Presidents

When should a college leader take a public stand? (essay)

When’s the best time for a college or university leader to take a public stand? Barbara McFadden Allen, Ruth Watkins and Robin Kaler explore a hypothetical scenario.

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College leaders must speak out in the wake of the election (essay)

In the wake of the election, our nation’s colleges and universities are experiencing divisive incidents, which requires higher education leaders to quell tensions by making strong vocal calls for tolerance, inclusivity and free speech. While these waters may be difficult to navigate, I hope these leaders will also take up the difficult challenge of speaking out on our nation’s higher education policy agenda, an issue of central importance to all Americans.

Postsecondary education is crucial to addressing income inequality and sustaining our nation’s commitment to democracy and equal opportunity. A diploma yields a more prosperous future for most Americans, and is a public good for societal stability and prosperity. Despite this, the public has grown increasingly distrustful of higher education, especially given concerns that college costs have risen so rapidly. This is manifest in increased calls for evidence on the earnings impact of a college degree, for greater assessment of student learning outcomes and for information on the uses of large endowments.

Higher education leaders, political leaders and the public have been polarized, but we must work together to understand the issue of increasing income inequality and the role of higher education in addressing it. It is imperative that we forge a new path forward for higher education, but given the election results and today’s constraints on college and university presidents’ speaking out, it is unclear if that will happen.

It is ironic that many of those people affected the most by increasing income inequality, and the fear about the future that it engenders, have chosen Trump for president when his stated policies are unlikely to improve either income inequality or postsecondary educational attainment. In fact, tax cuts, rolling back the Affordable Care Act, reducing regulations, increasing protection and the likely increases in interest rates and inflation will all probably exacerbate income inequality rather than reduce it. Right now, there is no telling exactly what Trump’s policies directly addressing higher education will be, absent any substantive discussion during the campaign.

Higher education leaders have been largely silent about various policies throughout the election, consistent with the fact that the visibility and influence of university and college leaders on national issues has been muted in general in recent years. Leaders of public institutions must walk a fine line, as they are not able to support particular candidates, but the broader absence of these voices from public debate is also a function of the continual demands of fund-raising and the harsh light of social media.

Colleges depend increasingly on donors to meet operating expenses as well as to build endowments and fund capital projects. Many institutions are in perpetual comprehensive campaigns and annual fund drives run by large offices of development professionals. Donors, and alumni in general, are important constituencies with valid institutional interests. Alumni support their colleges in many nonfinancial ways, as well as with gifts that allow colleges and universities to do things they couldn’t otherwise. And with reductions in state appropriations and lower earnings on endowments, donors are more important than ever in supporting higher education expenditures. But relying on donors to do so can have important implications.

If a college president takes a strong position on a national issue, she can cost her institution financial support if alumni who disagree close their checkbooks. Over the last few years, alumni have threatened to withhold support when higher education leaders have made decisions or taken positions with which they disagree. Those include policies on divestment from fossil fuel companies, calls for boycotts of certain speakers and academics, efforts to support student demands for trigger warnings and more aggressive confrontation of racism, and even decisions to cull campus deer to reduce overpopulation. Having had these experiences directly, or having read about them, presidents weigh the value of adding their voices to an important national conversation against their continued ability, and responsibility, to raise funds to support campus programs. They often make the choice not to jeopardize those programs, particularly if the issue is one that is only tangentially related to higher education and to their own institution.

Social media has made that choice even more likely. While it has democratized the influence various constituencies have, it has also significantly complicated these relationships. The positions that college leaders take, or even just the daily decisions they make, on a wide variety of issues are more readily available than in the past and can be more easily and loudly criticized. Responding to questions and challenges about those positions, often publicly and rapidly, is both complex and time consuming. Comments and events that would have passed unnoticed in the past now live on and on -- and often go viral.

That was not always the case. For generations, college and university presidents were intellectual participants in the life of the nation, playing active roles in debates on major issues. Henry Noble MacCracken, Vassar College’s president from 1915 to 1946, was a strong advocate for women’s suffrage and then for isolation in the 1930s. Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University from 1902 to 1945, played a significant role in the 1933 repeal of Prohibition. Kingman Brewster, Yale University’s president from 1963 to 1977, took a strong public stance against the Vietnam War.

