College Leadership Matters

Washington Monthly editor Matt Connolly has a nice feature in our 2015 College Guide on the ten most innovative college presidents in America. This is a topic that most people don’t think about when trying to choose where they want to go to get their degree, but Connolly explains why it matters whether the top administrator is a conventional or innovative operator:

College presidents don’t generally factor into the choices students make about where to apply. No high schooler calls her mother after a campus tour to breathlessly say, “Dr. Stevenson has a great ten-year capital projects fund-raising plan!” While some presidents are closer to the spotlight than others, they mostly do their work, from an individual student’s perspective, behind the scenes, whether it’s making administrative hires, speaking at conferences, or sweet-talking deep-pocketed alumni.

But for students and higher ed as a whole, college presidents are hugely important actors, because their visions for their institutions—and their ability to carry out those visions—determine whose interests really get served. Unfortunately, most of them, like most humans, tend to accept whatever definition of success their tribe and surroundings tell them. If everyone says that to be an outstanding college president you have to keep the university just the way it is other than to raise and spend more money than your predecessor, well, that’s what you’ll do.

Some presidents, however, resist doing things the same old way for the same wrong reasons. These are innovators who treat their schools like laboratories, devising new and better ways of serving their students while providing potential road maps to success for peer institutions.

Looking at the list of the Top Ten, it appears that some of the smaller, less well-known schools are more open to being laboratories for educational experimentation. Sure, Arizona State is on the list, as well as the University of Texas-El Paso, but we also see Harvey Mudd College and Southern New Hampshire University and the City Colleges of Chicago.

I’ll use that last example to whet your appetite. This will give all the Rahm-haters something to discuss:

CHERYL HYMAN
City Colleges of Chicago
Hyman did not mince words when she took over the seven-community-college system in 2010, introducing a program called “Reinvention.” The system had a graduation rate of 7 percent, compared to a 20.6 percent national average for community colleges, according to Crain’s Chicago Business. Hyman pushed a laser focus on job training, partnering with local businesses and creating highly specialized curricula meant to get students into the workforce. She partnered with Mayor Rahm Emanuel the next year to create specialized programs in the schools’ sprawling campuses—a health care focus at Malcolm X College, transportation at Olive-Harvey—putting students through remedial classes faster and getting them real-world experience. The change hasn’t come without controversy (which is to be expected from any city program Emanuel has had a hand in overhauling), and some observers worry that Hyman is abandoning a key part of the schools’ mission in concentrating on getting students out of school and into companies. But the graduation rate has nearly doubled, and early returns on student retention are also promising. Surpassing that national average is the next step—Hyman’s 2013 five-year plan calls for at least a 20 percent graduation rate by 2018.

You can see the whole list here.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.