On any given night, you will find us at some kind of university event. Sometimes together, but more often than not, we are attending campus events at our respective institutions. It may be a donor reception or a meeting with community leaders at Touro University Nevada or a lecture or a literary reading or panel discussion for the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
Inevitably, the questions we are most often asked are, "How do you do manage your schedules?" and, "When do you ever see each other?" If only there were simple answers to those questions.
We did not start out with the goal of spending our careers in higher education. And the path that has led us to leadership roles is anything but "as the crow flies." In fact, we think it is best described as “a long and winding road.”
The Road to Leadership
We met as college freshmen and quickly became friends and ping pong rivals. During our sophomore year, we double dated at a homecoming event and soon realized we were more interested in each other than our respective dates. It didn't take us long to realize our feelings for each other and we were married later that same year.
We took very circuitous routes to leadership, none of which were planned. For all of those who say "create a plan" for your career development, we say – relax, work hard, and opportunities will present themselves. If you work very hard and long, the world finds you!
People who make decisions based on future job prospects are rarely as effective as those who make careful and difficult decisions in the present. It gives us great pride that we made decisions regardless of whether those choices ostensibly hurt our next job prospects. In the long run, those decisions do not hurt; in fact, you become a person who people know they can trust to do the next job with equal skill and integrity. Both of us believe in simple hard work done honestly and we have been blessed with wonderful opportunities as a result.
Carol Harter: Although neither of us took a "traditional" route to leadership, mine could be viewed as more traditional in that it was all within higher education. I worked my way upward from a faculty position, to ombudsman, to vice president and dean of students, to vice president for administration (all at Ohio University) then to president at two universities (SUNY Geneseo and UNLV).
Michael Harter: I began my career as a teacher in the public school system, moved on to a position in which I created and managed a community-based health organization, assumed a staff position in a new college at Ohio University, became an associate dean and associate professor, and then became a dean and tenured professor. I later became a vice dean of a medical school in Nevada, then helped to create a new private university, and became, in succession, a vice president, CEO, and senior provost and CEO.
Between both of us we have received all six degrees — each attaining the B.A., master’s degree, and Ph.D. — while and after we started having children. A child, a degree, a child, a degree — then we realized the two were not causally related, so we stopped having kids and just got another degree each! It was difficult to balance a family, advancing our education and working. We had little money and borrowed much of it from what was then the new federal NDEA program of loans with a 50 percent forgiveness factor if you later taught in public education, which we both did. We both worked part-time or, sometimes, full-time, while attending school so we could afford expenses and rent. It took us so long to pay our federal loans back that we were still making payments at the same time we were paying our eldest son’s tuition!
The two major issues, besides earning enough to lead a good life, became how we ensured our children remained at the center of our lives and whose opportunities would be in the ascendancy at any given time. While the kids were growing up, we tried to be there for them, traveling all over rural southern Ohio for various athletic events and activities.
CH: Mike was and is a wonderful, loving father to whom the kids have always turned to as easily as they did to me when they had troubles.
MH: Carol didn’t think seriously about a presidency until our youngest was in law school, because we both knew such a role would be almost impossible to perform well with growing kids in the household.
The issue of whose career opportunities would direct our lives at any given time was, in some ways, even harder. We have been married almost 50 years but we had to "commute" for six of those years because we could not find comparable jobs we wanted to do in the same community.
CH: The year we commuted between Ohio and upstate New York, where I took the presidency of a small SUNY institution, was hard. Mike took a deanship at another SUNY school after a year and we reunited fairly quickly (his family was in the area as well, making this a good situation all the way around).
MH: The five-year commute when Carol became president of UNLV was far more difficult and stressful. First I remained in New York, then moved to a deanship at California State University at Sacramento at least partially so we would be in the same time zone and a relatively quick flight away.
Eventually, the stress of the separation — and the difficulty of doing very hard jobs without one’s lifelong partner — led to our decision to find a way to be together in the same community.
CH: A side issue has always been that of gender. From the very beginning, Mike defended my equal right to get degrees, have a career and be respected just as any male professional was respected. Because he started that defense almost 50 years ago, he was in some ways an early “feminist,” going totally against the grain.
MH: Even one of our family members teased me about "allowing my wife" to get a Ph.D. before I did, but I was steadfast in my support of Carol – simply because I have always believed in equity for everyone, regardless of ethnic background or gender.
CH: Mike was a dean three times when he could have been a provost and then a president much earlier than he was. He did that so I could be a president twice. We always talked these things through and I always knew he would rise to that level sooner or later. Now he is a CEO and I am in a wonderful job, back to my literary roots and a far less stressful role than during 29 years as a vice president or president!
Words of Wisdom
One of the greatest advantages of both of us having been CEOs of major higher education institutions is our empathy for each other and our ability to share ideas and suggestions in private without making the other one feel vulnerable or stupid. A total sharing is a rare thing and is good for both partners in the relationship, regardless of who has the most stressful job at any given time. There is no substitute for similar experiences in terms of empathy.
Our "words of wisdom" to other couples following this same path are simple:
- Have patience with each other;
- Talk everything out as much as you possibly can;
- Be honest with the other (sometimes brutally honest);
- Keep confidences;
- Become your partner’s most trusted friend and adviser;
- Share child-rearing; and
- Find private, precious time together without Blackberries, IPads, or other intrusive technological devices.
In the end, your biggest battle should be who gets to tell his/her story first over a cocktail after a 12- or 13-hour day!
Michael Harter is senior provost and CEO of Touro Western Division/Touro University Nevada. Carol Harter is president emerita of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and executive director of the UNLV Black Mountain Institute.