, recession, and racial reckoning remains to be seen.

Ingrid Lohne can be reached at [email protected].