Presidents and Doctorates

Recent controversies raise anew questions about whether community college leaders need Ph.D.s, writes Angela Provart.

October 26, 2011

As a consultant who focuses on community college leadership positions, I answer lots of questions not only from colleges, but from those who are interested in applying for open positions.  One of the questions that often arises for community college presidencies regards the doctorate.  In light of the recent doctorate debacle in Alabama, it seems an appropriate time to openly discuss the topic.

1. Should boards require a doctorate for community college presidencies?

For most community colleges, the answer is simply, no.  Requirements such as "doctorate degree," "5 years of experience as a vice president or higher" or "5 years of teaching experience" only serve to limit the applicant pool. The goal of recruiting is to generate an applicant pool, and allow the committee to do the narrowing. 

However, every college's needs are different.  I've  worked with colleges that are adjacent to four-year universities and the doctorate degree does make a difference in credibility.  Sometimes, certain degrees are required for accreditation.  This list can go on and on, but if it is an arbitrary requirement to have a doctorate, leave it out.

After working with colleges for over 15 years, I've found that ethics, fit with college culture, past successes, interpersonal skills, as well as decision making ability and the skill to include others in that process are the main ingredients for an effective leader.  I've seen as many people without doctorates with those skills as I have those with doctorates.

2. If a presidency ad says "doctorate preferred," how preferred? Should I bother applying if I don't have one?

The best way to find out is to call the search consultant.  A large part of the consultant’s role is to answer questions from potential applicants and to create an open dialog that encourages questions that will help them to determine their fit at the institution. 

There are times when a board will not budge on the doctorate requirement and so it remains a requirement. When that is the case, I will tell potential applicants that this is a requirement, but I also advise them not to let the requirement on paper screen them out from the applicant pool.  If the potential applicant strongly meets all of the other requirements and has a true interest in this particular college and this particular position, then apply and see what happens. 

In this case, I would advise that the applicant very clearly and succinctly describe how he/she meets the other requirements.

3.  Do search committees care about the kind of doctorate? Ed.D. vs. Ph.D., a doctorate in higher ed administration vs. a traditional discipline?

Some do, but not many once they hear that the applicant pool will be severely limited by making such strong and restrictive requirements.  If the college would consider a new leader from a nontraditional background, then list the minimum degree requirement that the college would accept.  The goal of recruiting is to create the applicant pool and allow the committee to do the screening.

Below is a composite candidate. The next time your community college is writing a job posting for a senior administrator, please think of this person. 

Multiple years teaching high school chemistry, while teaching adjunct for a couple of years at the local community college. Multiple years teaching full-time at that same local community college; several years of that time were spent at the department chair level. Served on the VP of Academic Affairs hiring committee and the curriculum committee, and established various relationships with the outside science communities that resulted in several pieces of equipment being donated to the college.  Significant time as the dean of arts and sciences at another college in another state. Several years as the VP of academic affairs at the same college, with a strong reputation for working with faculty members, business leaders, and local politicians.  This person has a successful history of improving job training programs and raising completion rates.

Oh, by the way, this person holds a master's degree, but no doctorate.  Would you be interested in this person as your next leader?  Sometimes, it really is about the person and not the degree.


Angela Provart is president of the Pauly Group, a search firm that focuses on community colleges.


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