Conversations about Leadership


Let's face it: when we talk about faculty leadership, we are usually speaking about a fairly limited group of people. Though there are dozens around the state, leaders of every local academic senate and leaders of faculty in various statewide organizations, the number is really very small.

Those individuals make an appreciable difference in the way the faculty roles in governance look. However, many of those leaders are now moving on to other phases of their lives or careers; large numbers of faculty have retired or plan retirement imminently.

That means a new generation of faculty leaders is needed, and needed now. If the faculty voice in institutional governance is to remain strong and vital, new leaders must come forward to lend their expertise and their commitment to that ideal.

The Academic Senate's Leadership Institute is one venue for aspiring individuals to hone their skills. Another is, unquestionably, the "hard knocks" method, wherein the faculty member rolls up his or her sleeves and plunges ahead, learning by experience. But at the end of the day, leadership is something individuals themselves bring to the table, and the Academic Senate needs that leadership. Without that new generation of faculty leaders stepping forward, much of what the previous generation of leadership worked so hard to achieve will be lost.

In a series of Rostrum articles, then, we will converse with faculty leaders about their leadership experiences-what brought them to the table and what feast they have found before them. This first interview of the series introduces us Carolyn Russell, Professor of English at Rio Hondo College and a faculty representative to the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges.

Carolyn, what piqued your interest in leadership? In my own case, it was a local issue about equivalency, but for other people, it's other things.what provided that catalyst for you?

I started teaching English at Rio Hondo in 1975 when we were trying to unionize and meeting great resistance from our board and administration. Our days at table were no better than our organizing days, so we finally called a "Day of Dignity," which was a euphemism for a strike. Later, as a negotiator, I soon realized how important it was for me to be involved in having a say in how the college impacted my students and me. So during the next 10 years, I served as senate president and 5 years as department chair. I have been on my local senate for about 20 of my 29 years as a faculty member and the executive committee for about 12 of those. I am currently 2nd vice-president. From 1998 to 2001, I also served as president of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges (FACCC).

What rewards do you associate with your leadership roles?

As a faculty member, bringing the Puente Project to Rio Hondo and setting up the first computer lab on campus (1985) come to mind. As senate president, I advocated for including our president on the district cabinet. Although I couldn't make it happen my term, the next president was brought in. Often, results take time. During my term as FACCC president, I was proud to be a part of the STRS taskforce that changed retirement benefits from 2% to a potential 2.4%. Other changes for part-timers, office hours, health benefits, and the original $57 million dollar salary enhancement were also long overdue.

Finally, I was also extremely proud to have the Academic Senate forward my name to the Governor as a candidate for the Board of Governors. As a faculty member of the Board of Governors, I have worked hard not to be marginalized, but to be seen as someone who accurately reflects the needs of the students, the system, and the faculty. In these budget constraints, all constituents need to work together to present a unified front. We must work out compromises on issues that can potentially divide and, thus, permanently damage us, like funding, growth, noncredit and the 75/25 ratio. We will also have as many as nine new board members.

We so often hear our colleagues say, "I just don't have time." How do you balance your time?

I currently teach 70%, but because my Board, President, and Dean have been very supportive in helping me with a schedule that accommodates the meetings and conferences I attend as a board member, I am able to combine my interests.

What pitfalls often await leaders?

It's not always possible to avoid pitfalls, but it is possible to have the right equipment to get out of them: history of the problems, knowledge about the situation and the players, a range of solutions, and a willingness to take risks and accept responsibility. Leading is always a learning experience.

What advice would you offer to new leaders?

My advice-not in order of priority:

1. Try on lots of hats. No leadership job is too small, so find the right fit.

2. Never be afraid to ask questions. Ask questions of those with whom you disagree; know their perspective.

3. Continually assess and reassess, asking yourself, "What do we need-presence, product, or process?" "Presence" means making certain the body you represent has the credibility and the commitment necessary to follow through; "product," means a tangible outcome like a raise or a change in grading policies; "process" means making certain structures are in place that provide opportunities for academic discourse that will drive the institution through shared governance.

4. When conflict (which can be healthy) arises, keep focused on what you need, then fight the good fight. Win and lose well; don't gloat or brood. Get on to the next challenge.