Ethical Leadership: Building Community at Community Colleges

September 14, 2023

Phillip Wilson
Phillip Wilson

Holding the position of chancellor of an Arkansas community college gives Phillip M. Wilson the opportunity to practice ethical leadership. A top-down approach and emphasis on community engagement move him toward the goal of magnifying his impact, he says.

Wilson was named chancellor of the University of Arkansas Rich Mountain in the west-central part of the state in 2010 but has been affiliated with the small, rural two-year community college since 1999.

Wilson explains ethical leadership this way: "At the most basic level, ethical leadership is doing the appropriate and right thing as a leader, and it is the model for my top-down approach." His ethics, he says, "are one of the strongest components of my leadership ability."

As stated in an article in Harvard Business Review, "A New Model for Ethical Leadership," "Leaders can do far more than just make their own behavior more ethical. Because they are responsible for the decisions of others as well as their own, they can dramatically multiply the amount of good they do by encouraging others to be better. As a leader, think about how you can influence your colleagues with the norms you set and the decision-making environment you create."

That's the approach Wilson takes as a leader. He has implemented his vision about ethics in education since becoming chancellor — and it's central to his roles both on campus and in the larger community.

For others interested in the field of community college administration, the University of Arkansas offers a master's degree in community college leadership delivered online by the College of Education and Health Professions. With a focus on strong ethical leadership skills, the program is also designed to give working professionals the flexibility they need. You can start the M.Ed. program throughout the year and take one eight-week course at a time.


What is the Definition of Ethical Leadership?

"Everyone has a different version of what their ethical level is," Wilson says. "For me, an ethical leader is an individual who is willing to perform, or model, any job at this campus in a manner that best represents the individual and the position so we can make positive change and growth. I know what is right and wrong and the consequences that come with both. I like to say I'm the chief bottle washer and the first guy to get fired."

Because the world is rapidly changing, and higher education is under the microscope now more than ever, his job as chancellor has become vastly more challenging over the years.

"There's a frontal assault on the value of higher education. Some of that commentary is fair — in our business, we've got some house cleaning that we need to do — but I can assure you the value proposition for an education is still massively greater than not having an education," Wilson maintains. "I talked with approximately 400 high school juniors today and told them you can find great-paying jobs in the vocational and technical trades. But, if you want to be an electrician, a nurse, or a machinist, you still must have some higher education."

He adds that raising funds for community colleges is challenging, but he won't pursue funds from unethical sources. "I'll find another way to fund it. I'm not for sale."

Community colleges are intertwined with the communities they serve, and, as a community college leader, so is Wilson, who holds a Doctor of Education in higher education from the U of A as well as a Master of Business Administration. He says the principles of ethical leadership are crucial to everything he does, including serving on community boards, commissions and task forces to further his commitment to community engagement in education.

"If we are making the correct decisions at this institution, they are in the best interest of our students and our community, and thereby, we're going to thrive," Wilson says." I'm on multiple boards, and my expertise is in making good, concrete, ethical decisions."

As an example of ethical leadership, Wilson cites his role as a member of the Mena Airport Commission.

"My expertise is not in flying airplanes. I could not function appropriately on that commission without having an honest and principled compass that is fundamentally one of strong ethics and morals. I think it's particularly important in a rural community because everybody knows everybody, and there are fewer resources in terms of money and professional skills."

Phillip M. Wilson, Chancellor, University of Arkansas Rich Mountain

Examples of Ethical Leadership

Being actively involved in the local communities that serve his college is an integral part of his role as a chancellor at U of A Rich Mountain.

"Anytime you can improve your local community, that's a good thing," Wilson says. "For me, the ethical components I bring to the table have allowed me to be inside the rooms where decisions are made."

As a member of multiple commissions or while extending his leadership in schools to serve on his public school board of directors, he tries to be a community asset.

"I'm not there to run the superintendent's day-to-day affairs, rather I'm there because of the ethical strength I bring to decision-making," he adds. "I don't want to sound all football coach-y, but clearly I'm only in those chairs because I put 'we' before 'me.'"

Wilson says his approach to ethics in education is "servant-based," and he puts being a role model at the top of his priorities.

"The people who work for me — and I detest the word 'boss' because it differentiates levels — know I'm a team-oriented guy," Wilson says. "Different skills are part of job descriptions. I set the tone for making ethical decisions in my work with students, community members, faculty and staff. I was raised ethically to know that the logger in Pencil Bluff (where he grew up) is just as important as the U.S. senator. They both play different and critical roles and have my utmost respect."

Wilson says that part of being an ethical leader is admitting that you made a mistake or don't know something.

"I tell my folks we've got to be willing to fail to even get going. If you're not, you'll never get off the starting line," he says. "Failure is part of your ethical creation. I have learned more from my failures than I ever have from my successes, and I think my team appreciates that."

He also tells those he leads that it's OK to make a mistake — but to learn from it so you don't repeat it.

"An ethical leader values their willingness to try something and to take on change, and even if they fail, it's OK," he says. "My co-workers and colleagues learn quickly exactly what my ethical core structure is, what I believe in and how we're going to do it. You have to live it every day."


What is Leadership in Education?

"Whether you're talking about finances, human relationships or leadership in general, situational ethics arise all the time and you must have a set of key components, value statements and value propositions that are locked in place," Wilson says.

He reads journals in higher education and also stays tuned in to issues in higher education via social media. People would have to be "deaf, dumb and blind" to not find out about ethical lapses by educational leaders in today's highly connected world, Wilson says. Still, he's troubled by what he sees at times.

"Our world has cheapened ethics," Wilson believes. "We have allowed leaders to lie, and we're afraid to hold them accountable for lying. What are we showing our kids? I have a 14-year-old and two children in college, and I'm more afraid for the 14-year-old."


Leadership in Educational Equity

As a small, rural public community college, the U of A Rich Mountain campus has traditionally attracted mostly white students with low incomes with a high percentage coming from first-generation, low-income backgrounds. Wilson has worked to recruit students from around the world to the college — and he's been successful.

Mena is home to about 5,600 people. There is a strong work ethic, but wages are somewhat depressed, Wilson says. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 25.5% live in poverty. Two of the largest employers for the region are Tyson Foods Inc. and Nidec Motor Corp. Tourism, he says, is sparking some renewed economic growth, with people coming to the area to enjoy the scenic views, including the Ouachita Mountains, to camp in the wilderness, to bike and hike, and to use the extensive all-terrain vehicle trail system.

"We are rich, hence the name Rich Mountain, with abundant natural resources, minerals and beauty," Wilson says. "You have to understand the heartbeat of the community to be good at what you do.

"I hire the best candidates for the jobs here at Rich Mountain and actively seek to diversify my campus to include everyone. I never wanted to be in a room where everyone is just like me."

Learn more about the Master of Education in Community College Leadership by visiting our website.

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The University of Arkansas System includes seven two-year community colleges located around the state. Students who graduate with associate’s degrees from any of the two-year colleges and then transfer to the Fayetteville campus for a bachelor’s degree are eligible to pay the same reduced, basic credit hour tuition they paid at their two-year institution.

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