two presidents paint a pony
Sharon Etemad, President of Lake Region State College, and Cynthia Lindquist Mala, President of Cankdeska Cikana (Little Hoop) Community College, both in North Dakota, prepare to paint the base coat on a “painted pony” during Native American Month 2005
Photo: Black Pinto Horse Fine Arts

The job of being a rural community college president leaves no time for pipe-puffing. Along with the standard tasks of shoveling dirt at groundbreakings, passing out diplomas, and holding up big cardboard facimiles of checks (that’s if you’re lucky), you have to recruit good faculty, often to remote places with few amenities, and hang onto them with low salaries. You’re expected to drive declining economies upward and take suggestions or complaints at all hours, even rolling through the supermarket.

Jay Leist of Texas Tech University delved into the work of rural community college leaders, interviewing fifteen of them from nine states. His study “’Ruralizing’ Presidential Job Advertisements,” published in New Directions for Community Colleges, finds “rurals are different” and problems in rural education are different; consequently, rural community college presidents need to be recruited differently.

college prez and chefs

Monroe County (Michigan) Community College president David Nixon, in dark suit at right, is joined by 17 students from the college culinary arts program and their teacher at the Michigan capitol to honor passage of State Senator Randy Richardville’s first bill with a community-college-cooked meal
Photo: Michigan Senate

Leist looked at 95 actual advertisements for the post of president at rural community colleges around the country and put together a composite employment announcement. The rural community college presidents he intereviewed had emphasized that “geography, politics, and the culture of a rural area profoundly affect the daily operations of a rural institution and the activities of its president.” Yet Leist discovered that the average advertisement for the job downplayed or even omitted any mention of rural location. Only eight of the ninety-five job postings “listed ‘familiarity with rural issues’ as a required quality.”

Rather than listing personal and professional accomplishments expected of job candidates, Leist recommends that rural community colleges offer candid descriptions of the locales they serve and the problems they face. A rural community college needs “to candidly tell the story of its people and its leadership issues, challenges, and opportunities,” he writes. His article includes a revised advertisement for a rural community college president with these features.

college prez kisses cow

Riverland Community College President Terrence Leas kissed a cow, raising for $400 during a tsunami relief benefit
Photo: Minnesota State Colleges and Universities

The community college presidents Leist interviewed stressed that in a rural setting time management skills are vital. These institutions often serve wide geographic areas and administrators must be constantly on the move, visiting community leaders, employers, teachers, and prospective students. Also, since many rural community colleges are based in areas dominated by farming and ranching, administrators must either have first hand knowledge of these occupations or be willing to learn. “One president even learned to ride a horse to show her awareness of and support for the local equestrian industry,” Leist found.

Of the nation’s 1666 community colleges, 922 are rural. In urban or exurban settings, the professional qualifications of job candidates may suffice. But Leist concludes that rural community colleges need leaders who are prepared to serve in the diverse roles that will be required of them (including but not limited to throwing out the first pitch and kissing a cow). More important than a job candidate’s credentials may be his or her preparedness for the economic and cultural environment they’ll be entering. Not surprisingly, Leist concludes, “Rural roots—or at least some exposure to the rural way of life—provide a distinct advantage in understanding this bond and the local culture. According to the participants in this study, having rural roots—though seldom listed in an advertisement—can offer a president a measure of credibility with constituents. Although someone from an urban or suburban setting may do well as the senior leader of a rural institution, a personal knowledge of—and comfort with—rural culture appears crucial to ensuring the likelihood of a good fit.”

Of note: Eastern Kentucky University has just created a new doctoral program in education “with an important—and unusual—emphasis: preparing leaders who understand public policy, bring a multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary approach to long-standing educational challenges, and possess a well-grounded understanding of community, culture, and sociology in rural schools, particularly those in central Appalachia.”

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