50th Annual ACCT Leadership Congress: The Past is Prologue

Golden anniversary conference looks toward the future.

October 18, 2019

ACCT kicked off the 2019 Community College Leadership Congress in San Francisco Wednesday with a look back at the tumultuous half-century since the organization’s founding in 1969—and a look to the future.

“This is an organization of incredible longevity and impact,” ACCT President & CEO J. Noah Brown told a record number of more than 1,850 trustees, presidents, staff, and other community college stakeholders. “Millions of people depend on us to make their lives better…Together, we have proved our association is the real deal, and it now occupies its rightful place in history.”

ACCT Chair Connie Hornbeck detailed the significant progress made over the past year, including an increase in the maximum Pell Grant award, growing advocacy for Second Chance Pell for incarcerated students, and the potential impact of the association’s new student trustee advisory committee. However, despite the attention to the 50th anniversary of the ACCT Leadership Congress—the 2019 Congress theme is “Past is Prologue”—much more remains to be done, she told attendees.

“Our real focus will be on what’s to come,” said Hornbeck, a trustee at Iowa Western Community College. “All of higher education and industry is changing at a breakneck pace. Community colleges lie at the nexus of both. We in this room are charged with sustaining the community college sector no matter what changes come…We can’t predict, but we can and must be as prepared as possible, as nimble as possible, to keep our institutions strong for our students.”

“The work you’re doing now in this moment has never been more important,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the 115-institution California Community Colleges system. “You all represent the most important system of higher education in the nation.”

Keynote speaker Barry Posner, the Michael J. Accolti S.J. Chair Professor of Leadership at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University, focused on the key leadership practices trustees and others need to manage these complex times. Co-author of the book Leadership in Higher Education, Posner focused on five key strategies based on research involving 150,000 college and university leaders, ranging from modeling and inspiring a shared vision to upending existing processes, leading from the heart, and enabling others to act. 

“The bottom line [is that] trustees are a crucial part of the success or failure of any college,” Posner told attendees. “Whatever the challenges you face, they’ll be faced successfully as a result of leadership.”


Second Day of 2019 ACCT Congress Focuses on Evolving Leadership Needs


Throughout the second day of the 50th ACCT Leadership Conference in San Francisco, speakers and attendees focused on the evolving role of community college leaders in changing times.

During Thursday’s membership luncheon, leaders of three state community college systems emphasized the importance of local leadership in navigating a challenging landscape, including declining state support and growing student needs.

“If you want your vision to become a reality, you have to bring it down to the campus level and engage more leaders,” said Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education. “Someone has to own the passion. That’s the power of the boards.”

Sandy Caldwell, executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission, said that there’s growing recognition of the role community colleges play at all levels. “They are at the intersection of where so many things occur,” including K-12 and transfer alignment, bachelor’s degree attainment, workforce training and development, and addressing the needs of vulnerable populations, she said, stressing the importance of balancing statewide objectives with local solutions: “How this is going to be administered at the local level is going to vary—and it should.”

Joseph Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System, urged trustees to hold their presidents accountable. “The most important thing to do is ask tough questions,” he said. “How many of you know how many of your students are getting through the first semester and accumulating credits, and how that varies by demographic groups? These are the questions we need to be asking because, frankly, they’re the questions we didn’t always ask.”

Also on Thursday, representatives of California’s Community Colleges focused on statewide efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion, with a particular focus on ensuring the 115-college system’s workforce more closely mirrors the demographics of its students. “When we think about diversity, equity, and inclusion, it’s very much part of the vision of student success,” said Daisy Gonzales, deputy chancellor in the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. “We cannot talk about success without [it].”

Congress attendees also were updated on community college legislative priorities, attended more than 100 workshops and sessions, and recognized the 46 winners of Phi Theta Kappa’s 2019 New Century Workforce Pathways Scholarships, which recognize students planning to enter the workforce directly after completing their degree or certificate program. 


Congress Attendees Look at Future of Learning

“Past is Prologue: Building a Bridge to the Future” is the theme of the 2019 ACCT Leadership Congress, and Friday’s keynote speaker emphasized just how challenging that transition will be for higher education.

“We can sense the future of learning is looking different today because our students are different,” said Michelle Weise, senior vice president for workforce strategies and chief innovation officer of the Strada Institute for the Future of Work.  “We can’t necessarily extrapolate from where we are today to even meet the needs of work in 2030.”
Along with the exponential growth of so-called nontraditional students, already the norm on campus today, nearly half of today’s bachelor’s degree holders are underemployed—and 44 million working adults are at risk of being left behind, Weise said. Looking ahead, increased lifespans suggest that more and more people will need to return to education for retraining and career changes.

“We know we’re going to have to harness the power of education throughout our working lives,” she said. “Our systems are not set up to facilitate seamless movements in and out of work.”

The solution? Focusing on “uniquely human skills” along with broadening technical expertise, Weise said. Doing so will require the creation of a new “learning ecosystem” built around five core elements: navigation, funding, precision learning supports, endorsements, and the opening of doors for program completers. It’s a tall order, Weise said, but one college leaders must begin now.

“We’ve had enough time to admire the problem,” she said. “It’s time to build.”

Also Friday, Congress attendees heard several presentations sharing lessons learned from College Promise programs nationwide, which now are in place at the statewide level in nearly half the states and in more than 200 communities nationwide, as part of the more than 100 sessions and roundtables at the event.


Incoming ACCT Chair Urges Leaders to Provide ‘Precision Higher Education’

Community colleges need to become “student ready” by redoubling efforts to transform teaching and learning, 2019-20 ACCT Chair Dawn Erlandson said during the final session of the 2019 ACCT Leadership Congress.

“All of education must adapt to meet student needs, interests, and learning styles, all of which are changing in surprising ways,”said Erlandson, a trustee with Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. “We have begun to provide wraparound services to address housing and food insecurity, childcare, and mental health services. We now need to take this a step forward and provide customized learning options for students.”

Just as Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic provides “precision medicine,” college leaders must find a way to individualize learning opportunities to meet individual student needs, Erlandson told attendees. “The time has come to provide precision higher education,” she said. “Just as there is not only one kind of cancer treatment or one kind of cancer patient, there is not only one kind of student.” 

Current lecture and textbook-focused methods are “not meeting the needs of far too many students,” Erlandson said. “This is especially true of a new generation of young people who embrace innovation and different ways of learning… The sooner we adapt, the more relevant and sustainable our institutions will be.”
The 2019 Congress wrapped up by giving students the final word, with two nontraditional students sharing their experiences and offering suggestions to serve their peers. Klayre Guzman, a first-generation college graduate who attended San Jose City College after learning she was ineligible for financial aid as a Dreamer, urged community college leaders to encourage and provide support to undocumented students. 

“Remind people there’s nothing wrong with being undocumented, and that they can achieve whatever they set their minds to,” said Guzman, who ultimately transferred to the University of California Davis and is currently supporting students in the San Jose Evergreen Community College District.
James Elliott, international president of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society and a student at Delaware Technical Community College who successfully advocated for his institution to provide courses through the Second Chance Pell pilot program, spoke on behalf of other formerly incarcerated students, urging college leaders to support all nontraditional students and fight against stigmas.

“Step out against societal standards because our students are brave,” Elliott said. “You might have a single mom who's raising three kids and wants to go to school again, so she drops her job. She deserves someone just as brave as she is.”

More than 1,800 community college trustees, presidents, and advocates were in San Francisco for the 50th ACCT Leadership Congress, which concluded on Saturday. Participants tweeted throughout the conference using #ACCT2019.