On a personal note: My students this semester knew I was writing about my experience teaching while serving as a college president. Several times as we approached the end of the term, I shared with them that I had learned a lot this semester and would miss them. One student in the class expressed surprise -- he had not thought about my learning during the semester. This last column is an effort to explain something about the co-learning that transpired. In a sense, this is a “thank-you” note to my students.
They say that if you really want to learn something, teach it. Even though I have now led an institution of higher education for almost three years, leadership was not a subject I studied in any systemized way. Perhaps I chose, consciously or not, to teach a course in leadership and gender because I wanted and needed to learn more about leadership.
The old saw is right. I did learn. What follows are three of the many lessons learned.
Lesson One: Reassess Regularly
We undertook an exercise on the first day of class in which students wrote on index cards the three essential qualities they thought were most important for successful leaders to possess. They then sealed the cards in envelopes addressed to themselves. I did the exercise with them.
My start of the semester three words were: Problem Solver, Inspirational and Open (defined as flexible).
Our last class involved revisiting the envelopes and considering whether now, after all the readings and conversations and exercises, we would change the initial words chosen and select others to replace them and if so, why. At the end of the semester, I did not even recall my chosen words from the first day of class.
The majority of the class wanted to change at least one or more of the initially chosen three words. I was among those who wanted to change two completely and one partially.
My new three end-of-semester words were: Creativity, Strength, and Openness (defined as capacity to grow and change).
What does that alteration in word choice say about what I learned?
I believe it signals that, because of the course and my conversations with students, I was regularly reflecting on what it takes to lead, particularly in a changing world. It suggests that my approach to leading is evolving. I would hope that if I were to complete the same exercise a year or two from now, I still might change some of the words. Leadership is not easy; neither is reflecting honestly about it.
I remember a program I attended decades ago when I was a new law professor. David Vernon, a senior and much beloved law professor at the University of Iowa, was charged with speaking to us about our prospective scholarship. He said something that has stayed with me: Whatever you write now, no matter how good you think it is, you should re-examine it 25 years from now and if you have not changed your mind about that early piece you wrote, you have not grown sufficiently as a scholar.
Not bad advice for professors and presidents: one’s thinking really does change over time, and it is not a reflection of lack of quality at the beginning.
Lesson Two: Mentors Reside In Unexpected Places
I recently had to write remarks for Commencement. It is something I like to do but I was struggling to find the right way to explain what it means to succeed and how we should define and then measure success in our ever-so-complicated world. I was searching for some pithy words written by a famous person, some insights, some something that would provide new graduates with guidance.
At this same point in time, I was grading exams. One of the students wrote about success as part of her final exam answer, and she referenced words from an interview she had conducted earlier in the semester as part of the class. The person interviewed was a Southern Vermont College Trustee.
Inspiration struck: At Commencement, I would use the ideas spoken by an SVC trustee and written by a graduating SVC student. The student and trustee had become, in essence, my teachers. Another example of co-learning. The quoted trustee’s words were:
“I believe we need to encourage innovation and risk-taking; they are imperative to success. You cannot only look toward well-known leaders for great ideas. You can generate them yourself. In addition to taking risks, you cannot be afraid of failure. It is important to take chances, be brave and have confidence in your beliefs.”
The only thing I added to the student/trustee message in my remarks was that I knew our students could carry out these important tenets; I knew it based on my personal knowledge of them, knowledge gained as their professor.
This reinforced for me the obvious point that leaders always need mentors but it also gave me a new twist: sometimes leaders find unlikely mentors in unexpected places -- including a classroom.
Lesson Three: Be bold.
As a professor, I had always been puzzled by exams and was concerned on two fronts. First, I wondered whether any exam I wrote was actually a good measure of the learning I wanted students to do during the semester. Second, I thought that the studying for the exam was often more important than the exam itself. While teaching law, I fantasized about having 100 first year law students enter an exam room and read something like this when they opened their exam:
There will be no exam in this course. You have studied for the exam and that is what counts. Thank you for working hard to master the material we covered this semester. I enjoyed teaching you. I have two hopes: I hope you learned more than you expected, and I hope that what you learned stays with you as you enter your chosen profession.
