A Conversation Between Terry O’Banion and Rufus Glasper

Ask Terry O’Banion to identify the most important work the League for Innovation has done in its 50 years and he leads with helping community colleges become “national leaders in information technology” before revealing his top choice: leadership development. 

O’Banion shared stories of the League’s history, including initiatives in community college leadership, during a conversation with League President and CEO, Rufus Glasper, early this year. The former and current CEOs met at the organization’s office in Chandler, Arizona, to launch the League’s fiftieth anniversary celebration. 

Founded in 1968 by B. Lamar Johnson, the League for Innovation in the Community College started as a group of 12 community college presidents at institutions that, according to O’Banion, Johnson had identified “as among the most innovative colleges in the country.” O’Banion, who served as League President and CEO for 23 years, described how, in a decade when the number of community colleges doubled, Johnson studied innovation at two-year institutions and wrote about it in his seminal book, Islands of Innovation

In O’Banion’s words, “the League was established, really, on the interest in innovation.” Members “saw themselves as leading innovation, and they did not want to get into policy and politics” so they focused on “innovations around projects, programs, and practices.” That, O’Banion explained, became “the stamp of the League for Innovation.” Bringing the conversation forward a half-century, Glasper noted that the League for Innovation “today is still focused on the historical aspects of [its] foundation, but we are finding that there are many other players in the space.” He mentioned that organizations like Achieving the Dream and the Aspen Institute were “not around during the time that the League was being developed,” and described how the League is now having conversations with these and other organizations about ways to collaborate. 

Glasper explained that a “major strategic planning initiative” is now under way so the board of directors and staff can “focus in on the new…opportunities and challenges that are coming our way as we look at education today, and, specifically, the disinvestment and funding and…new models we need to focus on.” 

The conversation has changed, he continued, “because our environment is changing,” but he clarified that the League’s “mission of catalyzing innovation is still number one and we continue to move in that direction.”

Addressing major changes in the League over fifty years, O’Banion talked about how in the 1960s and 1970s, few women or minorities held community college presidencies. The League was seen “by many people in community college work as…an old boys network.” 

O’Banion wrote a paper, “An Elitist Organization of Egalitarian Institutions,” to address this issue with the League board. Eventually, the 12-member board expanded to 20 members, and the auxiliary Alliance for Community College Innovation was formed to extend membership beyond the board of directors. O’Banion believes these efforts had a positive effect, making the League “a much more egalitarian organization.”

Paralleling conversations about expanding League membership, the organization turned its attention to broader issues surrounding a lack of diversity in community college leadership. After consulting for the American Council on Education’s Women in Leadership initiative, O’Banion envisioned a similar program for women in community colleges: “The League sponsored a national week-long institute for women leaders,” which led to “a training institute for women that we called Leaders for the 80s…. There were 50 women community college presidents at that time.” 

With FIPSE grants and support from League colleges, O’Banion continued, “we were able to start that program slowly…and now there are…400, or maybe more, women community college presidents.” According to O’Banion, Leaders for the 80s “became the National Institute for Leadership Development (NILD) and…the training ground for women in community colleges.” 

Partnering with John Roueche, then at the University of Texas at Austin, O’Banion said the League received Kellogg Foundation support:

to start leadership development for diversity. We had…the Expanding Leadership Diversity Program…and we started a national conference called Leadership 2000. We started … Leadership Abstracts, which is still going, [and] so leadership became a major effort of the League and continues to be one of [its] primary commitments.

When the conversation moved to current challenges and issues facing community colleges, Glasper said, “Quite frankly, I still believe that access is an issue. So many of our students do not find an opportunity to come to our colleges.” He continued: 

I think one of our challenges is being recognized as a comprehensive community college system that today transfers a significant number of students to our public universities. But we also put many students to work. We’ve…demonstrated that we can take students that have…the desire for education to start at a community college, and if they desire can move into a four-year institution over time, but that’s a tough message.

Glasper also repeated the challenge of the “disinvestment in community college over time” as a major issue that has been “quite devastating” to colleges that have experienced it.

Despite these and other challenges, Glasper said of the League:

We are finding ways to continue to advance and we’re bringing in more support from different venues than we’ve done in the past, with different organizations, with different community-based groups, and…the ecosystem is helping us to look at support for community colleges differently than we did some 50 years ago.

Looking to the future, Glasper revisited the access and funding issues: “When we look at our three-legged stool of property taxes, state aid, and tuition, [and at] the notion of access, increasing tuition, disinvestment, we need to look at other options.” 

He discussed pathways and dual enrollment, advising that “we need to be more deliberate about where students can go,” and that pathways can reduce the time it takes to get there. He added that dual enrollment offers “new avenues for students to begin a community college program sooner, go to our colleges, transfer to a university [or move into] the workplace.” 

Focusing on the workforce, Glasper explained, “the future of the community colleges are that livable-wage jobs are in our space,” citing graduates of technical programs who move into those jobs.

Referencing the League’s expanded membership, Glasper said the League needs to use “the new institutions, the changing leadership, to think about…the space that we can continue to prosper in.” Corporate partnerships, he suggested, are natural in that space since board and Alliance colleges can help answer common questions about products and services: “Does it work and under what conditions does it work?” And, they can do so in an “environment that is safe…where risk taking is acceptable and…welcomed.”

“The League for the future, in my mind,” Glasper said, “is continuing to stay relevant, is continuing to be adaptable, to be fluid, to be engaging, and to be a voice.” He spoke of the sometime lost voices of leadership: “So many times, you are finding that you don’t have the voice that you would like to…because of the positions that you might have.” He referenced the League’s Executive Leadership Institute as a place “to be very open about how you not only survive, but you thrive as a leader.” Glasper merged the themes of innovation, service to students, and leadership, confirming that: 

The League for Innovation moving forward will continue to have innovation as its mantra. We will continue to define it in a way that supports our increasing needs for our students and in a way that we encourage others to follow into the leadership roles…because we need strong leaders in the community college movement. We need dedication, we need those who are willing to set community colleges as a priority.

Nearing the end of the conversation, O’Banion connected past and future: 

The League…under the direction of B. Lamar Johnson really had a good idea to keep the focus on [innovation] under which they could do many, many things, and I think the League will continue to prosper and always be on the cutting edge because you keep the focus on innovation.

This article features highlights of a conversation between Terry O’Banion and Rufus Glasper held on January 30, 2018. Visit www.league.org/50years for more information.

Cynthia Wilson

Vice President for Learning and Chief Impact Officer, League for Innovation in the Community College


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