Community College Trustees Offer Best Practices

“I think one of the most important things a Board of Trustees can have is a true desire for consensus, not simply strong opinions from one or two people and a bunch of compliant voices,” said Frank X. Custer, Chair of the Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) 15-member Board of Trustees. “That feeling that every voice should be heard is something I have tried to foster in my two years as chair. We try to never lose sight of our role, which can be difficult at times. The board’s function is not to run the college, but work together with the administration to establish and pursue the college’s strategic direction.”

Mr. Custer – a retired communications professional and former journalist and editor who served in the Navy – was one of several community college board members statewide who volunteers to potentially serve as mentors to the newly created Erie County Community College board at the request of Elizabeth Bolden, president & CEO of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges.

Erie county received official approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to establish a standalone community college in July 2020, three years after it submitted its plan for consideration. As of August 31, 2020, the county had selected a Board of Trustees and they are now seeking the college’s first president.

“From my perspective, one of the hardest things in life is starting something from scratch, which is what the brave folks in Erie are doing,” explained Mr. Custer. “If I can help them – even in the smallest degree – I’m glad to do it. Perhaps some of the lessons I have learned would benefit them as they champion the very worthy cause of bringing affordable, flexible, accessible postsecondary education opportunities to northwest Pennsylvania.”

The MCCC board, Mr. Custer says, is small but mighty. The board is diverse in gender, race, and talent – complimenting each other and maximizing talents of all members. New ideas and thoughtful questions are met with enthusiasm and consideration. Since he became a board member in January 2017, Mr. Custer says the college has invested in its culinary programs, STEM education and student wellness – underscoring that these critical advancements could not have happened without collaboration between members of the board and college staff.

So far, Mr. Custer has assisted the Erie County Community College board with drafting a Request for Proposal for contract services, passing along an RFP he used two years ago as an example.

Other community college trustees have also offered to serve in an as-needed mentorship capacity to the Erie board, including Ann Thompson, chair of the Lehigh Carbon Community College (LCCC) Board of Trustees. Ms. Thompson, a teacher who has served as an LCCC board member since 2007, says it’s critical to build trust and respect within any board.

“There is definitely a learning curve to being on a board. You can have diversity of skills, common goals and dedication, but if you lack equitable consensus as a board, you’re lost,” Ms. Thompson said. “Our strategic plan’s name really reflects that – Many voices, one vision. It has made a huge difference in the atmosphere on the board and at the college.”

The LCCC Board of Trustees recently unveiled a new self-evaluation which has been an effective tool for benchmarking successes, mapping a course for improvement and onboarding new members.

“Community college trustees should be focused on two things: what is best for students and what is best for the college,” concluded Ms. Thompson. “The new self-evaluation tool helps us measure how closely aligned we are with our goals and adjust if necessary. After all, if you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t get there.”