Of course, I never did that -- for lots of reasons. Law schools tend to be pretty conservative places. There is often no graded work during the semester and so no way to give any grade other than through a final exam. I suppose, too, that some of the more competitive students might have had their feathers ruffled -- perhaps with good cause.
But the real reason I never did this was that I was not daring enough.
When it came time to write my take-home exam for my course this semester, I thought that if there ever were a time to be daring, it was now. So, I gave an exam of the sort I wished I had been able to take as a student: I gave the students identical gray bags, each filled with five distinct objects, and I presented them with a set of problems involving a stodgy clothing manufacturer that was in financial trouble and asked them to solve the problems using the items in the bag as inspiration. One student suggested creating a line of hip baby bunting inspired by the large brass safety pin that was in the gray bag and a line of doggy duds inspired by the spotted Dalmatian-like thread that was also in the bag. Not bad.
That exam experience made me appreciate that I cannot be afraid to try something out-of-the box as a president. If there ever were a time when being daring was possible, it is as a leader.
I appreciate that it is easy to take the opposite approach -- to be conservative and even timid, particularly in tough economic times. But, as the exam I gave my students showed me, leadership is about being bold and it took teaching a course on leadership to embrace that reality more fully.
I will not be teaching a course during the 2009-10 academic year. It is not because the experience was unmemorable or unproductive. It was both enjoyable and productive, and judging from the course evaluations, the students had similar positive experiences.
Instead, I will teach without a formal classroom, as part of what I do every day. That way, I won’t have the preparation struggles I experienced this past semester; I won’t need to grade papers throughout the semester and exams at the end; I won’t be conflicted about competing events and scheduling snafus.
That said, I plan on remembering the exam that I always wanted to give as a professor and the one I actually did give as a president.
That should keep the professor part of me contented -- until academic year 2010 --11. I have already asked the provost to schedule me to teach again. I already know the topic of the course: leadership.
Karen Gross is the president of Southern Vermont College.
Note: This is the second in a three-part series on a college president returning to the classroom.
It seemed like a very good idea: re-enter the classroom to remember what education is truly about, to test out some of my hypotheses about our students and to assimilate new ways to provide them with the best educational experience possible. How hard could it be, I surmised.
Very hard is the answer. Much harder than I thought.
When the first installment of this series appeared, some readers commented that teaching takes time -- both actual time (in and out of the classroom) and psychic time. Presidents have busy schedules, with lots of travel and multiple commitments off campus. The current economic situation has heightened the presidential burdens. Just getting updated on the stimulus package and recent amendments to the Higher Education Act is almost a full-time job.
Despite my best efforts to stay ahead of the students and complete the reading and class preparation well in advance, I find it a challenge. I prepare later than I would like (sometimes the night before, or even the day of, class). Before I actually prepare, I am concerned about my impending lack of preparation!
As if the pre-class anxiety were not enough, I have post-class anxiety when I self-reflect on what I could have done better. I blame my lack of preparation for some of the defects I observe in the course, although to be fair, when I was a full-time academic, I assumed similar blame when I had plenty of preparation time. My wonderful husband assures me that whatever I may be sensing in the classroom, the students are still getting a valuable educational experience. SVC’s provost and a department chair, both of whom sat in on one class, agreed.
Despite the challenges, I have learned a great deal thus far. Indeed, in some respects, I have learned more than I anticipated. Some concrete examples:
Student Interaction and Viral Benefits
I knew that, through teaching, I would get to know students in a different way. I now get e-mails from students regarding assignments, as well as occasional visits and hallway chats; nothing novel here but I like the interaction. The retired college president Roger Martin, who recently lectured on the Southern Vermont campus, expressed that one of the joys he had when he enrolled as a first year student on another campus was the opportunity to connect with students – something he had missed as a president. (Martin’s book, Racing Odysseus, is well worth reading.)
