A boxer, a minister, a police officer, a psychologist and a Nobel laureate walk into a university auditorium. The head of the faculty senate says, “What is this, some kind of joke? Where is our new president?” The head of the search committee replies, “No joke. We couldn’t find one person who could fit the leadership profile so we hire them all and we stayed in budget.”
Joking aside, how can the role of today’s university president be best described? What is expected? What are the necessary characteristics? After a year studying the role of the presidency in higher education as an American Council on Education Fellow, I can say with certainty a president must be strong physically, emotionally and mentally.
A typical weekday in the life of a president looks like this (the players may change on a daily basis but the pace is the same):
7 a.m.-- Breakfast with state legislator
8:30 a.m.-- Cabinet meeting
11 a.m.-- Calls to trustees
11:30 a.m.-- Meeting with university attorney
Noon-- Scholarship lunch with students and donors
1:30 p.m.-- Individual meeting with provost
2 p.m.-- Drive to state capital
3 p.m.-- Meet with Secretary of Education
3:30 p.m.-- Drive back to campus
4:30 p.m.-- Address faculty senate
6 p.m.-- Maybe have dinner or answer e-mails, return calls
7 p.m.-- Women’s basketball game
8:30 p.m.-- Men’s basketball game
Weekends are not much different, with travel to meetings, conferences, and donors’ homes; attending student events (plays, lectures, art exhibitions); and attending fund-raising and alumni events. Time also must be found for reading reports, responding to correspondence, contemplating strategy and vision, ensuring institutional fiscal health, and preparing for speeches and events.
To do this job you have to be physically ready. It is exhausting and near-impossible to find a moment to exercise or relax, to have a balanced diet (meals are almost always used for meetings with donors and volunteers), or a personal life.
It is a 24/7 job like no other. A president is constantly “on” and many people want a piece of her time. It requires the agility, stamina and fitness of a boxer, and the ability to take a punch both physically and metaphorically.
Presidents give hundreds of speeches a year to an incredible variety of constituents (students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, law makers, etc.) and in a wide variety of venues (auditoriums, arenas and stadiums, classrooms, reception halls, tents, etc.). The chief of staff at the University of Virginia estimated that President Sullivan gave more than 175 speeches in her first year. A president is a peripatetic leader seeking to rally, inspire and engage all who can further the mission of the institution. She must motivate by inspiring hope and promise and by articulating a vision in a compelling, heartfelt, intelligent voice. She must know her audience and authentically share their values.
The words are important but the manner in which messages are delivered is perhaps even more important. Call it presence, command, or owning the room but when a president shows up people should literally feel the energy in the room. The institutional leader must exude passion, urgency and confidence (not to be confused with arrogance).
It is the type of passion that makes a crowd rise to its feet and erupt with applause; it is the type of energy that makes people call back from the audience with supportive cheers like a congregation shouting “amen,” and it is the reason people should want to support an institution by giving their time and resources. A president is like a minister. It is a calling.
A president is entrusted with peoples’ lives. A college campus is a town, a community of people. Like any town, any place, something bad happens on a college campus every single year. Always.
There are many, many things that can and do happen – people break the law, people’s lives unravel, accidents happen, and tragedy strikes. This year alone a parking deck under construction at Miami Dade College collapsed and killed several workers; the Boston Marathon bombing suspect was a student at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth; and 74 people were arrested during a drug bust on the campus of the University of Alabama. These are just a few of the incidents reported in the national news.
How a president deals with a crisis -- how swiftly, how professionally, how ethically and transparently, how compassionately -- is crucial. A president must know the law and have excellent counsel, must ensure that the institution acts with integrity and honesty, and must show appropriate due diligence and empathy. A president, like a police officer, protects and serves.
A president interacts with hundreds if not thousands of people on a daily basis through e-mails, speaking engagements, receptions, events, and meetings. While sometimes people engage a leader to convey gratitude, kindness and support, more often people want the president to address and solve problems.
And by the time a problem is great enough to land in front of a president, the problem is often quite large and fraught with emotional baggage. In expressing a desire for a president to make decision, people exhibit the panoply of human emotion, from hysterics to angry threats. Some people can be devious and untruthful.
Like a psychologist, a president knows how to carefully listen to problems, act with composure, and have a high emotional intelligence to be able to read people. A president must be able to connect to others without getting overwhelmed or paralyzed by the numerous issues confronted on a daily basis.
This job is tough emotionally; numerous presidents have succumbed to the pressure by acting out in their own ways. There are presidents who have lost themselves, lost control, lost their jobs, and tarnished the reputation of their institutions through fits of anger, depression or substance abuse. A president’s ability to cope, to stay centered, to know her own emotional limits makes all the difference.
After pointing out all the ways in which a president must be strong physically and emotionally, it cannot be forgotten that we are talking about being the leader of an educational enterprise. Intelligence matters but not in the way most faculty members think it does. Yes, it is important for the leader to be emblematic of higher education by being an expert in her field and having a terminal degree. However, being a president is not, I repeat not, discipline-specific.
A president must be able to relate to, understand, and appreciate all disciplines within the institution. A president must be able to communicate effectively with the board members, donors, lawmakers, community members, parents, students, staff and faculty.
A president is smart when considering all assets both human and financial. This requires a superior type of intelligence; one that higher education touts and asks its students to aspire to. It is the type of intelligence that synthesizes and applies knowledge in a visionary way to create strategies for success and distinction. It is an innovative, deep, steadfast intelligence seen in the likes of a Nobel laureate.
As I reflect on these qualities, I consider today’s revolving door found at the president’s office at so many institutions. The length of tenure has dropped to five years or less.
Are there only a few people who fit this bill? Is the job more difficult and more complicated? Are expectations too high? Probably, yes.
More so, I believe it is because most search committee members often think the profile of a successful president is indicated by a succession of positions listed on a resume. Those are indeed important tangible indicators of possible future success. However, after a year of observation and study I can say it is more about the intrinsic qualities and attributes described here that make a successful president.
A president cannot be one-dimensional. A president is everything to everyone at all times while being a wholly genuine and authentic individual. A president should be chosen for his or her ability to connect and commit to an institution and people served in a physically, emotionally, and intellectually healthy manner.
K. Johnson Bowles is associate vice president of strategic initiatives at Longwood University.
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