• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


“But Mom Said…”

Doubts on idea of co-presidents.

February 14, 2018

Folks on my home campus may be relieved to know that sometimes I read innovative, out-of-the-box ideas and actually _don’t_ like them. This is one.

Karen Gross wrote a piece for the Aspen Institute arguing that many colleges would be better off with co-presidents. The job is too big for one person, she suggests, and having someone else either to split duties or take turns would make the task easier for an actual human to carry out.

To which I respond by quoting my kids when they were younger: “But Mom said…”

Like most kids in two-parent families, The Boy and The Girl got pretty good at exploiting any sign of daylight between Mom and Dad on any given issue. Our parenting styles are close enough that it didn’t usually get too bad, but the kids are both observant and smart. “But Mom said…” became a counterargument that was hard to defeat without undermining the authority of the other parent. 

I can’t help but imagine something similar happening with co-presidents, even if they’re well-matched and in broad agreement about the direction they want to go. Not having one person to give the final word would mean too many issues would get stuck in limbo. Given how nuanced some issues are, it would be easy for misunderstandings to mushroom.

From a community-relations standpoint, it could get awkward. Part of the job of a president is making connections with persons of influence and affluence to help support the college and its students. Donors like to deal with the president. A co-president would be unlikely to carry the same prestige.  The job would actually be harder to do well.

And that’s assuming that the pair is well-matched. As one leaves, finding a new one would get even more awkward. 

None of which is to discount the argument that the job requires an unrealistic range of expertise in one person. But there’s an easier solution to that.

Hire smart senior staff and let them be effective. That requires two key skills: talent scouting and self-discipline.

The talent scouting piece comes into play in assembling a good leadership team. Having very capable people in the various “chief (blank) officer” roles frees up the president from having to attend to a barrage of issues that can take the bandwidth that should be devoted to the tasks that only a president can perform. If you have a team of experts in various things, you’re freed from having to be an expert in all of them yourself.

The self-discipline piece comes in allowing those smart folks to do their jobs. That means giving them some room to move, as long as it’s in the right direction, and not rewarding end-runs around them. And sometimes it means allowing them to shine.

I once reported to someone whose talent scouting was strong, but whose self-discipline was not. Over time, it became a real issue.  Anyone who got too much attention had to be taken down a notch. “Excel, but in moderation” is a tough rule to follow. When I moved to a new boss who took her people’s successes as confirmation of her own good taste, the difference was palpable. Combining good talent scouting with real self-discipline gave her people room to move. 

The combination of strong talent scouting with real self-discipline is rare, but I suspect it’s less rare than a dynamic duo that won’t get in each other’s way eventually. Co-parenting is terrific, but I’m a fan of single presidencies.


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