New President Boot Camp

Bill Mahon highlights the key traps to avoid during the first year on the job.

June 14, 2016

Scores of college and university presidents will start their new jobs at institutions across the country this summer, most of them on July 1. A few have previous experience in the top jobs at other campuses, but many do not.

Some are replacing ousted presidents and face institutions with high hopes for a fresh start. Others will have to fill the shoes of beloved long-term presidents who have decided to retire. And more than a few are stepping into toxic situations that may involve difficult financial challenges, low student application numbers, dysfunctional faculty and staff relations, meddling donors, an imploding intercollegiate athletics situation, or unfriendly politicians.

They all face a new board, new legislators, new faculty members, new major donors and new student bodies that will welcome them on their first day with a well-worn set of experiences, gripes or demands. The newly printed business cards may read “President,” but the unofficial title may well be “University Spear Catcher.”

In the spirit of “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” here are some PR tips based on my work with a series of university presidents over the past three decades -- as well as on advice from the trenches that higher ed communications colleagues have shared with me.

Let’s throw a party to celebrate me! If you work at a public university, skip the expensive presidential investiture ceremony and related events. Tuition is too high, state appropriation is too low and everybody is ready to criticize an outlandish expenditure on something most of the public cannot relate to in any way. The news media will lead the charge, but legislators and economically stressed parents and students will follow directly behind with torches and pitchforks.

The president’s palace. During the search for a new president, governing boards often take a look at the university president’s house. They realize it has been two dozen years since any money was put into the dilapidated mansion that the new leader and his family must live in. The expensive project of refurbishing it will now be done in your name.

The faculty who did not get raises last year and the students who are facing another tuition increase are watching. So is the state Legislature. If you are going to take on this kind of project, ask the board leadership to quietly find a donor who will step forward to pay for it. PR problem solved. Or ask them to do it before you set foot on campus, as it’s not fair for you as the new president to take the heat.

Hello/Goodbye Part 1: Over the summer, without consulting you, an employee is getting ready to invite a speaker to campus this fall who will upset a legislator, a major donor or others. Don’t step in and disinvite them while issuing a statement about how much you value free speech.

Hello/Goodbye Part 2: Before you have a chance to walk around campus for the first time, one of your department heads is offering a teaching position to a controversial faculty member at another institution. When legislators and your best donor learn about it and go ballistic, do not rescind the offer while talking about how much you value diverse ideas. That school fight song ringtone is your university lawyer on line one.

Not-so-happy Halloween. You don’t know it yet, this many months before stores start selling Halloween costumes. But right now, somewhere among your student body, young people are planning to dress up as some ethnic group and employ stereotypes for a private party that will have photographs posted on the web. You will quickly face demands that they be punished.

Consider reminding students in advance not to use the Halloween season as an opportunity to promote stereotypes that they would hate to see raised during their first big job interview a year or two later. Also, keep in mind you have two options for this situation: 1) punish them and be criticized, or 2) don’t punish them and be criticized.

It’s all Greek to you. If you have more than a handful of Greek organizations on your campus, there is a good chance you’ll have to shut down at least one of them during your first couple years as president. It will probably be an incident involving social media that results in scores of negative national news stories. Or it could entail injuries, criminal charges or even a death.

I know many people thought “double secret probation” was a big joke in the old movie Animal House. It wasn’t. It’s a real thing. Be ready to use it without apology.

Student drinking. You will need to come out swinging before the school year starts. Send a note to parents of every student outlining how serious this problem is. Be specific, citing data related to alcohol deaths and injuries among young people. Be visible throughout the year on this topic. Engage faculty, staff, students, local residents, lawmakers and owners of businesses who sell alcohol to your students.

The issue has been an intractable one for decades, and you won’t be able to solve it by yourself. But you may be able to prevent some tragedies, and when they do occur, you will be on the record as someone who did not bury their head in the sand.

Getting in the game. Student-athlete graduation rates, financial challenges, coaches who ignore university rules, sexual assaults, alcohol … you get the picture. It’s often much worse than you think.

Meet with your varsity coaches in August. Outline very specific expectations for them. A week later, follow up with an email to each of them highlighting those exact same specific expectations. Ask them to share that note with all their assistant coaches and related staff. Make sure, as well, that the athletic director sits on the president’s cabinet and has strong interactions with the academic side of the institution.

