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An Alma Education
July 14, 2010 - 11:46pm

Ever since the announcement of my appointment as Alma's president last February, I have been studying up on the college presidency. I've talked with friends in the job, read endless prose on the topic, heard from consultants far and wide.

This week I will go with dozens of other new college presidents to the Harvard Institute for New Presidents. I'm doing my homework in advance, planning to sit in the first row. I'm hoping there won't be beanies.

I've gotten plenty of advice: Spend the first year listening. Learn the culture, don't move too fast. Avoid all mention of that last college.

All of it excellent guidance, I'm sure, albeit pretty far from the Seven Habits of Highly Effective College Presidents insights I'd been seeking.

Nobody has yet brought it all down to the simplicity of the pitcher's adage: "Work fast, throw strikes, change speeds."

It's a complex job, after all. Tough stuff.

But for all of the good advice I'm getting, I'm left uncertain about the implicit guidance of a Washington Post article on the presidency.

Today's students, we're told, "want a personal bond with the president.... They want to be friends -- and not just on Facebook."

And suffice it to say that the college presidents noted in the Post story are very friendly indeed, getting involved with students in all manner of hijinks, such as joining in a campus snowball fight or deejaying the inauguration.

I'd hoped that teaching Walden on occasion might suffice!

And these newfangled presidents are positively reclusive compared to the president who allowed nursing students to watch the birth of her twins.

Gulp. What could I do to top that?

Still, I don't want to let down our great students at Alma. After all, I'm as student centered as they come. I'm reaching out.

There I was playing Frisbee with our summer research students on our lovely campus lawn last week (and it was the highlight of the week!). Maybe I need to dig out my old skateboard, wax a curb and brush up on my 50-50 grind.

Of course I'm on Facebook. I'm tweeting, for heaven's sake. I'm blogging to beat the band.

I suspect, though, that all this is likely to make me as hip in students' eyes as, say, an appearance on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

Will it help that I know the lyrics to every Velvet Underground song ever written? Probably not. They've never heard of Lou Reed. And I just don't know that I've got what it takes to be au courant on Lady Gaga.

But is there a worry here? Helicopter parents are one thing. But helicopter presidents? Do we enable a certain dependency amongst students in encouraging them to carry their every complaint straight to the top? Has the market mentality of colleges led us to the point where we're interested less in the moral leadership once vested in the college presidency and more in, er, snowball fights?

Probably not. I suspect Freeman Hrabowski of the University of Maryland Baltimore County has it just right: "Interacting with students keeps me sane.... It reminds me why I continue to do this work."

There's the reason to go have some fun on campus. I'll never be 'cool' for the 18-22 year-old students. But getting to know them in their own context will help me to know my work through that most important lens of student learning and growth. There's good guidance for any college president.


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