Consultant Fisher answers call Colleges: Superconsultant and former Towson State University President James Fisher has been hired to help fix the problems at Baltimore County's system of community colleges.

The Education Beat

March 16, 1997|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

JAMES LEE Fisher to the rescue.

Fisher, the superconsultant and former president of Towson State University, has been hired for a year at $100,000 to help straighten out the mess in the Community Colleges of Baltimore County (CCBC).

Fisher will conduct an "orientation" for the colleges' trustees and no doubt help them choose a successor to Daniel J. LaVista, the chancellor they fired in January.

The first thing Fisher did was to ask the trustees to read his 1991 vTC book, "The Board and the President."

Education Beat checked the book out of the University of Baltimore library and contacted Fisher on his boat, anchored near Annapolis, for elaboration.

Herewith, at no charge, is some of the consultant's wisdom.

In the book, Fisher attacks the concept of "collegial leadership," which he calls an "oxymoron. I have found that over-reliance by governing boards and presidents on popular rule and misguided notions about collegiality have led to a dramatic reduction in the ability of the appointed president to lead."

But in the interview, Fisher hastened to say that faculty and staff of a college have important roles to play.

"The collective intelligence of the faculty can be profound," he said.

But the chief executive gives up authority, or "legitimacy," at great personal peril.

"He or she has to be charismatic," Fisher said from his boat. "He or she has to make the tough decisions and explain them to the faculty and make sure that there is accountability up and down the line, starting in the president's office."

Other sayings of Consultant Fisher:

* "After it has been ensured that the ongoing president will have a graceful departure, the single most important thing that a board can do is to engage an experienced general consultant. It is absolutely vital that you hear from your consultant (or read this) before appointing the search committee."

* "Leaders rarely give orders or tell people what to do. They truly listen to the people in their organization and often count their opinions more important than their own."

* "The president's leadership is maximized only when the office is invested with sufficient status and authority to be taken seriously (the antithesis of collegiality)."

* "I question the goal of 50-50," the plan to save money at CCBC by having half the school's credit hours taught by inexpensive part-time faculty. "People who think this way are caught up in the historic emulation of the four-year system."

* "Personal interviews [of presidential candidates], including public interviews, are the least effective variable in predicting job success."

* "Student services are much more important in community colleges than in the four-year schools. This is because community colleges uniquely provide the link between the disenfranchised and the franchised in American higher education."

* "Virtually all presidents know when their time is up. The problem is that they usually have no comfortable or satisfactory alternative."

* "A college or university that isn't at times controversial isn't worth the name. Truth is never absolute and rarely comfortable, and as the primary function of a college or university is to pursue and interpret the truth, a board should never find comfort in a smooth course."

Fisher, 66, has advised hundreds of colleges and universities on matters of governance and leadership. He said CCBC is far from his worst case.

A college board he advised in the Southwest was so embroiled, he said, that members had their tires slashed during meetings and their lives threatened in late-night telephone calls.

He was effusive in his praise of former Baltimore County state Sen. Francis X. Kelly, the new board chairman, who hired him after seeing him in action as a consultant to President Earl S. Richardson at Morgan State University, where Kelly is a regent.

Normally, Fisher said, he doesn't like to take jobs "close to home."

Fisher didn't want to pass judgment on the state of the union of Dundalk, Essex and Catonsville community colleges, but he said he welcomed the challenge of "a situation where enrollment's down, where resources and reputation are declining, where there's no accountability from top to bottom."

That about sums it up.

Area colleges taking part in 'Call to Community'

Twenty-one metropolitan area colleges and universities are participating in "A Call to Community -- An Honest Conversation About Race, Reconciliation and Responsibility," which gets its public launching at 7: 30 Tuesday in the College of Notre Dame's LeClerc Auditorium.

The effort by the Interfaith Action for Racial Justice Inc. to break down the walls between city and suburb, black and white, seems particularly well timed.

Md. colleges set course for overseas opportunities

The higher education world shrinks:

Nearly 800 members of the armed forces are taking courses from the University of Maryland University College in Bosnia, Croatia and Hungary. Towson State University has designed a public relations program at the Electrotechnical University in St. Petersburg, Russia. Western Maryland College has a campus in the former Communist education building in Budapest, and the Baltimore International Culinary College has a campus in Ireland.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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