What I underestimated were the viral benefits of my teaching: my students talking about the class, “Leadership and the Role of Gender” to other students and to faculty.
In the short span of time since the semester started, people are chatting about my course, particularly some of the “out-of-the-box” exercises we do during class. One exercise involved giving each student a small, battery-operated flashlight at the end of a discussion on different approaches to problem solving.
They were then assigned to work in groups using the flashlight to demonstrate what we had covered in class.
Some students took the flashlights apart and built models of thinking. Another group drew different designs to demonstrate problem-solving strategies by tracing the flashlight. Two groups could not figure out what to do with the flashlight. After discussing what the groups did (or did not do), I shut off the lights (this is an evening class) and all students immediately turned on their flashlights. I could then make the point that, with a common object (a flashlight) in a well-know setting (darkness), we know what to do with the flashlight. But take a familiar object and use it in an unfamiliar place – and the assignment is more difficult. As leaders, I observed, we need to take known skills (hopefully honed in college) and apply them to new, as distinguished from common, situations – and therein rests the skills of true leaders. Across the campus, a wide range of people had heard about the flashlight exercise.
The flashlights had shed light – literally and figuratively.
Faculty Realities Learned First Hand
Through teaching, I have observed some of our internal collegiate processes at work. Some of what we do, well-intentioned to be sure, is hard on faculty. For example: we ask for communication between professors and the athletic department as a way of giving coaches a sense of how all our student-athletes are doing in their classes. This is done via email with an attached form that must be completed and returned to the athletic adviser. When I received the form for a student in my class, I thought about the professors who get many of these forms. (To be honest, I took advantage of my position and had my assistant complete the details after I gave her the basic information.) There is no way a president can appreciate processes in this way, were he or she not teaching.
I had an epiphany recently about faculty adoption of service learning initiatives in the classroom. I appreciate the importance of linking student classroom learning to the larger community; such connections enhance the educative experience on a number of levels and provide an important message about giving back. Yet, six weeks in, I realized I had not formally integrated a service learning component into my own class!
I became poignantly aware of the omission at a service learning conference at which I was giving the keynote address, and an attendee observed that part of the difficulty of service learning is convincing faculty to employ it in their classroom. What benefit there would be, she observed, if there were clear signaling from the top.
This was one of those “yipes” moments when I realized I had missed the opportunity to model an educative approach within my own class. Initially, I decided to remedy that defect immediately. But, as our wise provost observed, a service learning component is not precisely that kind of thing that one just adds into the mix after the fact; it requires much more thought. That said, I am adding a piece to the course this semester where the class and I will take our lessons on leadership into the larger community -- sharing our strategies with some local women’s organizations. Lesson learned: making service learning a true piece of the curriculum requires more than just passive endorsement. It requires not just “talking the talk but walking the walk.”
Meeting the Challenges of Creating Critical Thinkers
Perhaps the biggest insights I have had revolve around how to improve our students’ critical thinking skills. Many people, within our institution and elsewhere, lament that college students are not well prepared, suggesting that they do not have sufficient reading comprehension and analytic skills. It is easy for us to blame this on a lack of preparation in high school. The old saw goes something like: “I teach the material; they just don’t learn it.”
I believe that there is no real purpose in blaming high schools (unless one is planning to return to a high school setting and seek reform there.) Instead, we need to find better ways to teach today’s students.
Until I started teaching this semester, my experience for the past two decades was limited to graduate education. Based on my experience with undergraduates so far, though, I am more firmly convinced that students can develop critical thinking skills.
Finding strategies for enabling students to delve deeper is not easy. It calls for determining, often creatively, how to communicate and share material. I have already tried several strategies, mostly drawn from legal education; some have worked better than others.
