Skip to main content

Envisioning Excellence to the Belk Center: How the College of Education Has Changed the Way Community College Leaders are Supported, Prepared

Community college leaders and Belk Center faculty attend the Presidents' Academy Symposium in March 2020

More than five years ago, several presidents of North Carolina Community College System institutions were visiting the NC State College of Education when the discussion turned to the professional development of community college leaders and how NC State could help support those goals. 

In 2015, the College of Education received a $525,000 grant from the John M. Belk Endowment to start the Envisioning Excellence for Community College Leadership program. 

Led by Dean Mary Ann Danowitz, D.Ed. — who was head of the College of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at the time — W. Dallas Herring Professor Audrey Jaeger, Ph.D., and Associate Professor James Bartlett, Ph.D., the Envisioning Excellence program integrated evidence-based best practices into leadership training programs to help community college leaders improve student success and institutional performance. 

With more than $10 million in additional funding from the John M. Belk Endowment in 2018, the program evolved into the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research, allowing the NC State College of Education to further the preparation of future community college presidents, provide ongoing leadership development to community college executives and build capacity for evidence-based decision making and applied research. 

Today, the Belk Center supports all 58 of North Carolina’s community colleges and is helping produce the next generation of community college leaders through the College of Education’s community college leadership doctoral program. 

“The Belk Center provides critical services to North Carolina’s community college through its expertise in executive leadership development and data analyses,” said Jaeger, who today serves as executive director of the Belk Center. “This work extends NC State’s land-grant commitment to every corner and community of the state supporting some of the most underserved populations in pursuit of postsecondary education.

Preparing the Next Generation of Community College Leaders

When community college presidents met at the College of Education back in 2015, they were aware that nearly half of North Carolina’s 58 community college presidents were expected to retire by 2019.

To address this challenge, the College of Education transformed the way it prepares community college presidents, redesigning the adult and community college education doctorate degree to become the community college leadership program, which helps to produce a pipeline of community college leaders who are prepared to tackle modern challenges. 

The cohort-based program, housed in Raleigh and Charlotte, combines the experience and expertise of sitting community college presidents and College of Education faculty for a course of study that blends theory, research and best practices and utilizes a practice-oriented curriculum in leadership that emphasizes equity, completion, learning and labor market outcomes.

A partnership between the community college leadership program and the Belk Center has also allowed for the creation of the innovative and award-winning Executive Mentorship Program, which pairs doctoral students with a current community college leader who serves as their mentor. 

“These mentors offer each student access to opportunities to experience leadership in practice, ask questions to connect classroom learning to practice and provide career advice to help ensure they are prepared to advance their careers after completing their doctorate,” Bartlett said. 

Lance Gooden ’22EDD, dean of Building, Engineering and Skilled Trades at Durham Technical Community College, said that being paired with Stanley Community College President John Enamait, Ph.D., as a mentor has been one of the most impactful experiences of his doctoral career.

He also credits the doctoral program’s cohort model with helping him to get his current position at Durham Tech and for giving him the opportunity to network and collaborate with other researchers and community college leaders through projects and conferences.

“When I started the program, I had maybe 14 years of experience in the community college system, but I knew nothing,” he said. “Having individuals like these professors who are in the classroom with that deep, rich practitioner knowledge and the outside individuals who really expand our knowledge of the community college system was fantastic.” 

In addition to the mentorship program, the doctoral program works with more than 20 community college leaders from North Carolina and across the country who serve on dissertation committees to ensure research connects to the complex problems of practice. Belk Center staff also work with students after they complete their dissertation research to help them develop practice briefs and disseminate their findings to the field. 

“One of the biggest changes has been the faculty commitment to integrating highly successful community college leaders into courses to provide intentional connections that enable students to connect theory to practice,” Bartlett said. “The research that students are conducting for their dissertations is now seeking more input from leaders in the field to help ensure they are addressing complex problems from a pragmatic lens.”  

Currently, 11 College of Education alumni are serving as presidents in the North Carolina Community College System with more working in administrative roles, including Yolanda S. Wilson, Ed.D., vice president of instruction at Wilkes Community College.

Wilson refers to her time as a doctoral student at NC State as one of the “most meaningful professional development opportunities” of her career. The coursework, she said, allowed her to think through complex problems related to teaching and learning, transfer and completion and economic mobility, challenging her to consider strategic ways to advance student success and achieve more sustainable outcomes.

“Through rich discussion, case studies and immersion experiences, I was able to immediately apply what I learned at my workplace and eventually advance to a more senior administrative role at another institution, where I employ those skills for even greater impact,” she said. 

Supporting Community College Leaders to Succeed

Through their research and professional opportunities, the Belk Center is also helping current community college leaders address pressing issues related to student success and transfer, teaching and learning initiatives, strategic planning and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The presidential leadership initiatives are focused around continuous improvement and equitable student outcomes that lead to transformational change across North Carolina and its communities,” said Professor of the Practice Mary Rittling, Ed.D.

Over the past year, the Belk Center has hosted the “Critical Conversations” series, comprised of five virtual events focused on topics including leading for equity, teaching and learning and use of pandemic relief funding. 

