Strategies for Succession Planning: Increasing Student Services Professionals in the Pipeline

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Sabrina Sanders is currently the Interim Dean of Student Affairs at
Long Beach City College. She earned a Masters in Business Administration at California State University San Marcos and Doctorate in Education Leadership & Management from Alliant International University with her research study; Building the pipeline: The preferred path of preparation of Chief Student Services Officers in California Community Colleges, which earned her a research grant from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA). Sabrina has been an active member in a number of professional development organizations. She was selected as a National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) Fellow and has served on both regional and national leadership boards. She has served as the President of the African American Faculty & Staff Association at California State University Fullerton (CSUF), selected to participate in the National Athletic Academic Advisors Professional Development Institute, Community College Leadership Development Institute and is an Alum of Leadership Long Beach.

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Sabrina Sanders, Interim Dean of Student Affairs, Long Beach City College

As the number of senior administrators approach retirement, it is imperative that talented, qualified and highly skilled mid-level professionals are identified, mentored and developed to fill those positions. A 2007 research study by American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) stated that over 84 percent of community college presidents would be leaving their positions over the next ten years. In California Community Colleges, there were 52 of 109 college presidency vacancies in 2006. We are indeed faced with the challenge of filling the leadership void. Recommendations are provided to continue the dialogue on succession planning to prepare the next generation of student services professionals to advance to senior administration positions in California Community Colleges


There is a leadership crisis in California Community Colleges at a time when student enrollment has reached an all time high. We are faced with the question, are we doing enough to prepare the next generation of leaders to fill the needs left behind by retiring administrators? As the largest higher education institution in the world, the California Community College system boasts an enrollment of 2.9 million students at 110 campus’. The California Community College system is constantly faced with redefining itself in order to meet the complexities of today’s challenges. The current challenge is that community colleges are amidst unprecedented turnover of senior administrators and faced with the dire need for succession planning for new leaders. 

A 2006 study by Iowa State University, found 52 out of 109 college president vacancies in California community colleges (Duree, 2007). Articles and research studies have documented this trend of retiring administrators in higher education as a result of aging baby boomers. The population explosion in the United States after World War II created a generation labeled baby boomers. That generation, now in their 60s, began entering retirement in 2006 and are leaving a large void in the leadership of colleges and universities. These retirement statistics are apparent across all areas of the institution as we experience an increased number of vacancies within faculty, staff, and administrator positions. Many individual institutions began to take notice of the retirement statistics after observing the effect on their own campus communities bringing back retired senior administrators to fill the leadership void. The outgoing leaders are taking with them a vast history of experiences, understanding of the mission and values of the community college system, and extensive skills and knowledge specific to serving community college students. Folsom College President Dr. Scott-Skillman wrote, “The future success of any organization resides, in part, with a clearly delineated succession plan” (2006, p. 1). With so much at stake, colleges and universities must address the need to replace the increasingly large number of outgoing senior administrators.

If we are to address the issue of leadership shortage in senior administration, it will be imperative that we increase our focus on identifying, preparing and mentoring student services professionals for those positions. The pathway toward the college presidency has traditionally been one of progressing through the faculty ranks, although recently, more higher education professionals are pursuing a nonconventional path. A 2001 American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) survey described the promotion of a senior administrator as rising through the institution from a number of areas including student services, administrative services, and vocational education to Vice President, Provost, and President. An increasing number of chief student services officers (CSSO) are part of the pipeline to fill these leadership positions. We have seen a number of our current California Community College Presidents who have had their start in student services and attest to the values of student services to their success; “Being a CSSO allows you to look at all contexts of the college, including external aspects of the campus such as outreach and community partnerships. Student Services professionals tend to be good facilitators, skilled at conflict resolution and collaborative across the campus community which is perfect for a College Presidency.” (Sanders, 2009, p. 73). Understanding the competencies and professional development needs are imperative in addressing the preparation of leaders for our institutions.

In July 2004, the AACC commissioned a study to address the need for leadership development and professional training for community colleges. This was in direct response to the surge of retiring senior administrators and the need to identify best practices for professional development and training. The following competencies were outlined to create leadership programs for community college leaders: Organizational strategy: By understanding this competency, individuals will be able to identify, implement, and evaluate strategies for organizational growth and improvement. Management: Through this competency, leaders should be able to identify, evaluate, and implement process design to yield high-quality education. Interpersonal: In this competency, leaders should be able to develop cooperative relationships with the organization and among the broader community. Communication: Through the use of this competency, individuals will be able to create and communicate a shared vision through the development of effective information exchanges within the organization and the broader community served. Professionalism: In the development of this competency, leaders should demonstrate ethics, values, and professional practices; community stewardship; and be committed to personal and institutional development.

