Virginia Western Community College. Courtesy of the school.

The Virginia Community College System is once again searching for a chancellor, following the retirement of Glenn DuBois after 21 years and the abrupt withdrawal of the board’s first pick, Russell Kavalhuna.

We still don’t know exactly why Kavalhuna dropped out, although it’s safe to say that he wasn’t what Gov. Glenn Youngkin was looking for – and Youngkin has made it known he cares quite a bit about who the next chancellor is. Or, perhaps more accurately, what the next chancellor does.

Youngkin sees a pressing need for the state to fill jobs currently going unfilled and looks to the community college system to help train people for some of those jobs. We in this part of Virginia have a more parochial interest in who leads the system: Once you cross the New River headed west, we have far more students in the community college system than we do in the four-year system. The same is true across Southside Virginia, too.

So just what sort of person should lead the community college system? Youngkin hasn’t publicly said but let’s take a look today at some of the options. Historically, of course, colleges – be they two-year or four-year – are led by academics. Should they be? Now we wade – nay, run headlong – into controversial waters. From time to time, certain schools have looked outside academia for their leaders.

For 10 years, Penny Kyle led Radford University; she previously had been a corporate lawyer and director of the Virginia Lottery under three governors. She may not have always been the favorite of faculty members – then again, many college presidents aren’t – but she sure used her Richmond connections to secure funding for major construction projects on campus.

So let’s ask more specifically here: Should the community college system look outside the traditional academic profile for its next leader? In some ways, it already has. Former state Secretary of Education Anne Holton – a lawyer and former judge – was said to be in line for the position until Youngkin made some noises about replacing the whole board. Again, we don’t know why but we can guess at least one reason: Holton is a Democrat, the wife of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine. The average tenure of a college president nationally is 6.5 years; the average tenure of Virginia’ previous community college chancellors has been 9.2 years. The odds are this pick will long outlast Youngkin, but for now he’s the governor who matters most. Holton withdrew. Kavalhuna had a nontraditional background, too: He was a former federal prosecutor and commercial airline pilot.

Youngkin hasn’t confided in me – I know you’re shocked – but it would not surprise me if he wanted someone from the business world to lead the system. After all, Youngkin himself comes from the business world and no doubt prizes that kind of executive experience. He also seems to see the purpose of the community college system – or, at least, one of its central purposes – to be training people for jobs which, by definition, will largely be out in the business world. This is a governor who takes the stage to Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business.” I’d be surprised if Youngkin didn’t want a business executive at the helm, or at least someone with a lot of business experience.

So let’s ask another question: In the world of community colleges, how unusual would that be? The short answer seems to be “not that unusual.” The longer answer, well, let’s walk through this, shall we?

Our first challenge is finding a community college system similar to Virginia’s with which to make comparisons. Just because we govern our system with a statewide chancellor overseeing 23 different community colleges – each with its own president – doesn’t mean other states operate that way. I’m relying on a study about community college governance I found that said 10 states have a system set up like ours.

So those are the 10 I’ll focus on: Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

Of those 10, well, one is obviously us, so that leaves nine to look at. Of those nine, six have system heads (they go by different names) with academic backgrounds. Two do not; one is half and half.

That one is Dave Daigler in Maine. He’s worked in the Maine Community College System for 20 years, but before that he was vice president and chief financial officer for a community health services program. He’s worked in academia, for sure, but he’s not an academic in the sense that he came out of a faculty senate somewhere. He’s a money guy, with a master’s in finance.

The two with more straightforward business backgrounds are in Indiana and Kentucky.

The head of Indiana’s system is Tom Snyder, who, according to his official bio, “began his career at General Motors Corporation, advancing through executive positions in engineering, marketing and sales for automotive batteries, magnetics and electric vehicle components.” (If our governor is reading this column, he might be reaching for the phone right now to give Snyder a call – his background sure seems aligned with where the manufacturing world is headed right now.) Snyder went on to become chairman at Flagship Energy Systems and CEO/president at Delco Remy International. “During his 11 years at the helm of Delco Remy,” Snyder’s bio says, “he established a new business model and diversified the company from a $500 million automotive parts supplier to $1.3 billion in sales as a global leader in truck, off-road and after-market products with more than 6,000 employees worldwide.”

This sure sounds like Youngkin’s kind of guy.

The head of Kentucky’s system is Dr. Paul Czarapata – yes, a PhD, but one who previously worked for “PeopleSoft, Oracle, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) and three small software consulting firms.” I imagine Youngkin might like Czarapata’s resume. He might like this, too: Czarapata recently said one of his goals is to reduce the number of credit hours required for an associate’s degree so that students can get into the workforce sooner. “The average is close to 70, it needs to be closer to 60,” he told The Lane Report, which bills itself as “Kentucky’s only statewide business magazine.”

My point here is not to disparage academics as potential leaders but to try to a) read the governor’s mind and b) document that some other states with a community college system like ours have cast a wider net. If Youngkin is pushing for someone with a business background – and I don’t know for a fact that he is – it would not be unheard of. Indeed, one-third of the states whose community colleges are governed like ours have done the same thing.

In fact, that’s pretty consistent with other data: Higher Ed Dive reports that the percentage of college presidents from outside academia “has fluctuated between 14% and 20% since 2001.”

Of course, the more important question may not be the next chancellor’s curriculum vitae, but how that chancellor intends to steer the system. Here’s something we need to be mindful of: Virginia’s community college system is really two systems in one. Part of it is an academic program – students who later intend to transfer to four-year schools. Part of it, though, is a technical program, offering short-term credentials programs. (That’s probably the part Youngkin cares about most right now.) Some states divide those two functions. Tennessee, for instance, has a College System of Tennessee that includes 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology. When Tennessee persuaded Ford Motor Co. last year to build a 5,000-worker plant in Memphis to build electric vehicle batteries, part of the state’s incentive package was the promise to build an entirely new technical college at the site to train those workers.

If and when Virginia persuades some big company to locate at the Southern Virginia Mega Site in Pittsylvania County, the state won’t be building a new community college at Berry Hill – but it will be looking to the existing ones to do whatever training and credentialing is necessary. I suspect one of the questions that will be put to the finalists for the chancellor’s position will be how they’d handle such a thing. If not, perhaps it ought to be.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.