Presidents

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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Muhlenberg will require students to select alumni or parent mentors

Muhlenberg College will require students to recruit mentors from a database of parents and alumni.

Essay on challenges confronting presidents and how they can best deal with them

In June, I gave a presentation on governance and leadership at the State University of New York Executive Leadership Academy for senior administrators exploring whether they wanted to become college presidents. I began by sharing a favorite story about being asked in 1992, just days after I became president of the University of Puget Sound, to describe what college presidents do. After I gave a brief explanation, my questioner blurted out, “How did you get stuck with that job?”

Both during and after my SUNY session, several participants worried that being a college president might mean that they would be stuck with a job that was becoming untenable.

It is the case that the majority of the problems facing presidents today are consistent with those that preoccupied me more than two decades ago: how to persuade prospective students and parents that a college education is affordable and worth the cost, how to meet enrollment goals, how to improve retention and graduation rates, how best to leverage financial aid, how to position the institution strategically and then to market it, how to achieve a balanced budget year after year, how to create a vibrant campus life, how to raise lots and lots of money, how to create an effective career services operation, how to boost faculty and staff salaries, how to foster good town-gown relationships, and how to use technology to foster teaching and learning.

Although I believe that being a college president today is even more daunting than it was in 1992, I remain convinced -- as do most of the presidents whom I now advise -- that being a college president is incredibly rewarding.

A confession: during the early years of my presidency, I only thought about governance in terms of the board. For example, my board and I sought to focus the board on the strategic rather than the tactical and on policy rather than operations. We clearly defined the board’s role and responsibilities. We were intentional about attracting trustees with expertise in areas of importance.

I of course also focused on how I might most effectively work with my faculty colleagues.

But it never occurred to me to read books on leadership to learn how to do this. So it is with no small sense of irony that I confess that in the last five years I -- who was never a student of governance or leadership -- have written two books as well as lots of articles on these topics, not to speak of consulting with colleges and the universities across the country about these same matters.

My interest has been prompted by the fact that even as the problems I dealt during the initial years of my presidency still persist, it is the case that a variety of new external forces have converged to make it more challenging than ever for presidents to find the right balance in terms of governance and to be effective leaders.

Here is some of what I have learned as a consultant:

Financial Constraints Are Creating Contentiousness. The new normal for many public and private campuses of declining enrollment, increasing tuition discounts, diminished net tuition revenue and unsustainable structural deficits has led to contentiousness. Simply put, when colleges and universities are thriving or at least stable, when faculty and staff salaries are reasonable, when support for faculty by way of sabbaticals and money for faculty development are sufficient, when facilities are in good shape, and when students are able to focus on their studies rather than worrying about whether they can afford to stay in school, morale tends to be high and relationships between the faculty, the students, the administration and the board uneventful.

When resources are constrained, those relationships often become frayed or even broken. This new contentiousness has led to increasing numbers of votes of no confidence in presidents and sometimes even boards. And although such votes do not have the power they once had, they do put a tremendous strain on the faculty-president relationship.

Elected Officials Are Intervening in Campus Matters. In unprecedented ways, elected officials are making pronouncements about and sometimes taking action in relationship to matters that previously had been the province of the board and president, such as institutional mission and levels of tuition, and in some cases that had been the province of the faculty, such as curriculum and how education is “delivered.” In recent years, in advancing a notion that a college education should be utilitarian, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and Florida Governor Rick Scott opposed state funding for majors that they believed would not lead to jobs -- Swahili and gender studies in McCrory’s case and anthropology in Scott’s case.

Some state legislatures are advocating for more online courses, which they believe will save money. The Georgia House has approved a bill to change the name of the Technical College System of George to Georgia Career College System, a move favored by Governor Nathan Deal, despite opposition from the higher education community and the Southern Accrediting Association (SACS). Some legislatures are limiting or prohibiting tuition increases.