Can we get there again? Now is the time. We need higher education leaders to take positions on the issues. And we need them to address the concerns of those who elected Trump by making higher education more affordable for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, not just for the very poor or the very rich. Our college and university presidents will need the support of their boards of trustees to do so, as well as understanding and trust from their donors, alumni and the public. To influence our nation’s path going forward, both words and actions are needed from the higher education community and its leaders. I hope they will rise to the challenge and that Americans and our president-elect will be listening and watching.

Catharine Hill is managing director at Ithaka S + R and president emerita of Vassar College.

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A board decides to give its president special security (essay)

When our Board of Trustees first heard about our president being sent some threatening communications, we weren’t too worried. The president is well liked, affable and easily recognized in the community. With 60,000 students enrolled, three campuses and a $300 million operating budget, she’s an astute, popular figure whose energy and goodwill are legendary. She has led efforts that have raised $23 million in scholarships for needy students during her tenure.

Her nonstop schedule, however, frequently takes her out late at night, often alone, sometimes a couple hours’ drive from our campus. It is no exaggeration to say that she will travel anywhere to promote our college: she delivered a GED graduation speech at a correctional facility and mentors college students who are also teen parents in the community. She has a reputation for searching out students who are isolated or discouraged, giving them her personal phone number and texting them several times a week to check in on class attendance. Having grown up herself on the south side of Chicago, she has earned what she calls a well-rooted sense of invincibility.

Our president is also African-American and openly gay, and she talks very publicly about closing the achievement gap for students of color. She writes often about making our institution more LGBTQ friendly and nurtures what she calls “radical inclusion.” She led the charge to allow Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students -- undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children but are now college age -- to attend our institution at in-state tuition rates.

Any one of those elements could attract hostility from the unbalanced or the narrow-minded, but in a tight economy, and in the wake of a vitriolic presidential election, more folks have seemed to be looking for someone to blame. Some of the rhetoric of the campaigns encouraged those tendencies, making people the targets rather than ideas.

On top of those complexities, our president has made some gutsy -- and unpopular -- business decisions in her quest to expand opportunity to more students. When she determined that several auxiliary programs were running deficits for many years in a row, she took action -- including outsourcing the bookstores on our campuses. Some people lost their jobs, despite the college’s painstaking efforts to move them to new positions. She also closed three child care centers that were losing over a $400,000 a year -- a very unpopular decision. It was unequivocally the right decision for the college, though, given that fewer than 20 of our 60,000 students were using the facilities. We redirected the resources to address student needs, including ones in the Achieving the Promise Academy and our Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success program, both focused on increasing retention, persistence and graduation rates for at-risk students.

At about that time, we hired a new director of safety and security, a retired police officer with three decades of law-enforcement experience. In the wake of the tragedy at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, we wanted to heighten security for our students and employees, so we sought her out for her expertise. She immediately made changes: stepping up patrols in some high-trafficked areas, implementing active-shooter trainings, putting our security staff in uniforms, taking our local law enforcement teams on walk-throughs of the campuses and installing communications screens in classrooms.

What we didn’t expect, however, was that she would present our president’s safety in a new light: “How would you feel if something happened to your president?” The threats, the controversial business decisions, the late-night travel -- our safety and security director’s decades of experience told her that those were red flags. She demanded to know why we hadn’t acted sooner.

Suddenly we were asking ourselves important questions. Perhaps we needed to change our perspective. With her characteristic nonchalance, the president had brushed off some very explicit threats. She had dismissed our board’s concerns that she might be too unguarded in her interactions with responses like “If my conversations with a student can keep them enrolled or focused or inspired, it’s worth it. If my meeting with a community member can soothe their angst about the child care centers, it’s worth it.”

But the new director was someone who knew about the realities of violence. She had seen stalking and mental illness escalate into violence countless times in her career. Some of the messages to our president had been ugly, racist and homophobic. A man unknown to the college tried to deliver a suspicious package to her office that he claimed had to be given directly to her. A person commenting on social media said she should be “taken out” in reaction to a commencement speech she delivered. It’s not a matter of when someone targets the president, our new director said -- she already is a target.

On the director’s urgent recommendation, we quickly contracted a security firm to provide an officer to accompany the president for a six-month pilot. We did so with the knowledge that we would probably receive pushback, that our judgment would be questioned and that those who were looking to criticize us would do so with impunity. Taxpayer dollars are going to protection for a college president? That’s the headline we will likely face, and we’ve already heard low-level grumblings about it. But to a person, our entire board was willing to take the heat about the decision to protect our president, because she had been willing -- even eager -- to risk much more for our students.