In a recent exercise I call “myth rebutting,” students proffered answers to questions that call for data (usually guessing) and then I proffered the actual answers. We then discussed the disparities between what they perceived and reality, probing the rationale (plentiful) for the gaps. In this instance, we discussed why the data revealed such a low number of women leading Fortune 500 companies, Fortune 100 companies, non-profit organizations, and colleges and universities.
What we did next was “call the question,” writing a paragraph, individually and collectively, that sought to provide nuanced and multifaceted answers to why the data were what they were and why the student perceptions failed to mimic reality. What emerged was an approach – a structure – for responding thoughtfully to questions, an approach to thinking more deeply about issues.
We made real progress, and we’ll keep working at it.
I could go on sharing more of the more plentiful lessons learned but it is time to stop writing and prepare for class. Once again, I am not yet prepared.
Karen Gross is the president of Southern Vermont College.
Willard Gingerich, provost, senior vice president for academic affairs and professor of English at Fairleigh Dickinson University, in New Jersey, has been selected as provost at Montclair State University, also in New Jersey.
Many years ago, I was at a New York Philharmonic concert with my husband. Isaac Stern was performing, and given his age, I was thrilled to be in the audience. I had a similar reaction each time I watched Leonard Bernstein conduct in his later years. I thought each performance might be his last.
In the middle of the second movement of the first piece, Stern, seated next to the conductor, just stopped playing. Literally. A hush fell over the auditorium. The orchestra’s sound petered out – instrument by instrument. The audience had that “what just happened?” look.
Then, Stern took his violin off his chin, turned to the audience and said, ever so calmly, “I am not doing this piece justice. I am not doing the composer justice. And, I am certainly not doing you, the audience, justice.” Then he turned to the conductor and said, “Let’s start this piece from the very beginning,” and the orchestra did.
That incident has stayed with me. One of the world’s foremost violinists made a mistake (frankly, I did not even know he had made one) and then he acknowledged it. More than that, though, he created an opportunity for a do-over and showed a level of humanity that was startling and appealing and deeply moving.
I have to say that for the rest of that evening, I did not hear much music. I was too struck by the response to the mistake made. I have reflected on that incident time and time again but I did not really internalize it. I did not understand its real meaning. Until recently.
Since I became a college president two years ago, I have made mistakes, plenty of them and of a wide-ranging sort. The taxonomy of mistakes should be familiar to anyone involved in higher education: I made bad hires (some of them where I should have known better). I failed to fire people quickly enough and had to pay literally and figuratively for the delay, including in ways I did not anticipate. I was tone deaf to certain problems (commonly interpersonal disputes within departments), and that led to some mistakes. And I made rookie mistakes, too, like not seating a Board Chair next to the Governor at an event.
Leaders make mistakes; it is inevitable. When I share my leadership mistakes with others within and outside the academy, the commonly repeated response is non-judgmental: learn from them and in so doing, avoid making the same mistakes again. True enough but that is hardly the whole story.
Learning from mistakes is largely a private act (the benefits of which may be public later but not in a direct way). My mistakes are usually very public. What I have come to appreciate is the importance of how one responds to one’s mistakes – publicly. I have discovered – albeit after the fact – that I have sometimes ended up making two mistakes – the original one and then the one reflected in my response.
My responses to mistakes covered the landscape. Sometimes I was too defensive. Sometimes I was slow to admit an error. Sometimes I was humorless. Sometimes I was overly remorseful. And sometimes, I just kept rehashing and rehashing the mistake out loud, instead of moving on. To be sure, I did get it right on many occasions, but often without knowing why.
I should have learned from Isaac Stern. Because of a recent incident, which I will now describe, I think I finally have.
At Commencement this May, before an overflowing audience, we awarded an honorary degree to a remarkable individual who was both a professional colleague and a personal friend. In addition to being an award-winning journalist, she had a powerful story to tell about navigating life’s exigencies. This was an important moment. There I was, in my academic garb, reading that magic language that officially confers a doctoral degree -- “By the power vested in me by the Board of Trustees…”.
