Dawson Community College was established in 1940 in the heart of badlands country as a public junior college by forward-thinking local citizens. At the time a junior college was considered part of the K-12 education system rather than the state university system. Though the name and that historic distinction has changed over time, it continues to provide a certain autonomy for DCC within higher education in the State of Montana. Today the college is governed by an elected Board of Trustees and subject to the supervision and coordination of the Montana Board of Regents.
The present campus was established in the 1960s and has been expanded in every decade since. The most recent facilities improvement involved a nearly $5 million investment in 2006. That expansion, supported by the taxpayers of Dawson County as well as generous donors, created a new sports and arts complex and expanded library. Highlights included a 2,000 seat gymnasium, a 300 seat theater for the performing arts and a media center with modern resources and amenities.
Current demographic and market forces pose challenges and opportunities for the next president. High school enrollments in Dawson County as well as Montana are below historic averages. Yet while the Dawson County High School class of 2012 was the smallest in memory, the class of 2025 (this year’s kindergarten) is the largest in the district. In fact, grades K-8 class sizes are all dramatically higher than current high school enrollments. Meanwhile, the population of Dawson County and Eastern Montana is expanding rapidly, bringing more students and more opportunity.
The Williston Basin oil and natural gas producing formations–now commonly referred to as the “Bakken”– surround DCC. The immediate impact of this historically large, globally significant energy development has been a growing population, but also an economically distorted job market. Fast food service workers in the region earn more than $15 per hour, while individuals with commercial driver’s licenses make considerable money with few formal skills. These economic distortions further depress the recruitment base for traditional community college students.
Yet this tremendous economic activity is creating an eager market for more labor and more job skills. The opportunity for DCC to capture the market for skills training and workforce enhancement is significant. And a willingness to apply unconventional means and methods to all aspects of community college education is critical to the near- to midterm success of the college. This is a small school in the Big Sky with great expectations.
The challenges and opportunities facing DCC demand a unique candidate for president. The executive profile in the coming years will be complex and require aggressive initiative to transform a college. Here is an opportunity to reach and achieve; to re-brand oneself and an institution.
The next president must love a challenge first and foremost. This job demands a highly self-motivated individual who is confident and decisive. The compensation package being offered extends significant incentives for achieving important goals. Therefore, a candidate should have a high risk tolerance and find reward in achieving results. The selected candidate will lead a significant organization through a transition period with minimal outside guidance or mandate.
Organizations which endure over the long-term must transition and transform. The ideal candidate will have practical experience with change and expansive thinking. The unique challenges of revising strategy, implementing reform and improving financial performance is of the essence in the next few years at DCC. A candidate with experience in turn-around of organizations should bring valuable insight to the process of positioning DCC for future success. An academic with significant cooperative experience in industry may be suitable, but strong preference is expressed for a private-sector executive with experience in strategic thinking and execution.
The president of the college must be someone with a deep appreciation of life-long learning and the mission of community colleges. The ideal candidate may have instructional experience, have served on a board of directors or trustees or held other positions of involvement and responsibility within an educational institution. A baccalaureate degree along with substantial professional accomplishment is required. The attainment of advanced degrees is helpful but not exclusively desired. Rather, a candidate should have a demonstrated command of executive leadership and an understanding of the form and functions of an educational organization. An ability to work within the established state and accreditation rules, regulations and governing structure is essential. A candidate who personally lacks these skills must articulate their plan for effectively delegating or acquiring such skills.
As the chief executive officer of a complex organization, the president of Dawson Community College must be able and willing to provide leadership for a diverse portfolio of responsibilities. The next president will directly or indirectly supervise more than 70 employees, manage a budget of nearly $5 million and balance the interests of numerous competing interests: union contracts, athletic programs, academic departments, state officials and local taxpayers. It is clear that the person who takes this job will be a dynamic leader who thrives on challenge. The next president will face an institution in transition but open to dramatic transformation and facing unprecedented opportunity. He or she must see the office not as a job, but as a cause. The following are the essential tasks of the next leader:
Like all institutions of higher learning, DCC has a complex financing structure. It involves local taxes, state appropriations, tuition and fees, donations and grants. The next president must be an exceptional steward of these financial resources. The college’s physical and human resources must be carefully evaluated for both cost savings and revenue generating opportunities. Vacant dormitory space, real estate and staff and faculty are among possible underutilized resources. As the next president works to achieve financial strength, a significant part of this role will also involve the relationship between the college and state institutions, including the Legislature, the Governor and the Board of Regents. A clear understanding of funding formulas must inform strategic decisions. The next president must also seek non-tax sources of revenue from pay-for-service fees and direct outside investment through such means as cooperative agreements and grants.
Enrollment at DCC has fallen by about 20% in the past decade and by nearly half from the peak enrollment in 2006. Myriad factors have contributed to this decline, including the below historic average high school class sizes across the state and the region and high-earning potential in the oil and natural gas industry. The next president must develop a comprehensive plan to attract and retain students to DCC. The energy boom, which lures away potential students, also provides a growing population and industry demand for specialized job skills. The next president will face an enormous opportunity to capitalize on market needs to expand enrollment, while also thinking expansively to meet the broad needs of community college education. Doing so will underlie all other efforts and initiatives of the president and the college in the coming years.
The Board of Regents has defined a five point mission for two-year education in Montana. These five pillars are: 1) Transfer education through the associates degree, 2) Workforce development, including certificates and applied associates degrees, 3) Developmental and adult basic education, 4) Lifelong learning, and 5) Community development. The Regents acknowledge as each institution strives to meet its mission the emphasis may be on a different point at different times. Currently in Eastern Montana, as colleges compete for students within the region, it is important for DCC to establish an identity and clear market niche, while maintaining its offerings in all five areas. The specific means to do this must be formulated and articulated by a chief executive who understands unconventional formats may serve to expand opportunities.
Among the most important tasks of the new president will be to serve as an advocate, champion and spokesperson for the college and its mission. As a rural, community college, the president of DCC will be a local leader. Involvement in civic life and community growth will complement the work of the college. The president must sell his or her vision, which will become the college’s mission. These plans must stand up to the tax-paying public, the Board of Trustees, the Board of Regents and the Legislature. This requires a clear and willing voice open to and competent in the pressures of public scrutiny and criticism. It also requires an enthusiasm and optimism that extends beyond numbers and words into energetic action.
It is not about where we stand;
it’s about the direction we are moving.