In looking at the competencies and skills necessary for senior administration, it is critical at looking at growing potential leaders within the system. A number of recommendations were founded through a 2009 study: Building the pipeline: an analysis of the preferred path of promotion of Chief Student Services Officers in California Community Colleges.

1. Community college districts should be strategic in succession planning specific to their unique needs. Community college districts should be intentional in developing succession plans to meet the professional development goals of the institution, individual staff, faculty, or administrators. Concepts in the succession plan might include identifying classified staff and faculty at all levels of their career to place in the administrative pipeline, developing “grow-your-own” leadership programs, funding professional development and leadership program participation on both regional and national levels, and creating a campus-wide culture of learning and leadership development.

2. Promote completion of graduate studies for classified staff, faculty, and administrators. The terminal degree has become a requirement for senior administrators. Participants in this study stated that the degree had served as a professional development tool in preparing for senior administration. Providing tuition reimbursements, scholarships, and leave time will encourage and support classified staff, faculty and administrators to pursue graduate studies. It will also contribute to being more prepared for their positions and moving into administrative positions that may include the pipeline to the college presidency.

3. Increase participation of classified staff and faculty in student services on campus-wide committees. College leaders should engage talented staff in participation on campus-wide task forces and committees. This provides an avenue for collaboration, networking, and representing the voice of student services across the institution. Also, committee participation serves as a professional development experience to understand the functions of the institution outside one’s department or area.

4. Develop mentoring programs for new classified staff and student services faculty at all levels of their career. The value of mentoring as described in the literature is an important tool in the professional development and retention of employees. Formal mentoring programs must represent the diverse perspectives of the participants and be open to everyone. Over 50% of the “grow-your-own” leadership programs highlighted the value of an experiential component, such as mentoring and coaching (AACC, 2006).

5. Increase professional development opportunities, both on regional and national levels. Professional development is a widely used term for programs, training, or activities designed to enhance competencies or skills. A review of the literature and data from this study attest to the value of professional development but revealed limited support and funding prohibits campus-wide participation, especially in programs outside the region. Professional development topics were mentioned by participants for those aspiring to CSSO, including understanding Title V of the California Code of Regulations, and student judicial issues, including due process and dealing with personnel issues, especially pertaining to working with unions and contracts. College leaders should ensure that the campus is committed to professional development through specified line item budgets.

6. Prospective leaders can come from any department and at all levels. College leaders should “think outside the box” in identifying, selecting, and developing prospective leaders to place in the administrative pipeline. According to the literature, the traditional career path from the academic side to the college presidency is not adequate to meet current needs. Providing opportunities for professional development and mentoring campus wide will increase opportunities for leadership to be developed from nontraditional areas of the campus.

7. Provide a mentor, coach, or consultant-on-call program for first-year administrators. Many of the CSSOs initially felt underprepared for their positions. Having access to experts in the field off campus would serve as a valuable resource for first-year CSSOs. One model is the one-on-one technical assistance through the “League on Call” (LOC) Consulting Services of the Community College League of California or the coaching, mentoring, and professional growth services of the California Collegiate Brain Trust (CCBT), which provides experienced consultants to work with chief executives, boards of trustees, and campus leaders on issues of leadership, skill development, and team building. College leaders can identify retired and former CSSOs to assist in providing these services.

8. Make administration positions more attractive. CSSOs in this study expressed frustration over battling politics, managing restrictive budgets, addressing personnel issues, and demands of their positions “not worth the pressure.” Comparing job security, benefits, salary, and number of hours worked in an administration role compared to those of a faculty member may not be attractive. College presidents should bring the focus of the CSSO position back to goals of addressing student success and compensate these positions comparatively, including retreat rights, benefits, and salary.

In closing, if we are to address the leadership void that we are facing, it is imperative to place more professionals in the pipeline. Higher education institutions should look outside the traditional path to the college presidency, identifying talented professionals at various levels of their career and providing professional development and mentoring that will develop the competencies required of a senior administrator. Colleges must be intentional in the strategic development of succession planning in the California Community Colleges system if we are going to effectively fill the pending vacancies with successfully equipped leaders for the 21st century.


American Association of Community Colleges. (2006). Competencies for Community College Leadership. Accessed January 15, 2008 at:

American Association of Community Colleges. (2001). AACC survey on leadership. Available from American Association of Community Colleges, One Dupont Circle, N.W., Ste. 410, Washington, DC 20015)

Duree, C.A. (2007). The challenges of the community college presidency in the new millennium: Pathways, preparation, competencies and leadership programs needed to survive. Doctoral dissertation, Iowa State University.

Sanders, S. (2009). Building the pipeline: an analysis of the preferred path of promotion of chief student services officers in California community college. Doctoral dissertation, Alliant International University.

Scott-Skillman, T. (2006). Succession planning-a must for colleges and universities. iJournal. Retrieved August 12, 2007, from