'I'm Done With the Climbing Wall, Mr. President. Now Where's My Job?'

'I'm Done With the Climbing Wall, Mr. President. Now Where's My Job?'
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I have been a higher education professional for nearly three decades. I was a college vice president at age 25 and assumed my first presidency at 31. As a result of entering college administration at a young age, I was very close to the student population and have always prided myself on being a very student-oriented president. My institution, Bethany College, was featured this summer in The Chronicle of Higher Education for our student-centered commitment.

To each incoming class, I promise access. You will see me on the running track, I say, and in the cafeteria. (One student told me that you know you're at our college when you see the president eating at the dining hall more than you do.) I'll show up at residence-hall meetings, Greek events, plays and concerts, and at every athletic event when I'm in town. If you're a member of an honorary, student government, or some other campus group, chances are we'll have you up to the President's House for dinner. And I'll do my best to find you an internship, solid mentoring by our alumni, and that all-important first job with a competitive salary in the city of your choice.

I use social media to connect to over 20,000 Bethany College constituents on any given day--including current students, past students, parents and "past parents," not to mention faculty, staff, alumni, donors, professional colleagues, and numerous other constituents of the College. All of this is in addition to a travel schedule that keeps me on the road more than a third of the academic year. My iPad is a constant companion, everywhere I go.

Students and their families are consumers, and it is not just important but essential today for colleges and universities to provide amenities that students expect. That includes, in a sense, the chief amenity of a small college--the president, and his or her ability to leverage facilities and services that offer institutions a competitive advantage. My commitment to comfort, therefore, is continuous.

When our ancestors matriculated, they found bunk beds, a desk and a chair in their dorms, and not much else. They ate "mystery meat" in a traditional cafeteria with limited menu options. Athletic fields and gymnasiums were basic. There weren't parking problems because almost no students were allowed to arrive with a personal car. (A few years ago, one of our students showed up with two.)

Today's students (and their parents) vote with their checkbooks, expecting amenities and student services unimagined by earlier generations in their wildest dreams. This has created a competitive climate unprecedented in my experience of going on 24 years as a college president on three campuses. Research suggests that student-services spending has grown between 20 and 30 percent at many colleges, outpacing any other category. At Bethany, we've spent millions on facilities, including a 24-hour fitness center, an all-weather track and lights at the stadium, a new Starbucks-style café, enhancements to the dining hall, technology upgrades, suite-style housing that restored a long-vacant building to its original residential use, and more. Since I became president seven years ago, our student-life expenditures have doubled.

We're happy to do it, and grateful to donors who helped us do nearly all of it. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Still, anything can go too far, and I'm a little troubled by the sense of entitlement that accompanies what has been termed an "arms race" in college facilities and services. It's as if I'm hearing, "OK, I'm done with the climbing wall. Now where's my job?"

We don't have a climbing wall at Bethany; these days, college administration offers plentiful opportunities to climb walls anyway. But we do work very hard to find our students attractive positions, usually before they graduate. Our arrangement of internships in some departments, such as Communications and Media Arts, has reached record levels. Over the past summer, three of our top graduating seniors went on to master's study at some of the most prestigious institutions in America, while other graduates have landed excellent positions at firms in major cities.

I find this part of my work extremely satisfying. At my own alma mater, West Virginia Wesleyan, an attractive college in the heart of our state, I developed my philosophy of the value of the comprehensive learning experience that only small residential colleges can provide. I have come to realize that a student's 168-hour week consists of 18 hours in the classroom and 50 sleeping; for the remaining 100 hours, we are in a partnership with the student for an intimate learning experience. It is up to us to provide it.

That whole-package approach includes responding to those who want even more from us. A president's office is complaint-central. I have received calls about everything from athletic playing time to the selection of fast-food restaurants on road trips. When in doubt, call the President.

But that's the business we're in, and why we're here. We deliver what we promise--a complete, life-building, residential learning experience on a campus that looks viewbook-perfect. A gentle reminder, though: to graduate, you still have to make the grade and complete the intellectual fitness course which, at Bethany, includes successfully completing a senior capstone project and comprehensive written and oral examinations. If you don't, we'll see you back here next year. That, dear student, is our "climbing wall."

In the meantime, though, get comfortable, and call me if you need me. I'm sure you will!

Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies. Now in his 24th year as a college president, he serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards, and edits "Presidential Perspectives" (www.presidentialperspectives.org), a higher education leadership series written by college presidents for college presidents.

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