OCCRL’s Illinois Community College Leadership Institute the Start of Something Special

by H.M. Kuneyl / Oct 25, 2023

Last spring, OCCRL held the inaugural Illinois Community College Leadership Institute (ICCLI). The two-day event was at Parkland College in Champaign and brought together statewide community college scholars and practitioners who shared best practices in community college leadership.

ICCLI is modeled after a similar program in Iowa led by Iowa State University and Community Colleges for Iowa. OCCRL Director Lorenzo Baber directed the Community College Leadership Development program at Iowa State University for four years and witnessed its impact statewide.

“During my time in Iowa, we found that 80% of the senior leaders at Iowa community colleges, including presidents and chief academic officers, had participated in this leadership program,” Dr. Baber said.

Baber gave credit to one of his mentors, Dr. Larry Ebbers, who started the Iowa leadership program in 1995.

“Twenty-five years ago, Dr. Ebbers' understanding that the best community college leaders drive change by aligning scholarly research with practice was very forward-thinking," Baber said. "I hope we can build a similar legacy here in Illinois.”

Dr. Baber's vision came to fruition in May of 2023 at Parkland. Participants at the first ICCLI heard from esteemed administrators, faculty members, and practitioners such as Debra Bragg, a former director of OCCRL and now president of Bragg and Associates; Brian Durham, executive director of the Illinois Community College Board; and Lisa Castillo Richmond, executive director of Partnership for College Completion.

Other presenters included former OCCRL staff member Marci Rockey, now an assistant coordinator and academic advisor at Illinois State University, who spoke about leading student success across geographic context; Jim Reed, executive director of the Illinois Community College Trustees Association, who talked about relationships among board trustee members; Osly Flores, assistant professor of educational administration and leadership at Illinois and an OCCRL affiliate member, who discussed how to lead workforce education initiatives; and Xiaodan Hu, associate professor at Northern Illinois University, who covered finance and budgeting policy.

John Dahlman giving a tour at Parkland College

The agenda included a lively tour by John Dahlman (at left in nearby photo), who showed participants Parkland’s Career and Technical Education spaces, which included the school’s Manufacturing Lab and the Parkhill Applied Technology Center. The first day concluded with a panel session, “Journey to the Presidency,” led by Pamela Lau, the president of Parkland College, and Terry Wilkerson, the president of Rend Lake Community College.

The conference was deemed a success even before the conclusion of the first day. That evening, OCCRL staff members sat down with some of the participants and enjoyed the delicious flourless chocolate cake at Silver Creek Restaurant in Urbana. The conversation at the table quickly turned to thoughts of the future, and in a short amount of time a group of strangers became a cohort. People who had only met a few hours before were now a part of each other's success as community college practitioners, and they wanted to continue learning and leading within the community we had formed. As the conference coordinator, H.M. Kuneyl was eager to help facilitate that connection. Even so, she did not want to assume that all members of this new cohort had enough professional-development funds to permit them to make two trips to Champaign in one year. Thus, a follow-up virtual event was scheduled for the fall.

The October 11 event via Zoom was an abridged version of the spring gathering but no less informative and inspiring. Complete with a Zoom background of a Parkland classroom, the three-hour ICCLI in the fall, which had a theme of “Building Leadership Pathways for Community College Excellence,” featured three excellent guest speakers: Heather McCambly, an associate professor of educational foundations, organizations, and policy at the University of Pittsburgh, gave the talk “Building Relationships with Potential Funding Partners”; Lorenzo Baber, director at OCCRL and a professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership, presented “Building Equity Through Data-Driven Decision Making”; and Jasmine Collins, an assistant professor of organizational and community leadership in the College of ACES at Illinois, presented “Building Your Toolkit: Essential Perspectives for Education Leaders.”

These individuals provided excellent information during the sessions. One memorable statement came from Dr. McCambly, who said, “We are using data to speak to problems, not people.” This remark reminded attendees that grant writing requires a nuanced understanding of data. They should use data to evaluate programs and elevate needs, but data alone cannot replace the lived experiences of campus community members, according to Dr. McCambly.

The session by Dr. Baber focused on building equity through data-driven decision-making. Toward the end of the talk, he provided a link to participants to a still-relevant 2018 brief by Dr. Anjale Welton, “ Data-Driven Decision-Making in Career and Technical Education.” The piece by the former OCCRL associate director describes what data-driven decision-making entails, highlights trends in postsecondary education, and provides equity frameworks.

Other relevant and prudent words came from Dr. Collins, who said that “leadership is a process, not a person.” This highlighted the iterative progression of leadership and demonstrated that no one has all the answers.

The insightful discussions were offset by a quick icebreaker centering on community college mascot trivia – proving that pretty much all attendees need to brush up greatly on their community college mascots.

The virtual session was small but enthusiastic, with 14 participants who engaged in active discussions until the last minutes of the event. It was a welcoming space and a reminder that what started as a chance to learn within a community setting became an opportunity to build lasting relationships.

View photos from the May event at Parkland College.
View photos from Silver Creek Restaurant.