Maybe that’s the story, and the fundamental question, at the end of the day: How far should a president be expected to go for students? Our internal answer has been: a president with the passion and dedication that ours has shown over six years of leadership deserves our wholehearted support. And under these circumstances, that means security.

Marsha Suggs Smith is the chair of the Board of Trustees of Montgomery College.

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Controversial Pick Close to Kennesaw Presidency

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens moved a step closer to the presidency at Kennesaw State University Tuesday when a Board of Regents committee recommended him for the role despite stiff student and faculty opposition.

The University System of Georgia Board of Regents is now scheduled to vote on making Olens the next Kennesaw State president at an Oct. 12 meeting. The selection is controversial because of both the process and person involved.

Olens has been criticized for antigay stances during his career, including his defending of Georgia's ban on same-sex marriage as attorney general. His office also represented the state and joined a lawsuit seeking to block the U.S. Department of Education from ordering colleges and universities to provide bathroom facilities consistent with transgender students' gender identities. In addition, critics have taken aim at Olens's lack of higher education experience and a presidential search process that was not national.

A Republican, Olens was first elected attorney general in 2010, then won re-election in 2014. He was formerly the chairman of the County Board of Commissioners and a commissioner in Cobb County, where Kennesaw State is located.

"If I’m fortunate enough to be selected by the Board of Regents, I will do everything I can to earn the trust and support of KSU’s faculty, staff and students," Olens said in a statement.​

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Chicago State President to Be Ousted

Chicago State University trustees are preparing to remove President Thomas Calhoun Jr. just nine months into his tenure at the struggling institution.

An agenda for a Friday meeting shows that trustees expect to vote on a separation agreement for Calhoun and name a new interim president. The move is planned despite the fact that Calhoun only started in his position in January and is supported by the university’s faculty union, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Chicago State declared financial exigency in February and continued to struggle as an Illinois budget impasse dragged on and lawmakers only provided partial funding to universities. The university, which is located on the city’s South Side and has a mostly African-American student body, laid off about 400 employees, or 40 percent of its workforce, this year. Its six-year graduation rate fell this year to 11 percent, after fluctuating between 13 and 21 percent in recent years.

The university’s faculty union president, Robert Bionaz, sent trustees a letter voicing support for Calhoun Wednesday morning. He said trustees were ousting a popular president while keeping other senior administrators that faculty and staff oppose, and he called for the governor of Illinois to replace the board.

"The board has chosen a path guaranteed to create continued conflict, contention and uproar on this campus," Bionaz said, according to the Tribune.

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A college president shares career lessons she has learned (essay)

Carmen Twillie Ambar shares five pieces of advice for senior women administrators in the academy.

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How senior administrators can effectively use Twitter (essay)

Social Media Today

As educators, we often assume that we have the answers. In some cases, we also expect that we can -- and should -- anticipate the questions. Yet I can one thing say with absolute certainty: our listening and learning never stops.

Last April, I was welcomed as the seventh president of the University of Nebraska. New to the university and the state, I embarked on a 20-stop, statewide listening tour, Getting to Know Nebraska, augmented by additional community visits over the summer. I had the opportunity to meet and converse with hundreds of Nebraskans and hear firsthand how deeply they care about their public university.

It was insightful and inspirational. And it was just the beginning.

Today’s university presidents are required to be thought leaders and cheerleaders, professional spokespersons and personal ambassadors for their university brand. We must navigate innovations in information technology, shifts in student and faculty needs due to the internationalization of academe, changing rules around college athletics, state and federal politics, and more.

For me, carrying out those roles effectively meant committing to continued listening and informed leadership.

So my communications team and I brainstormed a 21st stop on my statewide listening tour -- one that transcended geographic boundaries and provided continuing opportunities for engagement, conversation and connection. We launched a Twitter listening tour from my new personal handle, @hankbounds, as a way to encourage dialogue about higher education in Nebraska and nationally.

Many of my peers have shied away from the Twitterverse. According to a 2013 study conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, just over half of university presidents have a presence on Twitter. And industry experts say that, among those early adopters, even fewer use the full potential of Twitter to listen and learn, engage with stakeholders, and articulate a differentiating vision.

Not surprisingly, then, a Twitter listening tour concept raised several challenging questions for us.

Is the Twitterverse too uncertain? The platform has inherent risks: being held under the microscope of public scrutiny in a high-traffic digital arena, exposed to not-so-positive or even negative comments and questions, and potentially losing control of the message when conversations are opened up to the masses.

