A Wish List for College Presidents

College presidents spend the majority of their time asking on behalf of their institutions. Requests for alumni donations, research funding, parental support, student involvement or staff compliance are made in an effort to preserve and expand on the college's (real or imagined) greatness. But those at the helm of higher education rarely ask on their own behalves. So this holiday season, I've got some recommendations for the men and women who run our college campuses to include on their own Wish Lists:


1. A clue about who your students really are. No select, elite, student presidential advisory board is going to give you the straight story about what's happening on campus. Those kids are participating in that program because it will help them, not because it will help you. And newsflash: they're not a true cross-section of the kids on your campus. It's the guys skipping class and smoking pot on the hill you need to meet. Or the girls who are their sorority's beer connection. Get in there, get your hands dirty, and figure out what's really going on in your campus.

2. Enough courage to hold accountable those who act inappropriately. The racists, sexists, homophobes, bullies, and lawbreakers on campus need guidance and accountability. It's your job to give it to them. Difficult as it is to address what's going on in people's brains, it's your job to let students and professors alike know what is unacceptable. They're at your school to become educated, so educate them. Sure, doing so may lower your popularity rating. Too bad. Leadership is not a popularity contest. You may not have become a provost because you wish to be the next FDR or MLK. You may believe this position is a stepping-stone to increased prestige and wealth. Regardless of your own career path, your current job is an important and influential one. Using your authority to demand tolerance, equality, and progress is not an option - it is your obligation.

3. An interest in reducing college tuition. Ethically, the financial realities facing recent graduates should be on your radar. Leading the fight for proper tuition costs is part of your job. The economics of college tuition are not real, because tuition doesn't follow the rules of supply and demand, and student loans provide easy access to almost unlimited (albeit irresponsible) power to pay. Students should be paying for their professors' time, the campus facilities and their room and board. Students shouldn't be subsidizing endowments, sabbaticals, academic conferences and research. Shamelessly strapping tens of thousands of dollars of debt onto seventeen-year-olds who have never so much as had a paper route is irresponsible, and the Stafford-loan funded buck stops with you.

4. An appropriate attitude about college sports. It's time for university presidents to get a grip when it comes to college sports. I understand that these teams bring in big money and are a major source of morale on campus. However, when they become the primary reason for a college's existence, the school has failed. Whether we're talking about willful blindness toward athletes who are violent criminals or sham classes perpetuated to conform with NCAA rules, it's got to stop. Sure, it's a tough mission to balance the positives about college sports with these other issues - but that's why it's called leadership.

5. A realistic and proactive plan for creating a safe environment for LGBT students. There are going to be LGBT students - and probably more each year than you've ever had in years past. No one has an easy roadmap for dealing with the unprecedented social and legal issues that affect LGBT students, but tolerant, inclusive policies are an important step toward creating a safe and responsible campus culture. During their college years, millions of teens and young adults will struggle with issues of sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity. With such predictable concerns affecting each entering class, those at the helm will be acting responsibly only when they plan to help these students. In the 1960s, schools as well as individuals defined themselves by their policies toward racial minorities; history will likewise judge us today by our treatment of LGBT people.

6. A commitment to implementing positive safety practices on campus. Like it or not, school presidents are the commanders in chief of college safety. And safety on campus needs to be handled in a well-planned, well-informed, and well-balanced manner. Dealing with everything from campus rape to school shootings in an ad-hoc, reactionary manner has not and will not work. Schools need their own reliable systems of law enforcement, at the investigatory, judicial, and disciplinary levels. When a student is accused of breaking school rules, you must be informed and involved enough in the process to project confidence in a thorough investigation, a fair system of review, and an appropriate disciplinary result. Absent that kind of commitment on your part, the consequences are bound to include unchecked criminal behavior, miscarriages of justice against the falsely accused, and mistrust of the school on a grand scale.

7. The confidence that your school will endure, no matter what. No one wants a two-hundred year old institution to fail on his or her watch. I certainly wouldn't want to be the one who destroyed Harvard's endowment or who ushered in a PR nightmare for Penn State. Effective leadership is mindful of risks, but is not crippled by fear. When there's a scandal on campus, as there inevitably will be, it is your job to do what's right, not what's good for the school's image. History is unlikely to judge you by one campus rape or one fraternity hazing gone bad. But you will be and should be judged by your response to such events. So have the confidence that your school can withstand some tough love.

A campus, whether large or small, is the entire world for its students. Therefore, school administrators and university presidents are not just professionals with prestigious jobs. They are leaders of a world that is largely of their own creation. It's time they take a break from fundraising to embrace the opportunity and obligation that real leadership always entails.