A College President's Christmas List, 2015

Dear Santa:

I am submitting my annual Christmas list with the hope that you will recognize how good my fellow college presidents and I have tried to be during the past year. We have strived to remain student-centered, faculty-friendly, alumni-attentive, constituent-conscious, and donor-diligent. We have honored campus traditions while functioning as the change agents most of us have been hired to be.

We have, not always successfully, balanced campus commitments with personal growth and continued professional development. On any given day, we work as hard as, or harder than, any of your elves at the North Pole. On balance, therefore, we presidents don't ask for the impossible -- and my list this year is short -- but we do need your help on several issues that sometimes seem overwhelming.

First, America needs to stop bashing higher education. Enough already with the calls for accountability, increased regulation, and skeptical analyses of the true "value" of a college or university degree.

My response is that we are highly accountable to multiple constituencies, comply to the best of our ability with all requirements from government, accrediting, and regulatory agencies -- often adding staff to already tight budgets in order to be in compliance -- and stake our collective reputations every semester on the life- and career-enhancing value of a college degree.

We are more transparent than ever, more mindful of the special social and cultural needs of each generation of student learners, and more committed than ever before to a quality campus experience, not only for students but also for their families.

Year after year, research confirms that the value of a four-year college degree is returned generously in dividends of increased employability, income potential, and social benefit to communities in which college graduates live and work, not to mention the personal life-enriching qualities that an education generates in perpetuity. America's colleges and universities are the pride of the nation and a beacon for many other countries. Santa, please intervene for us with some words of praise and recognition.

Second on my list is reason and attentiveness on the part of those running for national office.

The higher-education dialogue among presidential candidates is embarrassingly shallow, and frequently nonexistent. We often don't even merit a sound-bite response to questions about the importance of an education to the social, economic, and strategic priorities of the country.

The college and university presidents I know, without exception, would welcome the opportunity to brief the candidates on the critical role that our institutions play in the well-being of the nation. To talk about America's standing in the world without addressing the need for investing in the education infrastructure of the country is politically careless and strategically thoughtless.

Santa, can you therefore help us get through to the politicians who look upon us as mere agents of political correctness and ungrounded, unrealistic thinking?

Third, will you provide new funding programs for our dedicated faculty? It's challenging for many of them to keep up in their fields without the kind of financial assistance that can fund sabbaticals for reflection, research, and renewal. Moreover, the classroom itself continues to change in response to millennial students' expectations. The lecture format is losing ground to integrated media, digital interconnectivity, and inter-institutional collaboration.

For example, many faculty need support, training, and encouragement to embrace digital innovations and applications of personal technology to curriculum. (I'm sure you're familiar with this, Santa, in the many requests you receive for the latest smartphones and iPads.) We recognize that not every discipline is suited for the presence of technology. But in an era when professors are held to higher and higher standards of instructional delivery and outcomes, and are often criticized for coddling students and inflating grades, I believe that investing in new tools available to them is a reasonable request.

Unfortunately, making a pitch to donors for "faculty development" is not always an easily explained or marketed strategy. Can you help?

Finally under my holiday tree would be a general wish for campus security and safety -- including intellectual security. In that regard, we're rather touchy today on our campuses when it comes to embracing opinions that may differ from our own. Commencement speakers and others are increasingly deemed unacceptable to campus audiences, based simply on their political views or career orientation. I find that very disturbing.

If free, unfettered, even radical thinking and dialogue cannot take place within the sanctity of our institutional walls, we have lost a major reason for existing as an academy. As I've written previously, answers to complex, interrelated economic, political, and environmental issues cannot, and should not, come from a single perspective. Just as important as the physical security of our campuses is the safety of the free exchange of ideas without penalty, recrimination, or censorship.

Santa, I've noted before that our campus resources -- like the Grinch's heart -- are sometimes two sizes too small. We presidents work our magic and make the best case we can for budget increases, legislative allocations, gifts and grants, and tuition adjustments. We try to answer every concern, cover every contingency, and still make it back to the quad on time to light up the campus Christmas tree.

If you could help us out this year, we would be grateful. I understand how busy you are -- your travel schedule would exhaust any college president.

And did I mention that we're always looking for quality candidates for honorary degrees? I can put in a good word for you on that...

Dr. Scott D. Miller is President of Virginia Wesleyan College, a national liberal arts college located in Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Virginia. Now in his 24th year as a college president, he serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards, and edits "Presidential Perspectives," a higher education leadership series written by college presidents for college presidents.