Oakton president selected for inaugural cohort of Aspen Institute’s New Presidents Fellowship for Community College Excellence

(Feb. 5, 2020) Oakton Community College President Joianne Smith, Ph.D., has been selected by the Aspen Institute to join the 2020-21 inaugural class of the Aspen New Presidents Fellowship, a new initiative designed to support community college presidents in the early years of their tenure to accelerate transformational change on behalf of students.

Smith is one of 25 Aspen Fellows selected from more than 100 applicants for this opportunity, which is fully funded by JPMorgan Chase & Co. and run by the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. The leaders, all of whom are in their first five years as a college president, will engage in a seven-month fellowship beginning in June 2020.

“I am honored to have been selected for the Aspen New Presidents Fellowship,” Smith says. “This is a remarkable opportunity to learn from other college leaders who are committed to equity and student success. I’m confident that my participation will inspire ideas to better serve the college and the communities we support.”

The fellows, who have been college presidents for five years or less, were selected for their commitment to student success and equity, willingness to take risks to improve outcomes, understanding of the importance of community partnerships, and ability to lead change.

Smith’s presidency began July 1, 2015, following 13 years of service in leadership roles at Oakton, including as dean of students (2002-2004) and vice president for student affairs (2005-2015). She is the only community college president in the state of Illinois selected to participate in the New Presidents Fellowship.

Under Smith’s leadership, Oakton adopted a new strategic plan entitled “Success Matters” and redefined the college’s mission, vision and values. These efforts shaped the college’s collective vision to support students by incorporating new strategies to ensure learning, persistence and attainment. Significant progress has been made toward improving student persistence rates, in accordance with ambitious goals set forth by Smith.

“We know more than ever before about how community colleges can improve outcomes for students, both in and after college,” said Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. “And the urgency for them to do so only increases—especially for students of color and low-income students. These fellows have shown they are fully, urgently committed to excellence and equity. We look forward to working alongside them.”

Nearly 80 percent of community college presidents nationwide plan to retire in the next decade. Through this fellowship and its other leadership programs, Aspen is committed to helping to replace those exiting the presidency with an exceptionally capable and highly diverse talent pool. According to the American Council on Education, only 36 percent of community college presidents are female, and 20 percent are people of color. The incoming class of Aspen fellows is 48 percent female, and 40 percent are people of color. Their institutions span 15 states and vary widely, from a rural college with fewer than 2,000 students to a statewide system that educates more than 150,000.

“By preparing students and workers for in-demand jobs and meeting the training needs of businesses, community colleges are critical institutions for their regions’ prosperity and development,” said Jennie Sparandara, head of workforce initiatives, JPMorgan Chase. “JPMorgan Chase is proud to partner with the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program to build the next generation of diverse community college leaders.”

The program for new presidents is an addition to the Aspen Presidential Fellowship for Community College Excellence, which has been serving aspiring presidents since 2016. Of the nearly 160 fellows who have taken part in the Rising Presidents Fellowship, 41 are now community college presidents, serving more than 500,000 students.

JPMorgan Chase is funding the Aspen Presidential Fellowship as part of New Skills at Work, a five-year, $350 million investment to support community colleges and other pathways to great careers and economic mobility.