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Essay on what it's like to become a college president

Moving In

January 20, 2014

At 43 years young, happily married, and the father of three kids (children too young to drive, yet too old to greet my every decision with trusting admiration), I formally accepted the presidency of a small private college in November of 2012. As if the anxiety of a presidential search and transition to a new academic community isn’t stressful enough, the consideration of moving my family (including a golden retriever who DOES greet my every decision with trusting admiration) from northwest Ohio to central Pennsylvania was, well, complicated and at times unsettling.

Once described to me as “like making sausage,” the presidential search can be a rather clumsy and onerous process, to say the least. Kids or no kids, it is decisively intrusive, exhausting, and remarkably multidimensional. It is also personally and professionally illuminating, as I learned a great deal about myself as a man, educator, husband, and father. It is difficult not to be introspective about yourself when just about everything about you is being judged or assessed by the search committee and the broader campus community, including the proverbial “holes” in your professional background.

For all of my cabinet-level experiences in student affairs, enrollment, advancement, and a year as interim president, the gap for me was that I did not come through the faculty and did not have the teaching/scholarship some might have desired for their next president. Rather than being apologetic, I instead had to demonstrate my understanding and appreciation for the role faculty play in the lives of our students and maybe more importantly (I sensed), how I might financially support their efforts! The point is that we all have gaps in our backgrounds. If we didn’t, these types of searches would be a piece of cake and a host of search firms would not exist.

As the process evolved for me, I discovered that I was as anxious about being an attentive dad to my kids as I was about advancing my professional career. As I was interviewing for the presidency last fall, the kids were certainly part of the “what if” conversations that my wife and I were having about this presidential opportunity. They deserved to know about the possibilities of this move, and to their credit they asked good questions and surprisingly understood some of the vagaries of the selection process. For example, they asked about confidentiality. They didn’t use that term but they knew this was not something they could post on Facebook or Instagram.

They also wanted to know about timing. If we were going to move, when would that take place? Could they finish school? Make that last dance recital? However, I’m not sure any of us were quite prepared for the moment when that “what if” scenario turned to “what now?!?” The kids immediately thought of their friends, neighbors, school, baseball/softball teams, piano lessons, dance instructors, the list goes on. For my wife and me, our thoughts turned to selling the house and moving companies.

The common thematic elements? Change. Anxiety. Excitement. And lots of it.

Two months after the news of my appointment was made public and just when we thought we were gaining some level of control and understanding of the many facets of this transition, the sudden and unexpected death of my mother added another layer of complexity and emotion that we needed to manage. As a matter of fact, I was formally introduced to my new campus family just two weeks after she had passed away. While she was never able to see the college I am now leading, I am comforted in the fact that she knew of my appointment and her meaningful role in helping me achieve that appointment.     

Following these challenging personal circumstances, I squarely focused my attention on finding the right balance between finishing strong at my former institution versus giving the necessary attention to the issues beginning to emerge at my new one. Fair or not, this trumped many of the transitional issues facing my wife and kids. My previous institution deserved my full attention and I eagerly wanted to provide it. For nearly 12 years, it had been my home and the people there were like my extended family. I owed them everything I could possibly give, yet I knew that the moment I had shared my new appointment, I was officially a lame duck. And that is a status I would rather not occupy again any time soon. It was awkward not just for me but for my staff and institution as well. There is not much you can do about it but I was not prepared for the loneliness that I felt. Nobody did it intentionally but the reality was that I was leaving and the institution needed to move on. 

So, on the one hand I felt isolation in my community of 12 years. On the other, there was a palpable sense of interest in my appointment here in Pennsylvania. This balancing act made the adaptation between the two institutions tougher than anticipated and is a facet of the transition that I envisioned much differently. I am assuming that because there are distinctive cultures and expectations at all of our different institutions, there is no prescribed method by which this type of transition is expected to occur. That being said, I would recommend a thorough dialogue and detailed transitional plan with your supervisor as you navigate the last few months of your employment at your current institution. I had worked with my president on such a plan, but in hindsight I should have spent more time on this.

While I was working through all of this, my wife and kids were beginning to arrange the logistics around a full move to another state, including conversations with people here in Pennsylvania around schools, the new house, summer activities, etc. And as the months passed and the actual move to Pennsylvania was imminent, the mood among my wife and kids changed from one of trepidation and uncertainty to noticeable enthusiasm toward this new adventure. I was (and continue to be) so proud of their willingness to embrace this new lifestyle and the changes it has brought our family.

As I reflect on what has occurred in the past year with our family, I believe we have grown stronger. It is almost an “all for one, one for all” mentality, knowing that our circumstances as a “first family” are rather unique. Each of us individually has handled this transition a little differently and that was to be expected. However, the common thread among us was us and that has been sustaining.

My key takeaways:

  • At the appropriate time, talk (a lot) with your family about the journey that may be about to begin. For us, that conversation happened when I was a campus finalist. We discussed with the kids, for example, the pressures this may bring relative to their increased visibility in a small college town. Fair or not, they are an extension of the college presidency and they needed to understand this. For my wife, we discussed her potential new role and the delicate balance of mom and college first lady. At this point in the process, however, be sure everybody understands the confidentiality of the process and your candidacy. 
  • Take time and discuss with your partner or spouse what a possible appointment will mean for your personal relationship. These are stressful moments for both sides. How will you both handle the time commitment? Increased visibility and responsibility? Unexpectedly, the presidency can be a very lonely position so your partner or spouse will be an important resource. (Side note: During our first six months, my wife at times felt like she was married to a rock star -- her words -- which created some unintended tension between us. Just be aware and sensitive to this point, particularly early on.)
  • If you are so fortunate to receive an appointment, work diligently with your current institution on a detailed exit strategy. 
  • At your new institution, begin to work closely with your transition team (or leader) on how you will begin receiving the most important information, who you will begin to meet with, and a timeline for your arrival to campus. 
  • Reach out to those faculty or staff with young families and ask about schools, activities, and other community programs. They will be eager to help.
  • During the transition, check in with your family about how they are feeling about things. Don’t assume all is well. Specifically, how is time being apportioned? If need be, schedule time on the calendar for the occasional lunch with your spouse or partner or a nice weekend away with the family. This time will vanish if you’re not careful.
  • There will undoubtedly be unexpected moments during the transition.  My mother’s death, for example, brought perspective. It reminded me of the extraordinary people and mentors I have had in my life. It brought me some inner strength that I would need to do the job I now possess.  Positively embrace the change and the change will likely positively embrace you. 
  • Finally, enjoy the journey. It will be one you likely will remember for the rest of your life.  

 

Bio

Jim Troha is president of Juniata College.

 

 

 

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