When I got to the part about awarding a Doctor of Humane Letters, something happened. Instead of reading the language written (clearly written) in the script, I said, “I hereby confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Lettuce...” Yes really. It sounded like I was awarding a Doctorate of Romaine Lettuce – as in salad.
I realized the mistake instantly; so did the audience. There were odd laughs. So, I turned to the degree recipient and said that I had done a real disservice to her and to the importance of an honorary degree, and I wanted to take it from the top, whereupon I repeated the magic words again – thankfully without mistakes.
The whole incident could have ended there but it didn’t. I kept talking and laughing about the incident that entire Sunday afternoon.
When the time came for closing remarks at Commencement, I began by saying, “No, I will not be mentioning salad or any other food group.” At the reception and later that evening, I kept referencing the incident, even calling myself the salad president. In an email thank you later that evening to those who had organized the Commencement weekend, I wrote (virtually verbatim):
Lettuce (sic) remember the glorious day that was had by our students and their families; we made memories today.
What was interesting was that people liked the mistake and they liked my response to it. They found it humanizing and they appreciated that I joked about it. I fully expected to see my desk filled with heads of lettuce on Monday morning. And I would have liked that. Rather than bemoaning the mistake (which would have been my natural inclination), I was able to embrace it and was better for it.
Clearly, not all responses to mistakes call for humor or a Mulligan. In fact, sometimes that is precisely the wrong response. But what is true is that we need to be more mindful of how we respond to mistakes because we will not stop making them. Instead, we can get better at responding to them.
Recently, there have been a series of articles in the medical literature and popular press about medical mistakes – which are also inevitable. And, when these mistakes are made, patients and their families are rightly angry, very angry and very disappointed. These mistakes have real consequences – physically and emotionally and economically. Increasingly, health care providers are admitting to, and then apologizing for, their errors. Heartfelt and honest apologies. And the most fascinating thing about this new approach: lawsuits against hospitals and health professionals have declined, apparently as a direct result.
No one expects leaders to be perfect. But, Isaac Stern demonstrated what has taken me more than a decade to internalize: the real opportunity for a leader is in how we respond to the inevitable mistakes we make.
So, in addition to remembering the Isaac Stern story, I plan on remembering how I conferred a salad degree – a Doctor of Humane Lettuce. It might turn out to be the best degree I will ever have the privilege of conferring.
Karen Gross has been president of Southern Vermont College since 2006, and professor of law at New York Law School since 1984.
Over the course of my first year in office as a college president, a number of people have asked me about my new job. Do I like it? Is it hard? Is it what I expected? Am I having fun? Would I do it again, knowing what I now know? Do I have advice for other new or prospective presidents? People are curious.
The questions are good. They are the very ones I have been asking myself again and again over the past year. And, it is time I answered them.
I have put my answers in the form of suggestions for new presidents – because I wish I had had the suggestions before I began and I am too early in my tenure as president to offer “advice.” My comments may also be useful to institutional stakeholders (of which I can easily count 12 categories). Both insiders and outsiders (at my institution and at others) will benefit, I hope, from reflecting on the actual experiences of a new institutional leader. The answers may help people appreciate the complexity -- both professional and personal -- of the shoals being navigated. And, although perhaps it goes without saying, writing the answers has provided me with perspective on the past year.
So, the answers? Simply stated, I like my new job. I knew ahead of time that being an agent of change at a small, private, liberal arts college in New England would not be easy. Old slippers suddenly feel really comfortable when they are being taken away. Most new leaders -- whatever the size of their college or university -- understand that. I have liked discovering our institution’s enormous potential, and I like envisioning where we can head in the future and the steps we need to take to get there. I like telling our institutional story. I like creating a replicable model for affordable, quality, private undergraduate education. I like putting years of theory into practice. I like meeting and connecting with new people and organizations and, yes, I like -- really like – fund raising.
