A phenomenological study of chief academic officers at Texas public rural-serving community colleges: Decision-making skills during times of financial crises


The purpose of this qualitative phenomenological study was to explore the decision-making approaches utilized by Chief Academic Officers (CAO’s) at Texas public rural-serving community colleges, during a time of unexpected financial crises that required drastically reducing expenditures in the middle of a fiscal period (mid-year budget cut), during 2010. This study sought to explore and describe the critical reactionary skills and approaches employed by these CAO’s to address the financial crises at their institutions.
The five participants were purposefully selected based on their experience with the 2008 economic downturn and mid-year reductions at their institutions in 2010. A semi-structured interview protocol was used for data collection, and the phenomenological data analysis process, utilizing constant comparative analysis methods, was used to analyze the data collected.
The conceptual framework that guided this study was based on the attributes of leadership and crisis theories, and the concept that decision-making during times of uncertainty can lead to a sense of urgency in making decisions. This can often result in a decision-making environment where quick decisions are perceived as necessary, which can be detrimental in a crisis situation. The findings of this study indicated that CAO’s exhibited tenacity and perseverance, open communication, and strategic planning and operations skills when making decisions related to the instructional mission of their institutions, during the 2010 reductions in state appropriations. Furthermore, the CAO’s perceived that there were critical skills that guided their decision-making in times of financial uncertainty. These included: mastery of budget analysis and resource management, people skills, and intricate knowledge of the community college mission and functions. All of the skills and approaches identified by the study participants did not support hasty decision-making during times of financial crises. The implications of this study for higher education are that there are critical skills needed to make decisions in order to lead institutions through times of financial crises. Institutions need to ensure that their leadership has these skills or that they provide opportunities for their leaders to obtain them through on the job training or professional development. In addition, many of the participants noted that they learned many of their skills from prior work experiences, and not necessarily from their positions in higher education. This highlights the need for hiring managers at institutions to be cognizant of what skills are necessary in their leadership, and to ensure they hire individuals with these skills or that they provide training and mentorship opportunities to acquire them. The results of this study will contribute to the higher education knowledge base on the critical skills needed by higher education leadership to lead their institutions through times of financial difficulties. This is one of few empirical studies that examines the decision-making skills of leadership during times of crises in a higher education context. Additional research should be conducted to further expand this research into other types of community college environments such as urban and suburban. Institution size and geographic location may have a direct impact on the decisions an institution is forced to make in times of financial uncertainty. In addition, a quantitative study on the decision-making skills utilized by CAO’s would also expand the empirical research on decision-making skills used during times of crises, and could result in the findings of the study being more generalizable to the broader context of higher education.



Decision making, Finance