In addition, they created the Presidents’ Academy Teaching and Learning series which was designed collaboratively with the Aspen College Excellence Program and Achieving the Dream to engage presidents in deep-dive conversations about teaching and learning work. The Belk Center also designed and delivered two events specifically for the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents focused on strategic finance and trustee relations. 

“At the Belk Center, we lean on the relationships we have with college leaders and practitioners to inform the research questions that are most impactful to pursue. We think it’s vital to provide leaders with timely, accessible and digestible research to help them make the decisions they need to for student success,” said Holley Nichols, a research associate at the Belk Center. “We know that this work is contributing to the policies and practices used in community colleges, which is incredibly fulfilling for our team.”

In 2020, the Belk Center put research into practice by collecting and analyzing strategic plans from 55 North Carolina community colleges — more than half of which were set to expire — to determine how the institutions documented their intent and progress in promoting student success.

The study found that strategic plans varied widely across the North Carolina Community College System, leaving an opportunity for campuses to engage in planning efforts that align systemwide and with labor force needs. The research also suggested that not all community colleges had comprehensive, current or effective strategic plans. As a result of this research, many community college presidents expressed interest in receiving support, which led to the Belk Center developing individualized plans to assist community colleges through the strategic planning process. 

“The Belk Center stepped in at a critical point in our strategic planning process. Belk Center team members were expert consultants with our planning team and provided resources and reflective activities that led our team to develop evidence-based strategies and action plans for our Vision 2025 Plan,” said Brian Merritt, Ph.D., president of McDowell Technical Community College. “As a result of the Belk Center’s support, our college’s vision to ‘learn and grow’ is reflective of creating equitable solutions and outcomes for individuals, our community and our institution.”

Tracy Mancini, Ed.D., president of Carteret Community College, said that her work with the Belk Center has helped pinpoint meaningful quantitative and qualitative data that have informed strategic efforts at the college. 

The Belk Center helped Carteret Community College leaders review their mission, vision and values as they engaged in the strategic planning process and is conducting a diversity, equity and inclusion case study to evaluate the institution’s efforts to reach underserved populations in the community.

Through working with the Belk Center, Mancini said that Carteret Community College has been able to examine data related to outreach, onboarding, retention and completion outcomes for unserved and underserved community members, providing a clear picture of efforts that are working and those that need to be refined.

“Having access to accomplished current and former community college presidents, as well as experts in governance, planning and success initiatives, has provided our faculty, staff and trustees with the objectivity and confidence needed to develop and model effective support of student and community success,” Mancini said. 

CTE Leaders

Leading Through Lecture

Since 2015, the annual Dallas Herring Lecture has focused on national issues contextualized to North Carolina, inviting top community college leaders to speak on urgent and emerging topics, framing how to address the issues and proposing a path forward. 

The impact of the event has grown exponentially over the past several years, with more than 1,800 people registering to attend the 2020 event. The transformation of the lecture from what was originally a faculty-centric event to one accessible to a national audience, has helped to elevate issues related to community colleges and led to action to address such issues in North Carolina.

For example, the 2019 Dallas Herring Lecture, delivered by Valencia College President Sanford “Sandy” Shugart, focused on “Ecosystem Thinking in Higher Education: The Future of Transfer” and argued that the system of transferring credits from community colleges to four-year universities must be redesigned.

Following that lecture, Belk Center researchers took an in-depth look at the variety of pathways, policies and student experiences that impact transfer for North Carolina students. As a result, they were able to provide individualized data to community college leaders that showed success rates for students who transferred to University of North Carolina System institutions and disaggregate the data to look at how transfer patterns differ among historically underserved groups.

The Belk Center also engaged in work surrounding teaching and learning initiatives as a result of the 2018 Dallas Herring Lecture, “The Urgent Case: Centering Teaching and Learning in the Next Generation of Community College Redesign,” delivered by Achieving the Dream President Karen Stout.

In response to that lecture, Belk Center researchers, postdoctoral scholars and graduate students worked with partners at Achieving the Dream to conduct six case studies of teaching and learning at community colleges across North Carolina. The goal of the studies was to understand how community colleges support teaching and learning on campus and what professional development opportunities are available for faculty.

The case studies demonstrated that community colleges have opportunities to create teaching and learning communities across their campuses to support faculty who are working in classrooms. In addition, the work helped identify key opportunities to support part-time and adjunct faculty who have a significant role in educating community college students.

The work that stemmed from the 2018 Dallas Herring Lecture has helped to facilitate the development of Teaching and Learning Hubs that will offer statewide professional learning programs. The hubs will support faculty at North Carolina community colleges by helping them to learn about, adopt, test and scale evidence-based strategies that have increased student success outcomes nationally.

“These hubs, having multiple locations across the state, will work in complement with individual colleges’ teaching and learning centers and professional development educators to support scalable and sustainable professional learning activities for full-time and adjunct faculty that will impact thousands of North Carolina students for years to come,” Jaeger said. “This latest project is a natural evolution of the work we’ve done over the years to support our state’s community colleges and the communities they serve.”