Reflections of a University President, One Year into the Job

Just over a year ago, I began serving as the eighth President of California State University, Fresno. I had big shoes to fill following my predecessor, who served for 23 years. I wanted to share with other new presidents a few lessons I have learned.
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Just over a year ago, I began serving as the eighth President of California State University, Fresno. I had big shoes to fill following my predecessor, who served for 23 years. I am the first native of the Central Valley and the first Latino to serve as President of this 103-year-old regional comprehensive university. At 47, I am also currently the youngest president in the California State University system.

With support from a few mentors who had served as university presidents, I had done everything I could to prepare for this opportunity and this preparation made a significant difference. My prior research on universities and university presidents has been extraordinarily helpful. At the same time, the experience of serving as a first-time university president has been the most intellectually and physically rigorous and deeply meaningful experience of my career. I wanted to share with other new presidents a few lessons I have learned along the way:

  • Be gentle yet firm in initiating change. A new president should expect to hear often during the first year "We have always done it this way" or "We tried something like that ten years ago and it did not go well". This should not be a surprise, as those with whom you are working most closely likely contributed to shaping those practices. In most cases, they are right. Although my patience was sometimes tested in this area, I found that being gentle with those who made these statements was effective as I sought to balance their perspectives with my own. If you decide that a change is needed in an important area, I suggest remaining firm in implementing such change even when there is pressure to continue the status quo.

  • Don't swing at pitches in the dirt. The most challenging interactions for me have been with a few people who attempted to place pressure on me to make a certain decision. It is very important that a president listen carefully to diverse opinions, including those who feel most strongly about an issue, before making major decisions. I have observed that the most intense pressure has often been coupled with an approach that does not fully consider the larger interests of the university. Choose wisely and use good leadership decisions when following through on suggestions and requests.
  • Support your colleagues. One of the most positive surprises of my first year was becoming part of an incredible network of presidential colleagues. This group of individuals truly understands the challenges and complexities of the presidency. I have turned to them as sounding boards for new ideas and to think through challenging situations. I have also made it a high priority to support them with my time and attention whenever needed.
  • Immerse yourself in the campus and community. There is no better way to understand and appreciate your university campus and local community than by fully and personally experiencing it. Accept as many invitations as you can -- from pizza with students to large receptions with business and community leaders and backyard BBQ's at the homes of alumni -- and understand that this is part of your job. Over the past year, I toured farms, served as Grand Marshall of the Chinese New Year Parade, attended an animal auction at a local fair, visited Native American reservations and delivered speeches to local groups. These appearances were always appreciated and established some helpful connections and conversations.
  • Build positive and authentic relationships with everyone. On campus and in the community, all eyes will be on you to see how you interact with others. I grew up watching my grandfather interact with people from all walks of life as he conducted his daily business. He treated everyone in the same way that he wished to be treated. A university president should act accordingly with students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of the community.

  • Strive for balance. The presidency is the most physically challenging experience of my career. The complexity of issues that come before you for decisions coupled with the wide range of campus and community responsibilities make for long and intellectually rigorous days. If you are the president of a university with a Division 1 athletic program, the complexities are exponentially greater and the experience is often thrilling. I suggest finding balance individually and within your family. For me, swimming almost every day and spending time with my family whenever I can have both provided balance that has been helpful.
  • Avoid distractions and stay laser focused in accomplishing your primary goals. As my doctoral advisor at Stanford, James G. March, observed in his book Leadership and Ambiguity, time is a university president's most precious resource. It is absolutely critical that you remain focused on what you want and need to accomplish. For me, it included launching a new teaching and learning initiative (DISCOVERe); renewing our focus on student success; and further strengthening our development efforts. Our private fundraising this year -- at $43 million -- was the second-highest in our history, and over 66 percent higher than the previous year.
  • Use social media and impromptu visits to stay connected. Because of the intense daily demands of the presidency, one rational response would be to maximize time in the office to do work. This is a potential trap for a president. It is vitally important to stay connected with the campus and community you serve and to hear their unfiltered feedback about the campus. I have used Twitter to connect with students, faculty, alumni and friends. I often spend Monday afternoons during the academic year participating in the regular meetings of our Academic Senate. Impromptu visits during lunch at the student union, the library, or areas where large groups congregate have also helped me stay connected with the campus and community.
  • Engage your spouse/partner. My wife, Mary, is a full-time university volunteer. She joins me at many campus and community events, represents me at my request when I cannot attend, and hosts a weekly radio show highlighting people who are affiliated with the campus. Her role has evolved during the year as we have learned more and received more requests from campus and community groups. I suggest finding the best model for engagement of your spouse/partner that fits with your campus and community culture.
  • Finally, I would urge new university presidents to be bold in their leadership. Every day, we gain inspiration from the smart and talented people who work with us and learn on our campuses -- and from the positive impact that our universities have on our communities. Once you've established your footing, accept and embrace this inspiration when it comes your way, because the presidency is a time to think and act boldly. After all, good leadership really matters in higher education and serving as a university president is the privilege of a lifetime.

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