The North Carolina Community College System has been run by veteran politicians such as the late former Gov. Bob Scott and ex-U.S. Rep. Martin Lancaster, both wise to the ways of the General Assembly and knowledgeable about the challenges that have long faced North Carolina’s working people. The current president, Scott Ralls, is an educator, soft-spoken, who brought his own skills to the job.
Ralls is leaving next month for another job, so the system’s leaders are talking about what kind of president they want. It’s an important discussion. The community college system has been vital for more and more North Carolinians who have gotten additional job training in mid-career or even later career following a Great Recession that put some of them, too many of them, out of work.
System board members are talking with individual college presidents to determine what’s needed in the next leader. There seems to be a feeling that “political acumen” is near the top of the list.
That’s fine, as the leader of this 58-college system does indeed have to deal with the General Assembly, and the system has suffered in terms of funding in recent years.
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But given the charged atmosphere on Jones Street, the system’s leaders need to look beyond political skills. It would be unfortunate if a leader were chosen because of ties to the state’s current political leadership. The top priority, in terms of the skills desired, has to be management experience in a large and complex organization and not necessarily an educational one.
Yes, the system president has influence, but the position is one of advocacy for the system’s budget, for direction, for the mission. Each college has a board of trustees and, depending upon that board, a powerful presidency. The system president can’t really direct policy at individual campuses and can’t intervene in personnel matters except in extreme circumstances.
The communities in which the colleges exist tend to be very protective of the autonomy of “their” schools. They’re skeptical of anything that could be interpreted as “direction” from Raleigh.
Community colleges have relied on advocates in the legislature and on the influence of supporters in their own communities. They’ve had a strong case, as the colleges are vital to the state’s job training and to its overall economic health.
Now must be the time for a strong leader, someone respected across the political spectrum, who can speak for all the colleges and be heard statewide. The state has such people, and it is the charge of the community college board to find that person and put faith, trust and power in his or her hands.