Lessons of 33 Years as a President

As he prepares to lead his fifth campus, Richard S. Meyers consider the rules -- for chief executives, faculties and others -- that promote presidential success.

April 1, 2009

I’ve been very fortunate to have served as a president of four different colleges and universities -- public and private, two-year and four-year, for a period of over 33 years. Almost to my own surprise, I’ve just accepted the challenge to serve a fifth, as the president of Fielding Graduate University. When I tell my story, I’m often asked “how could you survive so long?” Or, “when did you start serving, when you were 8 or 9 years old?” Well, I was a little older, and through the years, hopefully I’ve become a little wiser. While every college is different, there are common ways that presidents, board members, faculty members and others can contribute to presidential success:


First ask yourself why you decided to serve. Is it service or self-aggrandizement?

1. Honor your predecessor(s). Don’t take the oft taken path to blame everything on the past president(s) in hopes of seeming like a savior. Better to honor the successes of your predecessors and then build on those to raise the bar. In the spirit of community and inclusiveness invite past presidents, faculty and staff to major events and lower costs for them if they need it, to be able to attend.

2. Honor the faculty. Think about making the elected chair of the Faculty Senate a member of your administrative team or cabinet. This will bring down barriers.

3. Don’t love yourself. You are not omnipotent. You have not been anointed. You have not been crowned. What you have been given is the mantle of leadership best exemplified and successful by servitude to others through humility. Do you need an entourage to walk around the campus? Do you ever just walk into the student cafeteria and sit down to break bread with the students? Do you really need to be a member of multiple private clubs, and do you judiciously use these memberships? Do you refer to everything on campus emanating from you, or is it a result of the efforts of the team?

4. You must have a philosophy and passion to serve others while striving to make society more equitable. If you’re serving so you can have an expense account and/or to make a large salary, you need to get the hell out of the Academy. To amplify my thoughts, I’ve been appalled with the growing emphasis on money and its role in education from presidential salaries to institutional endowments. Why should university endowments be larger than the gross national products of many countries? The business functions of such universities emulate the business world, and the educational mission is not only diluted, but sometimes lost.

5. Speak out. Use your position as a “bully pulpit.” This was the traditional presidential role, but presidents became cowards (pragmatic?) when donors objected to some presidential topics. For every donor you may lose by speaking out, there is another donor you’ll gain by your leadership. Step forward and orate! Have you ever tackled the subject of conflicts of interest by board members? Taken a stand on the legal age of drinkers? Spoken out for or against a war? Taken a stand for diversity by your actions and not just by your words, and urged others to become a frontline fighter for social justice before it was fashionable to do so? Have you looked at the issues confronting your students in an ever-more conflicting and competitive world and taken a stand on these issues publicly? Can the faculty, staff and students say that you talk the talk and walk the walk? You are a leader. Take advantage of your position and act like one.

6. Diversify your interests. Don’t become a workaholic. Music, sports, hobbies, volunteering and passions far away from the usual presidential responsibilities will maintain the emotional demands of your position while letting you focus on the appropriate topic in a timely manner. I’m a performing jazz clarinetist (watch out Woody Allen) and a long range motorcyclist in two of my other worlds.

7. Give back to society. You’ve been fortunate. A lot of others haven’t. Humility in a leader is highly desirable and is developed by focusing on the needs of others; why not start or further develop your humility by volunteering to help the less fortunate. There are thousands of opportunities still waiting. I personally work in a nursing home, hospital or retirement home once a month. I feel I have been spiritually served while at the same time making life more livable for others. Giving to others is a wonderful reality check.

8. Exercise. Physical fitness on a daily basis will help you to maintain the physical needs of your position.

9. Communicate! Communicate! Communicate! Get out of your office!

10. Travel. Find out about higher education in other countries. Never stop being a student.

11. Keep your sense of humor. There’s always something, probably a lot of things, to laugh at in what you do.


1. Trust your administrative colleagues. Don’t accept the notion that all administrators are the enemy. As a researcher, you should know that there are gradations of competency in everything — administration and faculty.

2. You’ve been trained as a specialist. Administration by its nature is more generalized. Give the administration a little credit and slack in its attempts to move a very diverse enterprise along. Don’t always fall into the trap of acting like a “herd of cats.”

3. Honor the president. Think about making the president a member of your governing body. This will bring down barriers.

4. Travel. Find out about higher education in other countries. Never stop being a student.

5. Brag about what you do. The president and the university need to know your successes so that they may not only enjoy them but share them with others.


Same as the president - -First ask yourself why you decided to serve. Is it service or self-aggrandizement?

1. Don’t equate board membership with automatic business contracts with the university.

2. Don’t fail to argue for what’s best for students even though you may have to argue with a neighbor, friend, business contact or other board member. Failure to speak out when a fellow board member takes a contrary viewpoint is cowardice. It’s worse and incompetent when a rebel or malcontent is not challenged. I have seen this too often undermine an administration or board.

3. Don’t accept board membership for what it can do for your résumé or social standing.

4. Don’t think that your role is to give advice; it is to set policy, provide fiscal oversight, hire a president you can trust and donate resources or influence to the university as a model to others.

5. Don’t micromanage or meddle. Trust the president to “run the show.” You hire a president to lead an organization, not follow. If the president can’t deliver, get a new one.

6. Remember that you are not the board, you are one member of the board and the board has its authority only during board meetings.

7. Be proud of your role as a board member and enthusiastically speak of the institution in as many business and social situations as possible. The power of word of mouth can’t be overestimated.

8. Travel. Find out about higher education in other countries. Never stop being a student.

9. Elect a board chair who has the respect of the entire board who communicates freely and openly and who doesn’t like surprises — either on the giving or receiving end.


1. Universities can’t fix all of society’s ills. Failures of families, religion and the media have led to a “me” generation where greed, corruption, a lack to accept personal responsibility, an inability to read or write creating an embarrassingly high illiteracy rate, and a “buddy” system where “mutual back scratching” determines individual action have created societies with little moral fiber and no semblance of ethics. Take a look around you locally and globally. The university can play a pivotal role in creating “open free zones for communication” to bring together those that want to change society into something better and then incorporate these social justice components into the curriculum to educate all for a better and more equitable world with standards for the common good. It happened before in our history. It can happen again.


1. Think collaboratively. There is more power in the team than in individuals. If everyone is an ambassador for the university, it can’t help but prosper.

2. Never forget the university exists for students.

3. Never forget that the more a university embraces diversity, the healthier it is, for education is all about presenting alternatives.

4. Universities are the bastions of free thought. This happens when trust is a healthy component in all relationships. Oversight is necessary but a Sarbanes-Oxley don’t-trust-anyone-because-everyone-is-hiding-something mentality is toxic to a university.

5. The concept of social justice at the core of a university will change a community; if enough universities believe in this, it will change a world. What are we waiting for?


Richard S. Meyers is president-elect of Fielding Graduate University, in Santa Barbara. He previously served as president of Webster University, Western Oregon University, Pasadena City College and Cerro Coso Community College.


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