Frustration with leaders of the Alabama Community College System came to a head among Mobile state lawmakers this summer after Bishop State Community College interim president Lawrence Brandyburg was fired. The June firing raised concerns about frequent leadership changes at the historically black community college and within the system as a whole.
Some policymakers believe the system has caused bleeding among presidents in recent years due to system chancellor Jimmy Baker’s micromanagement. System leaders say the repeated leadership changes at various universities preceded Baker’s tenure and that his administration has been working to address the problem.
A bipartisan group of 10 state lawmakers held a news conference in June and wrote to Gov. Kay Ivey, who is also president of the system’s board of trustees, to express “outrage” at Brandyburg’s abrupt firing. After a little over a year in his position, he was fired. The group commended Brandyburg for maintaining “a cohesive relationship with business and industry, K-12 schools and community organizations” and called for an investigation and meeting with the board regarding his departure.
“We have major concerns about micromanagement and leadership changes that will hamper the community’s efforts to rebuild trust in Bishop State,” the letter said. “It’s troubling to witness the recent spate of leaders who have headed the historically black community college.”
Brandyburg’s resignation “was the last straw,” said Barbara Drummond, one of the state officials who signed the letter. “That points to a deeper problem.”
Bishop State has had six incumbents, interim and permanent presidents since 2015, not counting Olivier Charles, the new president who took office last month. The turnover is hardly an isolated case within the system.
Nearly half of the system’s 24 campuses have had at least four leadership changes in the past decade, including Bevill State Community College, Northwest-Shoals Community College, and Gadsden State Community College Lagniappea local weekly newspaper.
Ebony Horton, a spokesman for the system, said the rampant change in leadership at Alabama’s community colleges predates the current chancellor and is a common problem in community college systems across the country. She noted that nine of the 24 colleges had interim presidents when Baker took office five years ago. All colleges in the system now have permanent presidents in office, she said.
“It’s quite an achievement and not an accident,” Horton said in a statement Within the Higher Ed. “It was the result of an intense, focused effort to recruit the best possible leaders for each institution. Our system’s college presidents strive to serve their colleges over the long term and have a proven track record in education and/or business. Having a slew of permanent presidents in office brings a greater level of stability and performance to our institutions, which is good for students, faculty, and our entire state.”
Drummond isn’t convinced the pattern of short-term presidential terms is over, despite new hires at Bishop State.
“It was never our concern who they put there,” she said. “That’s how they let her go.”
James Brandyburg, the sacked interim president’s brother and attorney, said Lagniappe that his brother was fired after refusing to promote his special assistant Frazier Payne to executive vice president at the Chancellor’s request in March. He was concerned that Payne, who only had a bachelor’s degree, was underqualified for the role, Brandyburg said, noting that Payne was made the chancellor’s special assistant shortly after he was denied his original promotion.
Community members in Tuscaloosa were also upset over the ousting of Brad Newman, president of Shelton State Community College, in February after less than a year in that capacity. According to WBRC, a Fox-affiliated Alabama television station, leaders of local businesses, churches and advocacy groups, including the Tuscaloosa chapter of the NAACP, spoke out against the unsettled decision at a meeting on his behalf this month.
Shelton State has had nine interim and permanent presidents over the past 10 years, not including Chris Cox, who became interim president after Newman’s departure and became permanent president in June.
“The issue isn’t the president’s position,” John Covington, owner of Chesapeake Consulting, a local firm, said at the meeting, according to the WBRC. “There’s something else wrong, otherwise you wouldn’t extradite all the presidents. What you have is a culture issue.”
A longtime former system official, who said his position at the system office was terminated without explanation, said the turnover rate among presidents appeared to be increasing when the current chancellor took his position. The staffer, who asked not to be identified, said Baker is known for emphasizing human development and letting go of presidents who don’t fit his vision.
“If you don’t go along with whatever his agenda is, he’ll get rid of you,” the clerk said.
The Ripple Effects of Leadership Churn
Horton said the Alabama Community College system is simply part of a national, long-term trend.
“High turnover among community college presidents isn’t unique to Alabama,” Horton said. “As Within the Higher Ed and other publications have noted that presidential turnover at community colleges has been a challenge across the country for a decade.”
The duration of university presidencies has decreased overall. The average tenure of a president in his current office was 6.5 years in 2016, compared to seven years in 2011 and 8.5 years in 2006, according to the American Council on Education’s latest American College President Study. The average tenure for a community college president was slightly shorter, at 6.2 years.
Tara Zirkel, director of strategic research focused on community colleges at EAB, an education consultancy, said the pandemic has also contributed to a high turnover rate at community colleges across the country.
“Community colleges have reached an impasse due in large part to a combination of early-pandemic retirements (some of which were incited as a cost-cutting measure) and overall large-scale resignation,” Zirkel said in an email. “When many people were retiring in the early days of the pandemic, no one predicted the workforce trends we are seeing now. The EAB estimates that the community college sector has seen a 13 percent decline in the workforce, which absolutely includes senior executives.”
The frequent search and hiring of new executives, especially at a time when candidate pools are smaller and candidates themselves are more selective, can put a strain on a community college.
“Executive searches are challenging at the best of times because they divert time and resources from other tasks,” Zirkel said. “The process can also stifle progress on important initiatives because people want to give the new leader an opportunity to make strategic contributions before critical decisions are made.”
Bradley Byrne, president of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce and chancellor of the Alabama Community College System from 2007 to 2009, said he worries that Bishop State’s attrition could discourage students from attending the institution and ultimately graduating from what Labor shortages in industry would exacerbate as aerospace and high-tech manufacturing grow in the region.
“Any time you change leadership, it’s not good for the organization, no matter what organization it is,” he said. “Bishop State Community College is the premier post-secondary provider of education and skills, and we’re an extremely dynamic economy down here. We have to allow them to produce a steady stream of graduates at a fairly high level, and it hampers the organization’s ability to do that when they have these leadership changes.”
Byrne said there had been a “dramatic turnover” among presidents during his tenure as Chancellor due to leadership scandals that rocked the institution. More than a dozen community college officers have been convicted of crimes including fraud, money laundering and corruption.
The turnover is “constant,” but he’s been trying to install permanent presidents quickly, he said.
He is optimistic about the new president and commended system leaders for his quick appointment a month after Brandyburg’s departure.
“I have no complaints about it,” he said. “I think going forward the test is whether the leadership stands behind Mr Charles as permanent president. I want the system to support him, pay him to do what he needs to do and have them support him as he interacts with the community in this very positive way… If they stay with him and have no more of this churn, I think we’re going to be in a great position down here.”
Drummond, the state legislature, also has concerns about the impact of attrition on staff development, as well as the potential impact on faculty members and students.
“It’s not just the workforce,” she said. “Can you imagine the morale of those who train the students at Bishop State? It starts with the employees, goes to the students, then it goes through the community and then it goes to the industry.”