The summer before my wife, Elaine, began her first university presidency, I had conflicting feelings about our impending move. Over all, I was elated. I understood her passion for higher education and looked forward to how she would help advance her cause.
But another, decidedly less positive, thought jostled for attention. At Elaine’s other institutions, where she’d served as a senior administrator but not the top one, I came and went as I pleased without any expectations attached to me, official or otherwise. I knew that independence was about to change -- that I’d be expected to appear regularly at various college events. We’d be considered a social team, so I logically supposed that how people perceived me would influence her relationship with the campus. I worried about that prospect because I wasn’t really a public person -- certainly not one comfortable with regular meet and greet regimens. Transient social situations challenged my inner recluse.
To prepare, I considered devising strategies to prevent my nonsocial tendencies from becoming obstacles to a positive image. Truthfully, “image” was an unappealing concept to me. It suggested role-playing, an effort to appear someone I really wasn’t. But after some resistance, I conceded that, as a fact of life, we’re all products of image -- that amalgam of almost instantaneous, shorthand impressions we stir in others. As superficial and highly subjective as they may be, they generally integrate into how others view us. So to assist Elaine’s presidency in small ways, I considered how to help guide the perception I’d create.
Now two decades into my role (another concept I’m not fond of), I remain one of those often-referenced academic projects: a work in progress. Along the way, I’ve made my share of mistakes and managed sometimes to learn from them. For other spouses and partners, especially new ones, I share the following observations:
Don’t allow yourself to be perceived as snobbish. When on the campus, spouses and partners who lack the social gene may be considered remote or self-absorbed. Despite your natural proclivity, briefly greeting familiar people should become an acquired skill, the exercise of which you should carefully nurture. While the gold standard of instantly remembering absolutely everyone’s name may be beyond your grasp, a smile and a few pleasant words can usually substitute effectively. They communicate your awareness of being part of the university community.
Don’t assume that all your idiosyncrasies will be accepted tolerantly as just “you being you.” Rather, you should figure that no personal tic will be too minor to attract attention. Inventory your habits, especially those embedded deeply enough to have earned tenure, and work on changing potentially unattractive ones.
A minor but personally relevant example: necessary or not, I compulsively rush to get where I’m going. The first few weeks on our new campus, I sometimes honked at slow drivers who were frustrating my progress. My wife observed that displays of public impatience weren’t likely to endear a presidential spouse to the campus community. Although I tried, I couldn’t disagree. So I tempered that reflex, regressing only when flagrantly provoked.
Speaking of rushing, don’t rush impulsively into controversy. Contradictory as it may seem, being socially reticent doesn’t preclude being opinionated about topics that personally resonate, like literature, sports and, of course, politics. Maybe it’s a form of overcompensation, but when piqued, we nonsocial folks can be uncharacteristically and pointedly forthcoming.
Over the years, I’ve worked to avoid excessive bluntness when disagreeing with others about emotionally loaded topics. Obviously, frank and open exchanges may sometimes be detrimental to making friends for the university, presumably an objective of most spouses and partners. Now, usually, when I feel tact retreating before rising disagreement, I withdraw gradually from the conversation. When that approach seems insufficient, I politely excuse myself to greet someone across the room. In pragmatic terms, an exercise of diplomacy beats winning a debate.
Don’t try to solve significant campus problems. However helpful you think you can be, that’s not a challenge to be added to your job description. Your first instinct may be to just jump in -- since you’re not outfitted with blinders or earplugs, you’ll inevitably pick up bits of disconnected information. Some of it may stimulate your desire to be supportive by airing your insights, especially when the scuttlebutt is vexatious and disconcerting to the president.
Be warned: stay away from what does not officially concern you. When it comes to university business, your home and the campus should be separated by an alligator-filled moat. Voice your opinions only when they’re solicited.
In adhering to this policy, I’ve discovered dormant aptitudes. I’ve become proficient, for example, at helping to resolve indecision about appropriate attire for a campus function and the best arrangement for traffic flow at an event in our home. For such underrated puzzlements, I’ve established myself as the reliable go-to guy.
Don’t forget to say thank you -- and mean it. Recognize the many contributions of people representing various parts of the campus community, all of whom facilitate the university’s smooth operation. You’ll probably be most in touch with those in the academic component of the institution, but people in other areas like food services, campus security and maintenance constitute key parts of an effective whole. And you should reserve a significant portion of gratitude for those undaunted and versatile presidential assistants who often work inconspicuously to make good things happen.
Also, if disagreement with an employee somehow arises, don’t let it become personal. Retreat as quickly as possible. Potential for negativity increases when the presidential couple lives in university-owned housing, where employees attend to maintenance duties. Whatever the contentious issue, refer it to the president’s executive assistant, who can resolve the matter with minimal stress.
Finally, don’t underrate the complexity of what you do or become complacent about any of it. Many of your campus involvements will be spontaneous -- and therefore susceptible to flaws. Occasional miscalculation comes with the territory, so simply resolve to grow from any missteps you happen to make. Before their own audiences, great actors flub lines and sluggers strike out. To remain productive, they don’t dwell on self-castigation, and neither should you. They analyze how to improve and, therefore, how to rebound resiliently.
Your quiet contributions to the institution and the satisfactions you can derive from them require similar adaptability. That’s an invaluable characteristic that you can and should cultivate.