Too constraining? My communications team debated how thoughtful of a question could be asked in 140 characters, and how meaningful of an answer could be delivered in return. But as Biz Stone, cofounder of Twitter, asserts, “Constraint inspires creativity.”

Do university presidents have any business being on Twitter? Removing ego from the equation entirely, would tweeters -- especially students -- have enough of a vested interest in higher education in the state of Nebraska that they’d actually pose questions?

We mulled over all of these things. We couldn’t deny social media’s potential to personalize the presidential role, open up lines of communication, promote leadership transparency and meet stakeholders where they’re at. We recognized the importance of fielding questions and fueling conversation.

So at the start of the 2015-16 academic year, I embarked on Nebraska Talks: A Digital Listening Tour. Over the course of two and a half weeks, and with the support of NU campuses and the local news media (which announced the launch of the tour while select reporters encouraged participation through their own tweets), the Twitter-based tour reached more than 150,000 stakeholders: current and prospective students, faculty and staff members, educators, business and civic leaders, policy makers, alumni and donors.

My Twitter follower numbers saw a healthy spike. But more important, engagement soared.

Questions and conversations -- threaded with #PrezUnplugged -- spanned access and affordability, global education, outreach to first-generation students, the recruitment of out-of-state and international students, the production of more graduates to meet Nebraska’s workforce needs, and the need to increase lifelong learning and alumni engagement, among others.

Outside of the questions, we saw a steady stream of what can only be classed as “affirmation” tweets. People -- some within the university or the state of Nebraska, others completely unaffiliated -- took to Twitter to say how refreshing it was to see a university president using social media as a listening tool and a way to drive engagement and dialogue.

I share this not to pat my communications team on the back. Rather, I share it to challenge my peers to rethink -- and even embrace -- social media as an opportunity to connect with stakeholders in real time, to listen and engage on real topics, and to be accessible. For new and established presidents alike, Twitter is an underused tool for gathering information, understanding the evolving educational landscape, and hearing and recognizing the needs of key audiences.

For me, it’s become a way to continually hear from stakeholders about how we can work together to shape a stronger future and position the University of Nebraska as a leader in higher education. The university has four campuses, with a one- to two-hour drive in between them, so Twitter is also a way to keep a finger on the pulse of multiple campuses and be accessible to faculty, staff and students in an ongoing way.

Twitter can help establish meaningful connections and build trust among key audiences. In my experience, the platform can even facilitate off-line, more traditional relationships. Based on the thoughtfulness, creativity and relevance of the Twitter listening tour questions that came in, I selected two Nebraskans -- one a junior at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the other the president of the Nebraska Educational Technology Association -- to continue conversations with me in person.

Twitter is a prime space for sharing university success narratives and engaging a wide range of people in them. And if approached strategically, it’s also an excellent forum for commenting on trends, highlighting the varied expertise the university can provide and articulating institutional messages and presidential passion points. Early childhood and youth education, for example, is very important to me, since I began my career as a high school teacher and principal. Twitter has opened new doors to talk about the University of Nebraska’s world-class work in that space.

But Twitter is not for the weary. It’s a demanding platform that requires time and cultivation. The listening never stops, and patience is key, as success cannot be measured overnight or simply in quantitative terms. Twitter’s potential expands beyond numbers of followers or the volume of posts or retweets -- it can be a powerful driver for long-term goals such as relationship and reputation building.

Even after a year in my role as president of the University of Nebraska, my listening tour is, in a way, just beginning. To sum up this lesson in 140 characters or less: “Listening has made me a better leader, and social media has allowed me to lend an ear to more people. #PrezUnplugged.”

Hank Bounds is the president of the University of Nebraska.

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Public university presidents seeing big gains in bonuses, other perks

New study on compensation for leaders of state colleges and universities finds costs for bonuses and other expensive benefits are growing.

Many community college presidencies are in upheaval

A spate of resignations and terminations among community college presidents provokes worries about a shortage of qualified candidates to fill these positions.

A college must focus on its fundamental purpose, not momentary metrics (essay)

The resignation of Simon Newman from the presidency of Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland ends a short but sad chapter in the history of that venerable school. I was interested in Newman's presidency before his controversial retention plan hit the national news because I had been offered the presidency of the university a year earlier, in February 2014. When I declined the offer, the sitting president, Thomas H. Powell, remained in office while the board conducted another search, which led to the hiring of Newman. When he was hired, I read his profile and was surprised.

