Supporting Diverse Leaders

Administration August 2021 PREMIUM
The Aspen Institute’s Presidential Fellowship for Community College Excellence

Written by Monica A. Clark, Director College Excellence Program, Aspen Institute

Great colleges begin with great leadership. That’s why the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program (CEP) began investing in community college leadership with a crucial goal in mind: to build a diverse pipeline of leaders who help students succeed.

Aspen’s research into the qualities of exceptional community college presidents revealed a high rate of turnover, compounded by very few professional development opportunities for new and aspiring leaders. In addition, the lack of racial and gender diversity among community college presidents suggests that too few leaders of color are engaged in transforming community colleges into more powerful engines of success for their students and communities.

The Aspen Rising Presidents Fellowship and the New Presidents Fellowship Programs

To address this gap, in 2016 Aspen launched the Presidential Fellowship for Community College Excellence. The fellowship consists of two executive development programs: the Aspen Rising Presidents Fellowship, which trains 40 senior leaders annually who aspire to reach a presidency within three to five years; and the New Presidents Fellowship, for those within the first five years of leading a community college. CEP is working to increase the number of Hispanic leaders seeking the community college presidency, and actively recruits applicants through Hispanic-serving institutions, associations, and outreach to alumni networks.

The program is meeting its commitment to building a pipeline of diverse leaders, particularly for participants from Latinx and African-American backgrounds: over 75 percent of the incoming cohort of Aspen fellows are people of color; 18 percent identify as Latinx. Consider this, too: 92 leaders who have participated in the program have moved into presidencies, and 39 of them are people of color.

“Community colleges are serving increasingly diverse student populations, and it is critical that the next generation of community college leaders reflect those communities,” noted Monica Clark, Director of CEP’s Leadership Initiatives. “Our fellows are selected for these programs because they are committed to improving the lives of students, and we give them the knowledge, tools and support to do that work on a large scale.”

The Aspen Rising Presidents Fellowship, offered in partnership with Stanford University’s Education Leadership Initiative, engages leaders in seminars led by Aspen and Stanford University faculty. Fellows work on a capstone to develop their presidential vision for student success; they also receive mentoring from a current or former community college president or chancellor who has achieved national recognition. The mentors coach the fellows as they apply to be presidents.

For example, Aspen Senior Fellow Maria Harper-Marinick, a former chancellor of Maricopa Community Colleges, draws lessons from decades of experience in leadership. She stays in touch with many of the people she’s mentored, and she’s pleased to watch them rise through the levels of academia: “I enjoy working and learning alongside college leaders, especially Latinos/as, who are on a journey to become transformative leaders. Their focus on student success and achieving equitable outcomes will create a meaningful impact on the institutions they lead and communities they serve.”

Rising President Fellows leave the program with a vision for attaining student success outcomes, a set of resources and a network of peers to support their leadership journey. Fellows describe the experience as life-changing, expanding their vision for leadership and most importantly, accelerating change for their students.

Two years ago, Aspen Fellow Teresa Leyba Ruiz joined the fellowship as the new president of Glendale Community College in Arizona. She expressed gratitude for the skills and support she received. “I became an educator for the sole reason of wanting to make a positive impact on my community through students, to be able to see how student lives are transformed through an education,” she said. “My experience in the Rising Presidents Fellowship gave me a sense of urgency around student success and the skills needed to move the college toward transformational change.” 

Applicants should aspire to enter a presidency within five years of completing the fellowship. Ideal candidates for the Aspen Fellowship are motivated by the potential of community colleges to impact the lives of students and to grow the health and vitality of communities. Aspen fellows aspire to be transformational community college presidents—those who will lead their institutions to achieve significant improvements in student outcomes and greater equity in educational access and success. They are willing to take risks to lead transformational change and are strategic, equity-minded, reform-minded thinkers and innovators. Scholarship funds are available for successful applicants.

Applications for the seventh cohort of the Rising Presidents Fellowship will open in December 2021. See for more information.
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