Advice for New College Presidents

co-authored by Morton Schapiro

The two of us met back in 1991 when we were chairing our departments at the University of Southern California. We shared not only the same floor of a social-science building, but a wariness that "the administration" would fail to properly recognize the many obvious (to us) virtues of our faculty and our programs. Little did we expect that one day "the administration" would be us.

We doubt that many academics aspire to become college presidents. We certainly didn’t. But after our terms as chairs, we became, in one case, the director of an institute and then executive vice provost, and in the other, a dean and vice president. Once you go down those roads, a presidency isn’t a long drive away.

The problem is that faculty and administrative service do not fully prepare you to be a president. And if there is a presidential manual, we never found it. But with one of us in his 17th year on the job and the other having served six, we have a few words of advice for rookies, some of which we learned from others, and some from experience.

  • It is all about you; but it isn’t about YOU. Everyone will expect you to attend every event, in any place, at any time, especially during your first year. Your presence blesses a gathering as being important. You might say a few words, but the purpose is really just to be seen. When Woody Allen said that 80 percent of success is showing up, he might have been talking about college presidents. And when you are there, expect to be fawned over. Have you suddenly become more interesting, charismatic, wittier? Unlikely. Don’t let it go to your head. Many ex-presidents find themselves much less popular than they thought they were. If your self-esteem is tied to your presidential persona, expect one day to crash back to earth.
  • You have so much power; until you try to exercise it. The old joke goes that a college president is like the person who mows the grass at a cemetery while whistling a tune. There are lots of people under her, but no one is listening. Presidential leadership is more subtle than many would guess. You need to motivate and inspire others to get the job done. Our institutions are so complicated and there are so many disparate constituencies that a president can’t possibly keep on top of everything. We all have our leadership styles, and while there aren’t many Nelson Mandelas out there, we can all try to heed his words: "A leader … is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind." Don’t worry about who gets the credit.
  • You have to figure out an institution in real time; make the necessary changes while embracing what makes it special. Good luck with this, especially if you were hired from the outside. A former president of Williams College, John Sawyer, described the job as looking at a beautiful brick wall. From the front, every single brick looks new and shiny. But from the back, you can see that some are clearly rotten. If you don’t replace the rotten ones, the wall falls down. But if you remove the healthy ones, the wall also falls down. How do you discover which brick is which? Many of the current members of the community — students, faculty, staff, trustees, and recent alumni — have good ideas. But don’t forget more-seasoned veterans. Emeriti faculty, members of the 50th-reunion class, retired staff, and others have a perspective on a school that can be very valuable as you figure out a way to forge ahead. Listen to their stories and learn why they devote their lives to the school.
  • Don’t worry that things might go wrong; they definitely will. People make mistakes, including you. You will get blamed for everything, whether you knew about it or not, and whether it actually happened or not. This is especially true today in a world of social media and of ugly political partisanship. If you take it personally, you are in for lots of sleepless nights. Many presidents are shocked that after spending years protesting the man, they have become the man. They can talk all they want about their credentials as lifelong advocates for productive change, but the only change some listeners want is to have you gone. So never confuse your job with yourself. John Sexton, the transformative former president of New York University, once said that after a tough day he would go home and read his business card, which said John Sexton, President. He would then remind himself that his critics were unhappy with what came after the comma; they knew very little about what came before.Finally, take care of yourself.
  • You aren’t going to be good for much of anything if you neglect your physical and mental health. Eat well, exercise, and pursue whatever passions you might have. If you love to teach, fit in a course or two. If you love to write, do it. And definitely attend lectures and performances that inform and entertain. How can you possibly lead an educational institution if you don’t continue to educate yourself? Some will tell you that in order to do your job right, you can’t possibly allocate the time for such things. They’re wrong. True, it is often an 80-hour-a-week job, but one of the best things about being a president is that you set the schedule, not anyone else.

We hope that these reflections are useful to new presidents, and that they also provide some perspective to other readers about the exhilarating — and occasionally exasperating — life of the modern college president.

Originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education

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