Reflecting: Perspectives on the College Presidency

Following are perspectives from Stephen J. Nelson, who recently wrote his fifth book about college presidents, College Presidents Reflect: Life in and out of the Ivory Tower.

Nelson is associate professor of Educational Leadership at Bridgewater State University and senior scholar in the Leadership Alliance at Brown University. NEJHE has published his thoughts on previous occasions: Tales from the Presidency: The Dartmouth and NYU Chapters; Presidential Chaos; Success and Failure in the College Presidency; and Balance Wheel: Presidents Should Use Their Moral Authority to Protect Academe.

On challenge$ …

One grand challenge today’s presidents face is the conduct of major development campaigns. These are now a customary feature of nearly all college presidential tenures including most public land-grant and state universities, filtering even to the larger and more established community colleges. This factor distinguishes the present era of the college presidency from predecessor epochs. This is not to say that the money hunt is a recent fixture in the college presidency. The necessity to raise funds is as old as the college and the responsibility of its presidents in America. The difference today is the repetitive need for these major, strategically designed fundraising shows.

A clear theme emerges in the lives of today’s presidents regarding how long their tenure clocks will run and it is unfortunately connected to the cycle of these campaigns. If a president has already overseen a major campaign (as almost all do), facing yet another creates a forced choice that many presidents encounter. As John McCardell, president of Middlebury College shared, when he confronted the prospect of undertaking a second campaign, he simply felt he “just didn’t have the need or desire to do that.”

Many college presidents feel that they have invested significant parts of their lives to the institutions they serve. “Burned out” might be too strong a term, but former presidents report some point at which they plainly desire a simpler, less regimentally structured life as at least a piece of the decision to step down from their academic pulpits. On leaving the presidency, most happily return to the satisfactions of teaching, seek involvement in public and civic duties, and figure ways to be useful to other social needs and activities as they choose.

On leaving the bully pulpit …

When and how to use the bully pulpit of the college presidency is a major issue both historically and during the tenures of these presidents. It is an essential part of the job, but also one that, if not handled well, can cause great problems both as a result of a president saying too much, touching some third-rail intentionally or otherwise, or being too silent and finding critics arguing about why the president isn’t speaking out and speaking up.

Nan Keohane, president of Wellesley College and then Duke University over nearly 25 years, has been one of the most deliberate presidential leaders about the bully pulpit. She views the president as the exclusive interpreter in deciding which issues inside and outside the gates bear sufficiently on the college’s core mission and principles to demand that the president’s voice be raised. But even with her considerations in play, especially when an issue is clearly outside the university yet still bears on it in some way, the difficulty of deciding whether to say something and if so, what to say, remains a complex navigation that again can have intended and unintended consequences both on the negative and positive side.

Of course all things come to and end. When presidents leave office, the pulpit they enjoyed no longer exists in the same way. Rob Oden regularly took to the presidential pulpit while at Kenyon and Carleton colleges. With humor and bemusement, he remarked that as retirement from Carleton loomed, he warned his wife of what would happen when they returned to their home in Hanover, N.H., where he had begun his career as a professor at Dartmouth. He jokingly predicted that, “I will put on a suit, walk to downtown Hanover, stop strangers, and ask them, ‘Don’t you want to know what I think?’”

On advice to those who will follow …

Presidents must figure out the way to pace themselves and sustain their passion and verve for the office. This is no easy or simple task. They often need others—staff, close aides, spouses and partners, colleagues from their trek in the academy and the like—to help them navigate this spreading out of the icing of their personal energy, focus and desire so that the many duties of the presidency can best be met and addressed.

These are demanding jobs with all manner of people expecting the president to be concerned about their concerns, to show up at their events, to cater to their interests. College presidents have to be “on” much more of the time than many if not most of their counterparts in the business world. Any college president needs to learn as quickly as possible how to juggle all the responsibilities of the office while retaining a modicum of balance so as not to become overwhelmed a la what happened to Neil Rudenstine at Harvard in the 1990s; his commitment to 18-hour days and 120-hour weeks caught up with him early in his presidency and forced him to reassess how to do the job in order to have any chance at longevity.

A portion of the challenges presidents must handle in the office has to do with how and why they end up attaining the post in the first place. These presidents offer admonitions that those on a track to become presidents should never appear overly eager to get there. In fact, some of these former presidents contend that they were as surprised as anyone that they ended up in the highest perch in the Ivory Tower.

They also say presidents must know the shoulders they stand on, and get to know and understand the culture of their college or university. In short, new presidents have to understand and embrace the culture of the college or university, and assess possible changes that need to be undertaken. Presidents, especially successful ones, will be attentive to institutional culture, to the history, or what sociologist Burton Clark calls the “saga” of the colleges and universities they are chosen to lead.

Knowing when to quit is also a unique challenge for college presidents. All presidencies come to an end, and thus stepping down from the office must be well handled by all parties involved—presidents themselves, trustees, administrative colleagues, faculty, and even students, and certainly alumni. The porridge in the “Goldilocks” story is an appropriate metaphor: “not too hot, not too cold, just right.”

The presidents in this book also highlight that temperament is a critical, highly exposed characteristic of any leader. Leaders don’t want their temperaments, let alone the style that can accompany them, to turn readily into caricatures. This is especially true for college presidents sitting as they do in the top position and at pivot points in the academy with all its trappings of hefty intellect, presumed civility, critical judgments and unavoidable and persistent inquiry.

They also advise use of today’s management buzzword of the “walk-around” to get acquainted with the institution on the way in the door, and maybe as a continuing strategy to stay informed and on target with the pulse of the institution. A number of these presidents also stress the importance of humility. Gestures presidents can offer and display, as long as sincere and not disingenuous, that breakdown the natural, understandable walls between presidents, their physical office, and their constituents are strongly advised. Getting around the campus, getting to know the players, leads to the leverage that Fran Fergusson, based on her over two decades at the helm of Vassar College, calls essential for a president assume the crucial role as “persuader-in-chief” in the eyes of constituents.

Also, especially in the contemporary era when anything can be caught as part of the electronic record, presidents must watch what they say. Rob Oden points to the too easily overlooked obvious reality: “First, beware of casual comments. Or rather know that casual comments do not exist for those of us in these positions because nothing a college president says is taken casually.”

For all the structural acumen, political savvy, academic bona fides, and money-hunting ability that college presidents must possess, John DiBiaggio, who served presidencies at the University of Connecticut, University of Michigan, and Tufts, believes that leadership in the academy comes down to the president’s personal, moral compass and how it is exercised. Finally, to be the leader of a college, the president must have instincts that are exact and faithful. Presidents must have the courage to follow those instincts. This is especially crucial when the sledding is tough, when the right decision for the right time is critical not only to the president’s success, but also to a sound future for the institution.


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