Presidential searches are rigorous. A candidate spends several days interacting with various campus constituencies. In the end, the board decides whom they will hire, but they observe those interactions closely to see how the candidates handle diverse groups and challenges. At the same time, the candidates have the opportunity to learn about the campus and the board members to whom they will report.

While these events are exhausting, they are illuminating. I enjoyed my time interacting with the Mount St. Mary’s community. They asked good questions and demanded substantive answers. What came through clearly in our conversations was that they knew who they were. They knew their purpose and identity as a Catholic liberal arts school. The entire community embraced the vernacular of their tradition and spoke fluidly about education as an opportunity for transformation and the cultivation of a life of virtue. They understood the importance of personal development characterized by humility, compassion and the respect for others that is endemic to the best of both liberal education and the Catholic tradition. I was eager to see them do well, and from what I had learned about them, I expected they would.

It wasn’t just the faculty members and students who had embraced this mission; the board members with whom I interacted did as well. When they hired a president with no background in higher education or the liberal arts, I was curious but trusted that they found what they were looking for in Newman.

As it turns out, the worst of what can happen with such a hire has come to pass. Newman’s reference to students as little bunnies that needed to be drowned or have a Glock put to their heads drew national attention. His language was exacerbated by his decision to fire dissenting members of the faculty and administration. But there is a deeper, underlying problem in the hiring of people like Newman to run institutions of higher education and liberal learning.

Mr. Newman’s off-color remarks were in reference to student retention numbers. He wanted to improve the university’s metrics by convincing students who were unlikely to persist there to leave before they would count in the institution’s retention report. If a college or university’s retention statistics improve, the thinking goes, its rankings might also improve. A better ranking might attract more students.

Newman’s approach to managing an institution whose purpose is to transform lives by building confidence, expanding imaginations and developing character is indicative of a disturbing trend in higher education. The attempt to transfer yardsticks devised in the business community to educational institutions is doomed to fail. Newman’s colorful language may have accelerated his demise, but his attempt to boost retention numbers by prioritizing rankings over the substantive mission of the institution was bad business. By reducing students to statistics, the purpose of the institution’s existence was lost.

I know of no leader in higher education who does not understand and appreciate the need for accountability. We all recognize the economic challenges of higher education. And we are searching for ways to reduce costs and maximize revenues. But those goals are the by-products of the overarching goods to which we aspire. We exist to educate human beings. This process, and the outcomes we produce, cannot be reduced to metrics relating to student wages two years after graduation. It is not that metrics are irrelevant, but we must find the right ones and use them in their proper place. They cannot supplant the reason we exist.

Business models that make achieving certain numbers the top priority fail to understand that students are complex beings who develop at different times along different trajectories. They respond to different teachers for different reasons and sometimes suddenly discover a new interest, a new passion and new abilities that transform their lives.

Many successful people would never have made it to their college graduation if they were subject to a policy that cast off the 25 students most likely not to persist after a couple of weeks of school. One first-year student I know quite well felt so out of place he dropped a handwritten note in his dean’s office on a Friday afternoon after the second week of classes saying that he was withdrawing from the institution. He enjoyed the comfort of his family living room that evening. The next morning, his father roused him and told him to make sure he had a job by Monday morning. The young man called a friend to ask for a job, and his friend told him to get back to college.

Early Monday morning, the student walked sheepishly through the door of the dean’s office. The office assistant to whom he had handed the note smiled and handed it back to him. “This has happened before,” she said. “Dean Johnson would like to speak with you.” The student nervously entered the dean’s office. Having read up on the student, the dean surprised him by asking about the sport of Irish football, which the student played throughout high school. After hearing the student describe the sport, the dean said that he would love to see a team on campus.

If Dean Johnson had wanted to improve his retention numbers, I -- the student in this story -- would have left school after my second week. Instead, he welcomed me and my Bronx-raised, Irish Catholic world into the world of an exemplary liberal arts college where I was inspired to study, learn and explore. He exposed me to faculty members who were so bright and exuded such integrity that I’ve spent my life trying to live up to their example. Because I was his student and not his customer -- or client,  bottom line or whatever hard-nosed word we are supposed to use to define students -- he opened a door and pulled me through to a life that I could never have imagined or accomplished without his help and encouragement.

And that is what all of us who lead colleges and universities need to do. We need unshutter windows and open doors, not close them. We need to help people walk through those doorways, not stand in their way. We need to tear down walls, not build them. We need to let in air and light and hope.

Seamus Carey is president of Transylvania University.

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