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Chief academic officers in New England community colleges: Leadership and regional collaboration

Pamela R Edington, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Warnings of an impending leadership crisis in community colleges are raising interest in the role of chief academic officer (CAO). Despite the centrality of the position, the CAO is largely neglected in the academic research literature. Information from CAOs about their perceptions and experiences as leaders is needed to create and develop supports for their expanding leadership role. Factors that affect collaboration among CAOs must be identified to determine the extent to which CAOs are interested and able to collaborate to solve common problems. This qualitative study ultimately probes the potential benefit of developing a network of chief academic officers in community colleges to confront and resolve shared challenges and opportunities, particularly at the regional level. CAOs serving in 40 public community colleges in the six New England states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont were sent an original written survey probing their views of CAO leadership, collaboration and demographic characteristics. Twenty-five surveys were completed and returned for a response rate of 62.5%. Five CAOs, selected by geography, size of institution, and views on collaboration were selected for hour-long interviews to explore in depth their survey answers. The study findings indicate that the CAO is a critical leadership role in New England community colleges faced with expanding demands and shrinking resources. CAOs are also active collaborators who value the knowledge and experience of their peers in formulating responses to common problems. A model of collaboration as a function of engagement and concerns is used to clarify collaboration among CAOs. The model suggests that collaboration reaches its full potential when engagement between CAOs becomes more personal and there is recognition of mutual concerns. Collaboration among CAOs could be facilitated by providing additional time and resources to support communication and travel. A higher percentage of CAOs in New England are female, white, slightly older, and have served, on average, fewer years in their position when compared with national studies. Recommendations for supporting collaboration among CAOs, especially within geographic regions, are presented, along with a call for more research on the role of the CAO in community colleges.

Subject Area

Community colleges|Higher education|School administration

Recommended Citation

Edington, Pamela R, "Chief academic officers in New England community colleges: Leadership and regional collaboration" (2006). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3215907.