I had the privilege recently of speaking at the Association of Colleges’ Governance Summit in London.
As one of five countries represented — England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the United States — I found the conversation most illuminating and worthwhile.
Frankly, we have more in common than one might think when it comes to the opportunities and challenges of leading our colleges and much insight and perspective to share with one another.
While the history and origins of our further education or community college sectors differ widely, I took from the Summit a renewed sense that we all are at a point of intersection when it comes to critical issues of governance, autonomy, funding, leadership and strategic planning.
None of the participants from the five countries had the enviable position of having worked it out to everyone’s satisfaction.
While not dwelling on the political differences between the education systems, we all to a greater or lesser extent touched on areas where additional effort and forethought is required.
At the heart of the conversation was governance. Specifically, identifying, selecting, onboarding and integrating governors or trustees was a recurrent theme, and perhaps the most vexing at times.
While the pathway to governance is quite different across the pond, creating a sustainable and predictable supply of talented individuals to assume governing roles remains critical and a work in progress for our sectors.
Autonomy and a life free of political interference was another theme cutting across the sectors. Essentially, if our colleges are to focus intensely on meeting the workforce and training needs of our communities, a laser focus on relevance and connection is key, without the complicating factor of external and sometimes competing political interests or forces.
This is perhaps especially acute in the United States where trustees, or governors, are politically appointed or directly elected by their communities. Nonetheless, the ability to steer clear and away from political pressure is an important ingredient to maintaining healthy governance and transparency.
None of the country representatives on the panel was content with the level of funding or with the priority of funding provided across the sectors. Here we have too much in common, to the general detriment of our colleges and communities.
Plenty of lip service is paid around the value and necessity of meeting our workforce and labor needs, especially in our complex interdependent economies. Tragically, such service seldom translates to adequate funding or support for the mission of our colleges.
The issue of who will lead our colleges in the future was highlighted also. Both sectors face issues of succession planning and creating the pipelines to leadership required to maintain the caliber and effectiveness of our leaders as we move forward to meet complex challenges and demands.
The job of principal or CEO is more layered and more fraught with risk than ever before and we must help prepare our future leaders to rise to the challenges and to be successful.
Finally, strategic planning, or the ability to anticipate, plan and to respond to our changing educational and labor ecosystems has taken on more urgency than at any time in the past.
All the other issues I have touched on make the job of strategic planning more difficult, while at the same time, more essential than ever.
Taking liberties with George Bernard Shaw’s famous observation, “we are two peoples divided by a common <education system>”.
Exposure to and dialogue around our common difficulties provides an excellent foundation for moving forward and solidifying our mutual interests and aspirations.
I welcome the opportunity to continue to participate in the conversation and to work across the pond to strengthen our two sectors and lessen the divide.
J. Noah Brown is president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) and author of First in the World: Community Colleges and America’s Future.