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin has even gone so far as to declare that shared governance is a problem. Specifically, when he proposed that $300 million be removed from the University of Wisconsin’s budget (the legislature has reduced the cuts to $250 million), he recommended, “In the future, by not having the limitation of things like shared governance, [the university] might be able to make savings just by asking faculty and staff to consider teaching one more class a semester.” The Legislature has joined Scott in his attack on shared governance, removing statutes that both guarantee tenure and give the faculty a critical role in determining academic matters.

In such instances, presidents often find themselves pressured both by the faculty to take a stand on their behalf and public officials to fall into line.

Who Is Responsible for the Nature and Pace of Change on College Campuses Is Increasingly Questioned. The need for more timely and even rapid decision making has raised significant questions about the nature and pace of change and also who is responsible for deciding what that change and the pace of change should be. Perhaps the best example of this tension was manifest in the 2012 decision by the University of Virginia Board of Visitors to ask for President Teresa Sullivan’s resignation because they rejected her view that change should be incremental and achieved through collaboration in favor of their belief in “disruptive innovation.” An outcry led the board to reverse that decision, but this sort of difference is now manifest on lots of campuses where faculty members are protesting administrative or board decisions about the curriculum, which was once considered the primary responsibility of the faculty, and where presidents and boards are expressing impatience at deliberative processes that take many years and often yield no conclusion.

The public and political discourse has generally become more coarse, and this coarsening has extended to colleges and universities. Protests against speakers with whose views some group or groups do not agree are now commonplace. For example, at Haverford in 2014, a letter signed by three faculty members and fewer than 50 students protesting the choice of former chancellor of the University of California, Robert Birgeneau, as an honorary degree recipient and commencement speaker led Birgeneau to decide not to speak. A year earlier, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s speech at Brown was shut down by shouting protestors.

In these instances, presidents often find themselves caught between advocating for freedom of speech and responding to the demands of some on their campuses to take a stand for that which the protestors believe is the right thing. University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann attempted to navigate these churning waters when a large group of student protestors took command of her annual Christmas party for students at the president’s house. But when a cell phone photo -- of Gutmann joining the protestors in a “die-in” to protest the death of Missouri teenager Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer -- went viral, she earned the condemnation of her own campus security force.

Social Media Flames Controversies. As the Gutmann case demonstrates, social media has made conflicts that were once confined to a campus or at least its local community the potential subject of national and international news. The current reality is that everyone with an Internet connection can be a self-styled reporter (but without a professional editor seeking to ensure the reliability of sources, the validity of the evidence presented and even the pertinence of the story). As a result, students, faculty, staff and alumni using social media have, sometimes quite successfully, organized efforts to force the resignations of any number of college presidents or to rally people around their cause.

“Truthiness” Is in Ascendance. In my judgment, Stephen Colbert’s notion of “truthiness” may be the most important notion of all in that there is now a growing disregard for fact, for substantiated evidence and for logic. This has been evident in the negative political campaigns for not merely decades but centuries. What is new is that this sort of disregard for fact or evidence is now distorting the discourse on and about college campuses, the places that once again were intended to be the bastions of informed and civil discourse. (I have decided not to offer examples of such truthiness simply because I do not want to perpetuate such misrepresentations of fact, but there are plentiful examples.)

Why Should People Want to Be "Stuck" With a College Presidency? The benefits for talented and committed people who care about higher education far outweigh the negatives. I say this because I have learned that presidents can, in a way not possible in any other role in higher education, make a difference for their students, for their faculty and staff colleagues, for the quality of the education that their institutions offers and -- dare I say it -- for the larger society. And indeed, the most effective presidents I know take great pleasure in their role. These presidents also have the ability to help their colleagues and their boards focus not only on the strategic rather than merely the tactical, on policy rather than only operations but as importantly on the significant rather than the trivial.

But what can presidents do to temper the negative challenges?

