Practical Leadership in Community Colleges: Navigating Today’s Challenges, the much anticipated book George R. Boggs co-authored with Christine J. McPhail, is set to release this July. We were fortunate to be able to sit down with Boggs and McPhail to learn more about this project. During our conversation, he explored many challenges community college leaders face today and provided insight into how to overcome those obstacles.

George R. Boggs is the Superintendent and President Emeritus at Palomar College and President and CEO Emeritus of the American Association of Community Colleges. He has an impressive track record of steering community colleges through uncertain times. Christine J. McPhail is Emerita Professor of higher education and Founder of the Community College Leadership Doctoral Program at Morgan State University.

*The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to write this book? What did you see happening in the community college landscape, and what did you see missing in the current literature on community college leadership?

Leadership of the nation’s community colleges has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades—and it is more challenging than ever. The issues that leaders deal with today include increasing demands to improve college completion rates, increased accountability, enrollment and funding instability, new funding formulas based on student success measures, student unrest, safety and security, cyber security threats, racial tensions, weapons on campus, and many others. Our book is intended to assist leaders at all levels in the institution to anticipate, manage, and deal effectively with today’s complex issues. The book provides case studies and suggestions for leaders to use to facilitate discussions and planning at their institutions. Leaders need to prepare their teams to focus on practical solutions to emerging issues before they become disruptive, costly, or even dangerous.

You dedicate one chapter to the access mission of community colleges and another to issues of accountability. How do you see these two issues intersecting? How would you advise community college leaders to measure success?

Colleges are being held accountable for providing access to higher education and training for students. Although access has been a point of pride for those of us involved with community colleges, we are still not as successful as we need to be. Low-income populations and racial minorities do not attend college at rates that we would like to see. As states have disinvested in higher education and tuition costs have increased, the cost of college has become a barrier for some potential students.

However, the focus on accountability has recently shifted away from just access to student success. Measuring success is still unfinished business in the community college sector. Simply looking at graduation rates does not provide the complete picture. Selective institutions may be able to improve success rates by limiting access to those most likely to succeed; open admissions institutions have a societal obligation to protect access. For community colleges that have expanded their missions to include baccalaureate programs, the open-access mission needs to remain a priority.

In the book, you discuss the importance of increasing completion rates for an increasingly diverse set of students without lowering the bar. What are some of the most promising practices you’ve seen for improving community college student persistence and completion?

Student engagement is one of the most important determinants of student success. The Center for the Study of Community College Engagement has been assisting institutions to measure and improve student engagement for several years. The Achieving the Dream Initiative has verified that early enrollment in a college success skills or freshman experience class is effective. Of course, InsideTrack has documented the significant positive effect of coaching. The American Association of Community Colleges has begun a guided pathways initiative that is focused on helping students to enroll in course sequences that will assist them to be successful.

Several community colleges have begun to collaborate with K-12 institutions in order to improve college readiness. Some additional promising practices to improve student success include: the transparent pathways that are being implemented in Completion by Design Institutions; K-12 partnerships such as those at Long Beach City College in California and Harper College in Illinois; and focus on effective pedagogy such as Culturally Responsive Teaching as practiced at the Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland.

What are the primary obstacles that prevent institutions from implementing these practices more broadly? What barriers to organizational change and agility most often get in the way? And conversely, what prevents the discontinuation of ineffective practices?

Our book addresses institutional change, barriers to change, and how to implement change successfully. Colleges are among the most change resistant and tradition-bound institutions.

Institutional change is a people-intensive process, and people are creatures of habit, hardwired to resist adopting new mind-sets, practices, and behaviors. In our book, we discuss change management processes comprehensively. We recommend strategies that leaders can use to capture the hearts and minds of people who need to operate differently to deliver the desired results.

Are there any institutions or institutional leaders you would like to highlight as modeling the best practices described in the book?

Completion by Design (CBD) Colleges

Over the past four years, CBD colleges have aligned policies, programs and practices to create Guided Pathways that support students to be more successful. This is a bold, innovative, and aggressive approach to student success because it requires total institutional alignment of people, structures, and culture. The CBD colleges are making significant progress on the very complex completion problem. http://completionbydesign.org

Achieving the Dream Leader Colleges

Leader colleges have shown three years of sustained improvement of student success on at least one of the following measures of performance: course completion, advancement from remedial to credit-bearing courses, completion of college-level math and English courses, term-to-term and year-to-year retention, and completion of certificates or degrees. Additionally, each college has successfully implemented at least one student success intervention or initiative that is advancing student outcomes that are of sufficient scale to benefit a substantial proportion of students. http://achievingthedream.org/press_release/14942/achieving-the-dream-announces-2015-leader-colleges

Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence

Colleges are recognized for performance and improvements in learning, graduation, workforce outcomes, and equitable outcomes for all students, focusing on those in traditionally underserved racial/ethnic groups (African-American, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American) and those from low-income backgrounds. http://www.aspeninstitute.org/policy-work/college-excellence/2015aspenprize

Is there anything else that you’d like to share with our audience?

Practical Leadership in Community Colleges: Navigating Today’s Challenges is a different kind of book than others dealing with leadership. It is focused on practical solutions to the issues that can keep leaders up at night.

The book provides practical tools and models based upon research and years of professional observations. The issues to consider and case scenarios that are included in each chapter provide leaders with points of discussion for cabinet or committee meetings. Readers can use the information immediately.

The book provides practical examples of how to master the complexity of organizational culture and how to navigate and lead within them effectively.
Today’s issues and challenges require a new way of conducting college business. We provide readers with tools and strategies that will enable them to develop the leadership skills and perspectives needed to effectively navigate the increasingly complex issues facing community colleges.


Practical Leadership in Community Colleges: Navigating Today’s Challenges, available in July, offers a path forward through the challenges community colleges face every day.