Leading (and Teaching) for the Common Good

Sometimes it feels like I have 12 different jobs. On any given day, I play the role of scheduling juggler, donor developer, faculty soother, student advisor, professional counselor, hard-nosed negotiator, and -- on my better days -- conflict resolver. Within the last 10 days, I have traveled 23,000 miles for Gordon College, and for anyone who thinks that sounds glamorous, just imagine a week spent negotiating your way through cancelled flights, a blizzard, perpetual jet-lagged haze, and giving the same talk so many times that you literally lose your voice. Yes, these are the joys of the college presidency.

But truth be told, I love this job. It is a perfect match between my passions, interests and background, and what the College needs for this season. And I relish the variety that comes with the role. In my first few years as a college president, I've had the opportunity to keep a hand in nearly every aspect of the school's operation -- except the most central, primary function of the institution itself: I've missed teaching.

The great thing about being a college president is that I get to connect with a much wider network of students than I did as a professor. At the same time, the depth of relationships that emerges from interacting with a group of young people for a whole semester simply can't be matched. The chance to work with students is what drew me to higher education in the first place. So this semester, I'm returning to the classroom to teach one of my favorite classes, one that I hope will be of real help to students: "Leading for the Common Good."

In this sociology class, we look at the social dynamics of leadership. As a social scientist, I invite students to explore institutional leadership from multiple angles: the political tradeoffs, the organizational mechanics required to get things done, the inertia of institutions, as well as the dark side of leadership -- the excesses and failures that often accompany power. But, on balance, the course focuses on the promise and prospects that can occur when there is an alignment of a leader's passion, an organization's capability, and followers' shared commitment.

My favorite aspect of this particular topic is that it intrigues students of all kinds. In many cases, this is the first and only sociology class my students ever take. This is a topic that's endlessly relevant -- whether we're discussing Person of the Year Pope Francis' grand and small symbolic gestures, or debating where the buck stops in the wake of the massive Fort Lee traffic jams ordered by one of Governor Chris Christie's staffers. Our culture will always be interested in how leaders steward their power, and to what ends, so this is a course for all students and for all times.

I've been teaching iterations of this course for over a decade. As a preceptor (a graduate student teacher) at Princeton University, I taught the class under the legendary sociologist Suzanne Keller. There it was called "Elites, Leadership and Society." When I transitioned to Rice University, I piloted a similar course under the topic "Social Dynamics of Leadership." At Gordon, with "Leading for the Common Good," I'm excited to help students explore power and elites in society while also unpacking the moral dimension of leadership, which is increasingly of interest to young people.

To be sure, one reason I am returning to the classroom this semester because I have really missed interacting with students in a formal academic context. But if it were just for my benefit, I would keep my syllabi and my fond memories of teaching -- and the dread of grading -- to myself. The primary reason I decided to reinstitute this class is that I want to awaken within my students a desire to take their rightful place as stewards of public responsibility. To attend an institution like Gordon -- or any American liberal arts college, for that matter -- is to have the opportunity to experience what less than one percent of the world's population can aspire to: a holistic, residential undergraduate education with access to some of the best and brightest minds in all fields of learning.

With that privilege comes real responsibility. I want our students to recognize and accept that duty, and I look forward to the opportunity this spring to walk alongside them as they reckon with both the perils and the possibilities of power.