Unpacking the Briefcase for a New Presidency

I'm encountering much that is familiar, much that is new, much that will require the best in my new campus family and me. It makes the season of moving in all the more exciting, demanding, and maybe a little disconcerting.
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We veterans of higher education are familiar with move-in days at our residence halls. Students and parents struggle to unload cars and vans full of items that were unthinkable to bring to college just a generation ago. Most students arrive with their own cars, some with more than one. On many campuses, newly available parking creates more excitement than the fall term's athletic schedule.

Computers, refrigerators, racks of clothing, and all manner of personal technology go up the steps and into the halls. Families linger for final consultations--until tomorrow when the calls and texts begin for today's legendary "helicopter" parents. Student-affairs staff lug in boxes of personal amenities, awaiting a busy weekend of orientation, workshops and wellness warnings, service outings, perhaps a trip to the closest amusement park or whitewater rapids.

For everyone, the start of fall term remains a thrilling and meaningful tradition all its own, eclipsed only by homecoming, commencement, and other signature events.

Over the summer, I moved in, too--beginning my new presidency at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk/Virginia Beach. It is my fourth assignment at a top liberal arts college. The past two months have been a whirlwind of meetings, institutional review and analysis, and get-acquainted visits with everyone from the local mayor to the director of our food service. I enjoy giving tours of my new office, and of my thinking about how we can work together. In these early weeks and months, however, I try to do more listening than talking. The counsel and concerns of others can be invaluable.

In some respects, embracing each institution's special ways requires quick study and a kind of cultural compliance that comes with the expectations of those who welcome--and watch closely--the new president. Effective presidents honor campus traditions even as each transition to the job brings its own operational challenges. Deciding the difference between a valued tradition and an outdated, even problematic, practice can be critical to a president's success.

Ultimately, however, the higher-education president today is expected to be a change agent and a global visionary, cognizant of the larger social, economic, and cultural factors that impact a campus while leading thought, practice, and innovation within organizations which can be resistant to rapid change. In my 25-year career as a president, the changes I have witnessed in the higher-education landscape are profound, accelerating more quickly with each passing semester and requiring much re-examination of current assumptions and practices.

Around the nation, small colleges like Virginia Wesleyan are discovering that if they do not manage change, change will manage them. Successful institutions build collaborative partnerships with campus peers and professional associations; develop selected online, distance-learning, and graduate-degree programs; invest in continuing education options; recognize the value of energy conservation and sustainability of resources, and constantly upgrade facilities to serve student expectations and support retention of enrollment.

Reaching out as well to new student audiences beyond the traditional 18-to-21-year-old cohort group (such as older adult learners), successful institutions recognize that more is expected of the learning environment and campus life than ever before.

For example, just as our campus libraries have retooled to become more electronic-driven than paper-based repositories of information, so, too, can the classroom achieve more interaction between professors and students. And our millennial students and their ever-present personal technology go hand in hand--literally. Smart phones, iPads, and the rest influence how our students perceive the world, relate to their professors, absorb and use information, and evaluate success. We are wise to learn how we can appropriately integrate such technology into the classroom experience--even as we encourage our students to look up from their screens and enjoy the world around them.

In today's volatile higher-education marketplace, we have little choice but to offer comfort, convenience, and competitiveness for student security and success, and to provide a kind of educational experience that may seem foreign to anyone over 30. People want options and guarantees, including the expectation that their colleges will not only be student-centered but also student-committed. "Business as usual" simply will not suffice.

As our students unpack their suitcases and boxes, they reveal many new requirements and assumptions they've brought along. And as I unpack my briefcase for this new set of exciting challenges, I'm encountering much that is familiar, much that is new, much that will require the best in my new campus family and me. It makes the season of moving in all the more exciting, demanding, and maybe a little disconcerting.

It's not exactly the college experience I remember as a student, nor even as an administrator just a decade ago. But it is here to stay.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is President of Virginia Wesleyan College, a national liberal arts college located in Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Virginia. 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.