Succession planning 101 for community college boards

Kathleen Vail

Continuity is a large part of the community college board and leadership's success. When trustees work tirelessly to put reforms and policies in place, they want their efforts to have a lasting impact.

Board turnover puts that at risk. Board and leadership churn hurts students, staff and faculty. Instability and uncertainty can impact your ability to fundraise, create and maintain partnerships with businesses and four-year institutions of higher learning, and recruit students and faculty. 

The board of trustees, along with the college president and senior leadership, want to ensure that their institution thrives academically and financially so it can meet the needs of their students and their region. 

Succession planning for community college boards of trustees can help reduce the risk of board churn and ensure a smooth transition as boards seek to quickly fill the seats of departing trustees with new, qualified candidates.

The importance of succession planning for college boards 

Many community colleges and institutions of higher learning have structured approaches to hiring new leadership such as the president or top cabinet positions. Recruiting and retaining talented leaders is essential to the success of the institution.  

Trustees are also vital to the mission and success of the college. To maintain and build on the college’s success, boards need a long-term strategy for recruiting qualified candidates. 

Why is board succession planning so important? Key reasons include:  

  • Sustaining the mission and implementation of plans
  • Ensuring fiscal stability
  • Providing fresh ideas
  • Increasing board diversity
  • Promoting resilience on the board and for the organization.

Succession planning helps colleges maintain a competitive edge. With a viable succession plan in place, trustees will see more success with fundraising and grants for the college. Potential funders want to make sure their money is going to a sustained effort or particular program, and won’t be wasted when future trustees change or abandon the project.  

Thoughtful succession planning processes allow trustees to pinpoint board strengths and weaknesses. They might uncover a need for more student involvement, and consequently include a student trustee position on the board. Or maybe alumni support of the college is waning, so they bring in a recent graduate to add needed perspective.

A lack of trustees who reflect the ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds of the student body could also spur an initiative to increase diversity among trustees and college leadership. 

Strategic recruitment of trustees can help create new ties or strengthen existing ones with other organizations and businesses. Those ties can result in additional fundraising opportunities and more recognition of the benefits and value that community colleges bring to their communities. Corporations could choose to donate to training efforts in their field and advise on needed industry credentials and certification.  

If you don’t plan for succession...  

Instability is the bane of any board. Failure to plan for succession – including who will step into leadership roles on your board and in the community college cabinet – is a recipe for disaster. Your community – students, faculty, staff, secondary school partners, businesses and others – will notice this instability and uncertainty at the top.

This could affect your enrollment, your reputation, and your ability to raise money and connect with partners and corporations.  

Without a succession plan in place, trustee seats could be left vacant at a time when the full board is needed to make decisions for the college and ensure its future success. Board vacancies create extra work for the existing trustees, adding extra stress for members and impacting their effectiveness.  

Look at your committee structure. College boards frequently rely on committees, including those for:

  • Academic affairs
  • Audit, risk management, and compliance
  • Building and grounds
  • Advancement
  • Finance and investment
  • Student life
  • Enrollment management
  • Executive committees

The professional expertise of the trustees who lead and serve on these committees should match their focus.  

Succession planning for diversity

Boards of all kinds, including those in higher education, are under fire for not being diverse. Many students of color and students from underserved backgrounds attend community college as an affordable option to higher education.

Unfortunately, minorities are underrepresented as community college trustees. Succession planning can help ensure a diverse board that is representative of the student body.

In an article by Carl B. Smalls, Terry Calaway, and Margaretta B. Mathis in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, the authors point out: 

“While much of the existing research suggests that increasing the number of faculty and administrators of color clearly has a positive effect on educational quality and student achievement..., the reality is that trustees can have a greater impact on policy, strategic goals, and eventually can lead the most dramatic change of vision within our institutions.” 

Tips for succession planning for college boards 

Succession planning should be a part of the “business” of the board of trustees. Boards should convene for regular planning meetings to discuss potential upcoming vacancies on the board. During these meetings, boards should map out trustees and their respective terms, identify who will be up for reappointment or reelection, and pinpoint skill gaps for recruitment.  

This process will also help the board be better prepared when someone resigns abruptly, experiences a health or family emergency, or faces a situation where they cannot remain as a trustee.  

A board skills gap analysis should also be done. Consider what skills trustees currently have and look at how that compares with the college’s objectives and goals. As a board, identify the key qualifications for a trustee.

This should include a full discussion of challenges that the institution faces, as well as what skills and connections a trustee would bring to the board that could help address these challenges. Perhaps you need a candidate with fundraising connections, or a good public speaker who can represent the community college at events and conferences. 

Trustees should consider in this discussion the diversity of the board and how candidates who reflect the demographics of community college enrollment could be encouraged to apply or become a candidate.

Diversifying the board must be an intentional step in the process and not left to chance. Be a mentor to someone you think would make a good trustee. Many people, especially women and people of color, don’t actively seek out leadership positions and need to be asked to consider a leadership role.  

Interviews with departing trustees are also helpful for uncovering more about their experiences serving on the board and their ideas about successors to their positions.   

Have conversations with the official who appoints trustees about suggested slates of candidates. Consult with the college president and department deans about the qualities they’d like to see in a trustee. They may also come up with suggestions for candidates that you hadn’t considered or known about.  

Look to professors at four-year colleges, especially those with whom you have a matriculation agreement with. Members of local and regional corporations can be helpful sources, too, especially as the college wants to stay current with skills and labor needs.

If fundraising is a responsibility of the board, trustees with connections to local industries and organizations would be useful additions to the trustee mix.  

Reach your goals faster 

Planning for succession is not a one-time event. Discussions about potential candidates can offer trustees insight into how the board functions and how they can reach the current and future goals of the community college.  

The aim of succession planning is to not to gatekeep who serves on the board. Rather, it’s an opportunity to open the role of trustee to candidates who may not have been considered before. These candidates have expertise, talent and connections that can propel the college forward and surface new ways to solve previously intractable problems.  

The succession planning process is a complicated one that can be aided by technology. Diligent Community can support your trustee succession planning with online collaboration tools, planning templates, and readily available data and information.