The CAO Position: A Stepping Stone to the Presidency?

Six leaders discuss the CAO position and why they love it

Harvard Business School professor and author Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter once stated that when women comprise more than one-third of a group, they can be studied on their own. Women now comprise 42% of community college chief academic officers (CAOs). While the percentage of women in that position has doubled since 1990, the number of women in the president’s role has not seen similar gains.

Taking Kanter’s comments to heart, Dr. Brent Cejda, associate professor in the department of educational admini-stration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is continuing his research on a group of six female CAOs at community colleges. Having studied women leaders in community colleges since the 1980s, he shared some insights at the University of Nebraska’s Women in Educational Leadership conference in Lincoln in October.

His six leaders have 48.5 combined years of CAO experience with stints ranging from three to 21 years. Only one had previously held the position of CAO. “They are already past the norm of holding a position,” he said of his six subjects. Men generally hold the CAO position for five years before moving into a presidency.” The women also have a total of 59 years of full-time faculty experience, three of them in K-12 education.

Cejda asked each of the women these questions:

1. How did you come to work at a community college?

Despite a variety of work/life experiences, all of the women agreed that they were drawn to the community college’s instructional mission. “For all of them it was a conscious decision to work at a community college because of its emphasis on teaching,” said Cejda.

Two had previously worked in elementary education and were recruited to teach at a community college. One was the poster child for a community college, having earned an associate’s degree and then returned as an adjunct faculty member. Two others took jobs at a community college because they had wanted to teach.

One had held an administrative position at a four-year school and wanted a faculty appointment, which she was able to get only by moving to a community college.

2. Why do you work there?

The women in Cejda’s study represent 141 years of experience. The community college’s mission and purpose were what had first attracted them. One reported: “I believe the community college is the truest democracy in terms of higher education institutions.” Another said: “I think we make a difference – that’s why I work here.” Each had a true commit-ment to the community college mission and was satisfied with her environment.

3. Did you actively pursue a CAO position?

Teaching was the primary reason for joining and staying at the community college. None of them actively sought the administrative position, although two women, as they progressed up in the administrative ranks, decided to become a CAO. At the time, one was eight years into a dean’s position and the other had been a chair for 13 years.

Statistics show that 52% of chief academic officers at all community colleges move up to president at their current school. In Cejda’s study, only two of the six women had done so. The other four had been recruited for the CAO position, the only CAO job they had applied for and the one they currently held. One of the women had actually put together a strategy and applied to other places.

4. Were there any issues or challenges?

Three challenges stood out as potential barriers to their success: lack of a doctorate, being an internal search and being single. Several of the women lived in rural areas where it was difficult to earn a PhD. One got her position without the doctorate because of a previously failed search. Today the same position at that school would require the terminal degree.

Most often, geography is a key barrier to opportunities for women. Most won’t go out of state for a new position. The four who were recruited as CAOs were an exception.

 For the leader who was a single woman, her marital status caused difficulties with personal relationships. Besides the implications that come with being friends with male colleagues outside of the work environment, the leader had wondered if her being single had actually led her to take on the CAO position as a form of compensation.

Perhaps it’s the student-centered nature of community colleges, but none of the women reported feeling penalized for their gender at a community college. They reported always having support and feeling as capable as their male colleagues.

5. Where or how did you develop skills, experience?

Answers to this question serve as a primer for women who aspire to a CAO position. All six said they had developed skills as faculty members and through formal and informal professional development opportunities. One emphasized that those considering similar positions should “develop a love and appreciation for teachers and teaching. After all, it’s all about trying to lead faculty.”

All had mentors outside their schools. “When women talked about learning things, they looked for the best leaders and model from them,” said Cejda. “They don’t worry about what gender the mentor is.”

Four of them noted that their disciplines had helped hone their skills. Only one had a degree in higher education or higher education leadership. One had a science/math background and with it, substantial problem-solving skills. Another with a speech/communication background could use those skills for self-promotion and to promote the school.

Serving on committees and other assignments gave the women a big picture perspective. One had experience outside of higher education that helped her gain “people skills” important to her success.

To acquire knowledge about fiscal topics, three of the women said they had taken advantage of non-credit professional development opportunities. Previous administrative experiences and formal education were also cited as ways of acquiring skills and abilities. “My formal education taught me how to deal with frustration,” said one respondent. Informal professional development came from reading professional literature on particular topics, especially on unfamiliar subjects.

From the data came some recommendations for those aspiring to the CAO position or newly hired to it. The top professional recommendation was to acquire faculty experience at a community college.

Other critical factors included gaining an understanding of the organizational culture as well as communication, decision-making and fiscal skills.

Developing an atmosphere of trust between the deans and chairpersons was also seen as necessary to effectiveness. “CAOs need to learn to trust other instructional administrators and allow them to do their jobs,” said Cejda.

Networking with peers off campus was recommended as was having a practicum or job shadowing experience. Mentoring also won strong advocation, although none of the women leaders had actively sought out a mentor. But as a result of their experiences, five of the six have made a conscious decision to mentor others. Getting an advanced degree was strongly encouraged. And developing a sense of humor and a thick skin were also keys to success.

On the personal side, the women recommended finding a balance between work and home life. Prioritizing health and hobbies — or “personal escape experiences” — was encouraged as was actually leaving the job at times.

To the women, this meant using technology for effectiveness but not letting the technology rule you. “If you carry a Blackberry and/or cell phone, you don’t actually leave the job,” said one respondent. “You’re just carrying it with you.” New CAOs were reminded to not “reinvent the wheel” and to avoid constant bouts of multi-tasking.

6. Do you want to be a president?

Because the CAO position is one step below the presidency, Cejda also asked his subjects if they wanted the top position. Although all believed they had the skills to be a president, only one said “yes.” Four said “no” and one was unsure, although she was participating in activities for aspiring presidents to try to decide.

Why not? Reasons for declining included not wanting to attend all the external meetings or engage in fundraising. Another decided not to seek the presidency because it would remove her from the school’s instructional mission.

Only one respondent indicated a preference for a lateral move to a CAO position at another school, while the others wanted to remain where they were.

All would eventually like to return to the faculty, although they had some concerns about being relevant in their disci-plines when they did. One had left a community college for a position at a four-year school, but returned three years later saying she wasn’t able to contribute to the four-year school like she was at the community college.

For these six female CAOs at community colleges, the job is less a stepping stone than a destination.

Contact Cejda at:
bcejda2@unl.edu or 402.472.0989

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