Things Fall Apart: The Centre Can Hold-Reflections on Accreditation and Faculty Leadership

March
2009
Richard Mahon, Executive Committee member

Two stars appear in the firmament. First, the number of colleges on warning (or worse: probation or show cause, the final stage prior to revocation of accreditation) seems to be increasing. Second, the number of colleges with chancellor, president, and other top administrative positions that are vacant or have recent or interim appointees also seems to be on the rise. These twin stars call to mind lines from W. B. Yeats' famous poem, The Second Coming:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

Accreditation Standard IV, "Leadership and Governance," begins "The institution recognizes and utilizes the contributions of leadership throughout the organization for continuous improvement of the institution. Governance roles are designed to facilitate decisions that support student learning programs and services and improve institutional effectiveness, while acknowledging the designated responsibilities of the governing board and the chief administrator."

Given the very reasonable expectation that colleges seek "continuous improvement," it seems odd that that colleges continue to invest messianic hopes and expectations in the role to be played by chancellors and presidents, as though a college cannot make commitments to its mission, develop new academic programs and the student support services to support them, establish priorities, use data to assess institutional effectiveness, or make improvements without a permanent incumbent sitting in the CEO's chair. At too many colleges, the CEO announces his or her departure and time stands still. No wonder so many colleges are being sanctioned by the Accrediting Commission.

A college is, after all, a community, not its leaders. There seems to be widespread agreement across the state that there has been a significant decline in the longevity of CEOs. It is not uncommon for screening committees to read letters of application from college presidents who have served their current college for two, three, or four years and are already looking to "move on." If (say) the average CEO serves for four years, and if it frequently takes a year to conduct a recruitment for a permanent chief executive, the result is that colleges potentially spend a quarter of their time stagnating, if the expectation is that the CEO is responsible for leading the institution.

If the average term of office for administrators is four years and accreditation visits happen every six years, then colleges are very likely to be responding to prior recommendations when there is a change in leadership. A new president or chancellor who does not respect the role of other leadership constituencies and cannot support a work in progress risks setting his or her college up for a new cycle of recommendations.

If the introduction of Standard IV is taken seriously, colleges must begin to think more broadly about where institutional leadership is rooted. Standard IV expresses the expectation that colleges seek "leadership throughout the organization," not just from administration.

Who do faculty "work for"? While faculty are evaluated by their peers, faculty do not work for their colleagues or for administrators, or for their governing boards: faculty serve students.

Faculty work to provide "student learning programs and services and improve institutional effectiveness." Compared to the often too-fleeting tenure of administrators, faculty are the only constituency on most community college campuses in a position to innovate, evaluate the effectiveness of those innovations, fine tune and seek "continuous improvement of the institution."

Standard IV also requires that colleges "acknowledge the designated responsibilities of the governing board and the chief administrator." What are those responsibilities? Rather than faculty working for administrators, the governing board and administrators work for faculty, since it is the responsibility of the governing board and administrators to provide fiduciary oversight and organize resources so that a college can most effectively fulfill its mission and educate its students. Board members don't provide student-learning programs. Administrators don't provide direct services to students.

A committed governing board and effective administrators are crucial to college campuses, but it is faculty who teach and counsel and provide library services to students, and it is the job of governing boards, administrators, and staff to support the work of faculty as they provide direct service to students.

An effective president is able to work collaboratively and support ongoing institutional commitments, even while providing a new perspective for colleges and helping them to overcome problems that previously had proven insoluble.

One faculty member at the Academic Senate's January 2009 Accreditation Institute noted that her college went on warning, in part, for not meeting eligibility requirement #5, which requires that colleges have adequate administrative capacity (this particular college had 13 interim administrators at the time of the site visit that led to the college being placed on warning). While functioning with 13 interim administrators would certainly be a challenge, colleges do not belong to administrators and should be able to draw on the shared vision of governing board members, administrators (permanent and interim), staff, students, and above all, faculty, to define and refine the college's mission and to develop planning processes that evaluate institutional effectiveness and allocate limited resources in a way that best enables the college to fulfill its mission. These processes should be ongoing and a temporary vacancy in the president's chair should not incapacitate a college while a search is underway to fill that vacancy.

California community colleges face challenges from many quarters, and administrative instability is only one among many. It is sometimes the case that the departure of a respected administrator leaves a gap on a college campus-sometimes a huge gap; things sometimes do fall apart. If administrators are the centre of a college's commitment to planning and serving students, the centre may not hold. But if the faculty are the long-term life of the college-as certainly should be the case given the frequency of 20, 30, and even 50-year teaching careers-then administrators can move on and the centre can hold. Things don't need to fall apart.

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