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Dr. Thom Chesney and Brookhaven College students
Brookhaven College President Dr. Thom Chesney talks with two students in the lobby of the school’s Student Services Center.
Contact: Cesar Canizales

For immediate release — June 8, 2017

(DALLAS) — Members of Generation X, the generation born between the mid-1960s and the late 1970s-to-early-1980s (who followed the baby boomers), have been taking over leadership positions at all levels. They have been putting their stamp on everything from government to industry for the past few years, and community college presidents are no exception. 

These Gen Xers are moving into leadership roles at community colleges as their baby boomer colleagues retire. The new Gen X presidents are in a unique position to shape those institutions, and they bring with them new perspectives and visions — CEOs like Dr. Thom Chesney, president of Brookhaven College, part of the Dallas County Community College District’s system. 

A new book by Martha M. Ellis and Linda L. Garcia, “Generation X Presidents Leading Community Colleges, New Challenges, New Leaders,” documents the generational sea changes occurring at those higher education institutions. The book includes input from Generation X community college presidents, including one chapter that Gen Xer Chesney wrote about his leadership role at Brookhaven College. 

The book’s authors wrote that more than 900 community colleges have experienced presidential transitions in the last five years, and they estimate that 50% of presidents will retire in the next five.

Chesney, who took over as president of Brookhaven in 2011, said this situation places his generation in a unique situation because of all the transitions taking place at institutions and the “expectations of what a president is doing.”

“It’s the role of communicator, visionary, fundraiser and community member,” Chesney said. “It’s the unique timing of what we’re trying to do and what we’re coming into.”

Five Generations, One Table

In his book chapter, Chesney explained that — at any one meeting at his school — he could be seated with members of five different generations: from the older, silent generation to preceding baby boomers … all the way to millennials and Generation Y members. Generation X fits right in the middle among the other four groups.

“We’re doing this at a time when there are five generations in the higher education workforce. That’s unique,” Chesney said. “We have employees who are students as well. We must, from the middle of that group, work with all of those audiences.”

Chesney said that the older generations — the silent generation and the boomers — have a “fantastic wealth of knowledge” about where the institution came from and how it got to where it is today. That knowledge can help a president with “what’s best to carry forward in what we’re doing as we’re going through change. That’s why we have to have them all at the table.”

Different Generational Experiences, Backgrounds and Skills

Chesney said he sees value in being able to work with people from different generations and added that it is “one of the great benefits” of his position.

Chesney added that it’s important to look at the different skillsets and backgrounds that new employees bring to institutions.

“When we’re looking at new initiatives, when we’re planning what we’re going to do next, when we’re tackling a major issue, we try to draw from the collective experience across generations to get a real diversity of thought and ideas,” said Chesney. “That (experience) could be with funding, student pathways or increasing college completion. We have major undertakings in our own district right now. To do that with just one group or one sector doesn’t work anymore.”

He added, “For example, there can be real value in including a millennial who just came straight out of college. We can gain something by having them tell us about their experience where they just came from — that other institution.”

Priorities and a Work-life Balance

In his chapter, “Leading from the Middle Generation Position,” Chesney wrote, during an employment interview, that a search committee might ask a presidential candidate: “What would a typical workday look like for you — when would you arrive and when would you leave?” 

Chesney explained that some members of a presidential search committee just want to know that they can count on the candidate to be there, and some people are wired into that idea. However, Chesney said the Gen X work ethic involves doing the work required while still maintaining a work-life balance. 

Chesney noted in his chapter that Gen Xers “typically are not shy about sharing information outside the lines” at work, such as divulging personal information about family and other topics that previous generations might have avoided. He explained in the book that such a conversation with the search committee “personalizes the discussion and shows that the candidate has other interests, values personal time but will every bit be as present in the job as anyone could expect.”

“It is really important for people to know that there is room for flexibility,” Chesney said. “Work is vital, but so is life.”

Chesney explained that for a long time, the president was the figurehead at an institution, so he or she was expected to be everywhere. “That’s not sustainable in higher education today,” he added. 

He explained further that sometimes a vice president or a dean might be better suited to participate in a meeting “because they’re in the best position to support and help the work that you do, and having them in the room is just as good or better. That allows people to go into other roles across generations to do something, which also builds experience and opportunities for them.”

The Future: Millennials in Charge

One day soon, Gen Xers will start retiring from their presidential posts at community colleges across the country, and millennials eventually will take the reins. While they have been the subject of stereotypes, such as lacking so-called “soft skills,” Chesney said every generation picks up the “best things of those who precede us.”

“I feel that I have a boomer’s work ethic,” Chesney said. “It’s a work ethic of being dedicated and focused on our mission and prioritizing (goals and responsibilities). A lot of that comes to me through my parents and grandparents.” 

Chesney said he’s seeing the same transition with millennials. “They’re wanting to know, discovering by accident, why it’s important to show up on time; that the work they’re doing is scheduled for a certain time; and that clarity of communication is really important as well.”

Just like Gen Xers reframed “perceptions and understanding about what’s being done and accomplished,” Chesney said millennials are coming into their own and achieving positive outcomes at work in higher education institutions, including community colleges.

For more information, contact Chesney at “Generation X Presidents Leading Community Colleges” was published by Roman & Littlefield.

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