Presidents Need the Vision Thing. In my experience, the best presidents clearly articulate and persuasively advocate for the institution’s mission. And in order to provide leadership, they also need to have the “vision thing,” articulating a direction for the institution that is based on genuinely listening to their colleagues and having learned about and respecting the history, culture, values and traditions of their institution even as they may advocate significant changes that they believe are required by their institution’s opportunities and challenges.

Presidents Need to Avoid Polarization. Presidents need to make it a priority to try to avoid polarization. When, for example, presidents are contemplating launching a planning process, whether large or small, they need to be sure that all the appropriate voices are around the table. Then, once the process has been defined, presidents need -- in writing, in speeches and even in informal conversations -- to clarify the process for those affected by it. They need particularly to identify the goals of the process, the timetable, who will be consulted, who will be responsible for which decisions, the source of resources if new funding is needed and how success or its lack will be measured. Because it is human nature that if people don’t like the outcome of a process, they will criticize the process, it is important that these discussions about process happen at the outset and not the conclusion of the process.

Presidents Need to Clarify the Meaning of Shared Governance. Because shared governance is defined and practiced differently on different campuses, I think it essential that presidents clarify that the board has ultimate responsibility for what I like to think of as the health and integrity of the institution in all its aspects, even as the faculty traditionally has primary responsibility for academic matters. On those campuses that have endorsed the American Association of University Professors 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, it is especially important that everyone understand the nuances of who is responsible for and has the authority to make which decisions.

Specifically, even as the AAUP assigns faculty “primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process,” the statement notes, “the governing board of an institution of higher education in the United States operates, with few exceptions, as the final institutional authority,” delegating operational responsibility to the president. The statement further affirms the role of the board even as it stresses the importance both of the board using that ultimate responsibility judiciously and also communicating the reasons for its decisions about matters for which the faculty traditionally has primary responsibility.

Specifically, AAUP declares, “the power of review or final decision lodged in the governing board or delegated by it to the president should be exercised adversely only in exceptional circumstances, and for reasons communicated to the faculty.” Later, AAUP specifies that board and administration should “concur with faculty judgment except in rare instances and for compelling reasons which should be stated in detail.”

Presidents Should Avoid Demonizing the Faculty to the Board and Vice Versa. Effective presidents do not demonize the faculty, and they discourage the faculty from demonizing the board. They help their trustees value the faculty’s expertise in academic matters and also help them understand academic values and culture. For example, it is important for board members to understand the value of the faculty who are independent critical thinkers and who, in the words of a former colleague of mine, Puget Sound Professor Emerita Suzanne Barnett, “think otherwise.” Good presidents also help board members understand rather than disdain the belief on the part of many faculty members that an extended and deliberate process protects integrity and preserves academic quality.

Presidents should further help their faculty colleagues understand that board members are volunteers who have accepted that they fiduciary responsibility for the institution, i.e., that they are entrusted with its well-being. It is in fact good for the campus community generally to understand that trustees are not paid for service but are expected to donate, often in significant ways, to the college or university and that many board members have their own deep ties to the institution, as alumni, parents and/or members of the local community.

Presidents Need to Inspire the Campus to Think Institutionally. At the same time, effective presidents inspire their faculty colleagues to focus on institutional health rather than faculty processes, prerogatives and interests of individuals or departments. Today, they also need to encourage the faculty to exercise its primary responsibility for academic matters in timely and collaborative ways rather than risk becoming increasingly marginalized and ignored by impatient boards. Presidents further need to require that their staff colleagues work together collaboratively, again thinking institutionally and not functionally.

Assuming the presidency doesn’t mean “going over to the dark side.” The cliché that the administration is the dark side is itself pernicious if it in fact discourages those faculty members and senior administrators with leadership abilities from seeking the presidency. To the contrary, in these challenging times, our colleges and universities, perhaps more than ever, need presidents who understand that academic values must be at the heart of all that we do.