But, here are some things that I wish I had known or understood or assimilated before I started.
I was named president in mid-July 2006 and took office five weeks later – literally on the eve of First Year Orientation. The institution needed a leader, and we thought there was a real fit. In retrospect, despite the good match, it was far too quick a start. Slower would have been better -- both for me and for the institution.
Suggestion: Whenever possible, give new presidents between four and six months to leave their prior homes and settle into their new academic home. During this gap period, give him/her an opportunity to learn about the new campus -- through existing materials and on-campus meetings (both group and one-on-one). Set up “meet and greet” opportunities for the new leader with key members of the local community. Create social get-togethers for the new leader with trustees as a group; facilitate one-on-one trustee meetings as well. Trust, across all constituencies, is not automatic; it needs to be built, and it is best to have it from the beginning – to the extent possible. By not ramping up more slowly, I had to both run and learn about the institution at the same time.
So, the itch to begin fast -- while understandable -- makes for a vastly more difficult transition.
The Question-Decision Flurry
Perhaps the most striking feature of my new job was the sheer number and breadth of questions I am asked day in and day out. I tried to keep count a few times but stopped after the first couple hours -- there wasn’t time to count. It wasn’t just that I was asked questions. People expected answers – often immediately.
A lawyer president with whom I shared my observations said that on any day, a president has to decide (pick your number) 30 things. With 28 of these things, it doesn’t matter what one decides. What is important is that one decides something -- even if wrongly. For the two remaining things, a decision really does matter, and those are the items on which a leader should spend serious time and reach a reasoned decision.
The trick, of course, is to distinguish accurately the 28 from the two. I am still working on that.
Suggestion: New leaders need to recognize that some decisions will need to be made quickly (think firefighter on a hillside with brushfires), and that one will not always decide them correctly. Know ahead of time that that is going to happen – even when one surrounds oneself with thoughtful advisors. When an error occurs, fix it if necessary and possible or leave it alone, learn from it and move on. That’s another key: a new leader needs to keep moving. Dwelling, for example, on the decision not to attend a particular function (now past) at which many community members were gathered is not helpful; one’s time is better spent going to the next such event. Also, know one’s own decision-making style (no doubt, a partial product of one’s previous discipline) and share that approach openly within one’s community. That will ameliorate misunderstandings.
How one communicates a decision -- particularly a negative one -- is a whole other matter.
Thick Skin and the Wonderful Parts
As a lawyer and occasional expert witness, I thought I had developed thick skin. Litigation is, after all, about controversy and dispute resolution. People disagree and fight hard for their clients’ positions. But, litigation happens within the confines of a courtroom. The rules and behavior are circumscribed and when the trial or hearing is over, the parties -- even adversaries -- talk and even get together socially. Why? Because lawyers will see each other again in different cases, with different clients, with different alignments of interests. Client disputes are not personal to the lawyers, and the attacks are not, for the most part, ad hominem. Among lawyers, one is an adversary today and a friend tomorrow.
Criticism of and comments about a president are different. They are personal and almost everyone has something to say about a president -- both in front of her (or him) or behind her (his) back. People like to talk about the new leader and outsiders, particularly in a small town, frequently ask questions like: How is she doing? What’s she like? Do you like her? How does she compare with X? Former employees have plenty to say, too.
Suggestion: Remember what my board chair kept saying to me, each time we spoke: “This is not a popularity contest; and are you having fun yet?” Initially, I did not internalize what he was saying. Now I do. People will always talk and rumors will always persist (although stomping out the most inaccurate ones in clever and even humorous ways may be worth it). Consider my surprise when I heard a rumor that I had fired a local (and wonderful) vendor of services on the very day that vendor was in my office agreeing to a nice renewal package.