In addition, embrace a faculty athletics oversight group that is deeply engaged in the workings of your intercollegiate athletics program but not co-opted by it. Meet with them several times during the year. They don’t need free sideline passes to the big game to do their jobs well.

Legislators. Legislators and their support for the institution should be of special concern to public college presidents. At the same time, however, private colleges and universities also compete for hundreds of millions in public dollars. Be ready for requests for favors, but make sure you treat those requests the same way you would from anyone else.

Donors. Ditto. No special favors for donors, but don’t forget to ask for money when you turn them down.

Whose site is it, anyway? About five minutes after the press release is issued naming you the next president, people with bad intentions will purchase domain names and social media handles with your name in them. At some key point months or even years later, those fake social media sites with your name will be used to embarrass you internationally.

The goal will not be to have a vibrant page or social media site with huge numbers of followers. (The site may only have seven followers, and they may all be anonymous.) The goal will be to get traditional news media to write a story about what is being posted by the fake you. Have a good sense of humor because you can’t do anything about this.

Race matters. It continues to be one of the most complicated issues in the country, and at some point, you will be drawn into it at your own institution. Students and others will take over buildings and make demands that may seem unrelated in any logical way to the actual situation on your campus.

Accept that this is a chance for young people to take a shot at making the world just a little bit better and try to be supportive. Don’t arrest them. Listen to them. And start listening to them before they feel it is necessary to shout and call in the news media. A strong relationship built over the entire school year will achieve far more than a sudden and forced conversation across a conference table during the takeover of your office.

Sexual assault. This will almost always include alcohol. It may involve a fraternity or a student athlete. And, most likely, you will have inherited a campus judicial system that has nothing in common with the American criminal justice system; it is designed to act fast with far less evidence and fewer checks and balances. At its heart, that judicial system is often unfair to both the victim and the accused.

Ask senior university leaders outside of the office responsible for the process (probably Student Affairs) to walk through the system every step of the way as a victim. Have them meet every person a victim will encounter along the way (receptionists, nurses, physicians, campus police, etc.) and review every form that a victim will have to fill out. Then have them repeat the process as an alleged assailant. Ask them to recommend where improvements should be made.

Expensive free speech. If you permit certain kinds of speech on the campus, you will get slammed. If you prevent certain kinds of speech on the campus, you will get slammed. This can be an emotional or political issue for many people, so grab the Constitution and hold on for dear life.

Guns. Mass shootings occur every week somewhere around the country, and too many of them happen on college campuses. You can’t stop them, and political leaders won’t stop them. But you and your campus will be defined by how you react. Practice, practice, practice. Is your emergency communications system one that is ready to work in seconds, minutes or hours? It needs to be seconds.

Can your campus police department muster at least several well-armed and trained officers at any building on campus within two minutes of a 911 call warning of gunfire? Can they communicate with each other and with surrounding police agencies?

Do you have a communications team that can be in place within 15 minutes to accept thousands of phone calls from worried parents around the country once CNN and other news media begin reporting a shooting on your campus? Assume cellular service is crushed as everyone on campus grabs their smartphones at the same moment. Does your leadership and communications team still have the means to talk with each other?

How robust are emergency services on your campus and in the surrounding community? Are they ready, really ready, to rush to the aid of a dozen or more shooting victims in time to make a difference?

Grab bag: campus judicial systems, shared governance, endless lawsuits, transparency, relations with the news media, large untaxed endowments and student mental health issues. And never forget that, on any given day, one of your students or employees may be doing something that’s perhaps even illegal or, more likely, really, really stupid.

You will need to do a lot when you first become president. Unfortunately, no perfect boot camp can prepare you for what will soon follow. Make sure to save time to be with students, faculty members, administrators, alumni and local residents as much as possible. Get out and listen.

The challenges reviewed in this story are not rocket science -- even if your school does actually teach rocket science. They occur over and over again, year after year, on many American college campuses. Think about them now so you don’t have to spend so much time thinking about them later with a lawyer, reporter or legislator.

Bookend your first year by riding in the annual homecoming parade in the fall and then enjoy personally putting diplomas into the hands of thousands of newly minted alumni in May.

Meanwhile, good luck with those spears.


Bill Mahon teaches strategic communications in Penn State’s College of Communications. He is a strategic partner of University RepProtect, a suite of services from Ketchum Inc. designed to help higher education institutions deal with emerging threats.


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