The omnipresence of rumors does not mean one has to like the situation. Neither does it mean one should completely ignore all rumors and criticism; one should look at them to see if there is a grain of truth buried in there from which one can learn about oneself, the job, the rumor-spreader.
One inevitability: A new leader, particularly one seeking to effectuate change, will be criticized; that is just part of the job. A leader has a choice: Live with the criticism and find and enjoy the parts of the job that give one true pleasure --- or give up leadership. For real.
I did not get it in the beginning. People were frequently not responding to me; they were responding to a role -- the “role of the president.” By virtue of my title (and sometimes my academic regalia), I was eliciting a response. People had an image of a college president and how a president acts, looks and thinks, and whether or not I fit that image, there I was.
I remember asking if I had to wear my academic regalia for a certain event. (In private, I called it my costume.) People were stunned. Of course I had to wear it. It was expected. It was tradition. People wanted to see it. The key word was “it” – people wanted the president in her attire, not the person in the president’s clothes. In short, the costume mattered; it mattered a great deal.
Suggestion: Recognize that people are often not seeing you; they are seeing your role. For these people, the role (and regalia) are important; they are symbols of education and leadership, and a leader needs to respect that interest in and appreciation for academic tradition -- whether one personally believes in it or not. And, there is only one person (in addition to your family and pets) who can distinguish between the robe you are wearing and the person in it: you.
I also now realize that there is room within that role to develop one’s own style; there is a way to put one’s own stamp on the role. But, that is not instantaneous. That personalization develops over time, as one moves forward in a presidency. Personalization comes in many ways -- through formal presentations, informal mingling at events and casual conversations in hallways. Over time, a president’s voice really can animate the role.
Ask For Help
I now realize that people (at least most people) are not born to be college presidents. The problems that college presidents encounter daily can only be appreciated and understood through experience. I remember at a professional development seminar for new presidents, a speaker indicated that he thought he was the perfect person for the job. So did everyone else at his institution. He had been mentored by the previous president. He had worked in every part of the institution. He was ready to lead. He had prepared for the job for years. And, once installed as the leader, he made a serious fund raising blunder. Who knew there was such a difference between being a president and preparing to become a president?
Suggestion: Ask for advice from a wide range of people and take the time to ask even when one is pressed. Asking for help is a sign of remarkable strength, not weakness. It produces better results and it allows new leaders to grow. It also gives a new leader a place within the larger community of people dealing with the same issues. Yes, it is isolated at the top but there are other people at the top of other educational institutions (and corporations), too – and they are willing to be there for you. At a minimum, you can share the isolation.
Everyone from whom I asked for help was gracious and generous with his or her time. The presidents who helped me usually prefaced their suggestions with two sentences that sounded something like this: “I know what you are experiencing,” and “I am not sure this will work for you, but try or consider this….” These sentences accomplished two things. They made me realize that the situation presented was not so simple, and that there is rarely one right answer to a dilemma. Each solution needs to be informed by the local institution and its particular culture.
Do It Again?
I would do it again. It is not enough for places to survive; they need to thrive, and I like being part of that building process. I like seeing the tangible and significant progress we have made within my own institution with its limited resources. I enjoy working with people who care about students, about future generations, about improving the world in which we live. I appreciate, more than ever, the power of education and the capacity of institutions and communities to change. I remain an optimist.
I would like to think I am better at my job now than when I started. Are there things that, if I could do them again, I would do differently? Absolutely. But, I would not trade the experiences -- good and bad. That is how we learn. That is how we develop, as people and as responsible leaders.
I am curious about the year to come. It will, no doubt, have its own new set of issues and questions. It will challenge me in ways I have likely not been challenged before. I wonder if the new academic year will be easier or harder or simply different. I wonder if the suggestions presented here will withstand the test of time.
So, knowing what I now know, would I be willing to do it again? Yes, but I would certainly be wiser. And, I can assure new presidents out there of one thing: If you call me for advice, I will stop what I am doing and help. Been there. Done that.