Susan Resneck Pierce is president emerita of the University of Puget Sound and President of SRP Consulting. She is the author of Governance Reconsidered: How Boards, Presidents, Senior Administrators and Faculty Can Help Their Institutions Thrive (Jossey-Bass, 2014) and On Being Presidential (Jossey-Bass, 2011).

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How (and how not to) redecorate the president's house (essay)

A recent scandal about the renovation of a presidential residence fits into a long-standing pattern. Looking back just a decade or so suggests that a lot of presidents seem unable to avoid the renovation blues. In the hope of breaking the chain, here are some rules to consider.

Rule #1: Don’t call the place where you live a mansion. Call it a house. Or maybe a residence (but don’t call it a “pad” or the kids will rate you even more of a fossil than they do now).

Rule #2: If you think renovations or redecorating are needed, don’t make the decision yourself. Formally ask someone (in an email on your university account) to assess the status of the residence for entertaining. Then have them deliver their report to the Board of Trustees. Take it to the trustees even if renovations are to be paid from donor accounts that would normally only need to be approved by a foundation board or similar.

Read this sentence slowly: you need to avoid even the appearance of appearing to avoid having the issue appear in public.

And remember, the source of funds doesn’t matter when the issue is principle. From the perspective of propriety, monies from private donors are no different from those from public sources or from tuition (look up the word “fungible” in the dictionary).

Rule #3: Have the report handed out during the board session so you get it the same time as others. You won’t have to pretend to look surprised if you really are.

Rule #4: If the decision is made to go ahead and develop a renovation plan, publicly state that you want the design and furnishings to be merely pleasant and functional; you wish to avoid elegant. For example, say that you want the aesthetics to slot in between a Holiday Inn and a Something by Hilton (but not an actual Hilton).

Rule #5: Do not allow any renovations of the private area except for basic maintenance (plumbing, electrical). An exception might be made if you plan to entertain in your bedroom, but I wouldn’t recommend that for other reasons. If you want the area repainted, pay for it yourself.

Rule #6: Specify that the project’s interior designer should report through a CPA -- preferably one who still wears a green eyeshade and thinks cell phones are frivolous.

Rule #7: Use scenarios as a consciousness-raising tool. Imagine you’re sitting at dinner with the parents of one of your students. The husband explains that he’s been laid off as a machinist and she’s working overtime as a nurse. Tuition has driven them to the verge of bankruptcy and they’re terrified about what student loans will mean to their daughter’s life. After hearing this, you explain why you need a free in-law suite in your presidential mansion house.

Also, get someone to make a screen saver for your computer that shows average student debt as a percentage of income in the first 10 years after graduation. Memorize it.

Rule #8: Don’t hire your spouse to do anything. Maybe she’s a great event planner or he’s a wonderful chef. Too bad. Just say no. This doesn’t apply to your spouse getting a faculty position, but it probably should.

Rule #9: Living in university housing is a perk, not a license to have someone else pick up all of your daily expenses. Keep separate accounts for your own food and pay for your own carryout. If you think this latter couldn’t possibly be an issue, ask Mr. and Mrs. Netanyahu.

Rule #10: When thinking of objets that might be placed here and there to soothe the instincts of designer types, make sure they’re sturdy. Look at each one and ask yourself, would this survive the English Department coming over for a full two-hour cocktail party? And remember, no olive jars unless they’re from Costco.

Rule #11: Some board members and/or their spouses will probably pressure you to do what’s right for the world of aesthetics -- “It’s public space! It’s art!” To steel yourself against these arguments, get a framed print of Grant Wood’s American Gothic and put it in your office (pay for it yourself). Whenever you’re tempted to splurge, go over to the painting, look those people in the eye and ask yourself: What would they do?

If you really want art, buy it yourself. You can afford it.

Rule #12: Always repeat the mantra of the three Rs to yourself: Rationalization is the Road to Ruin. Yeah, you work hard from dawn to dusk. But so do a lot of other people for far less money. Spend a day shadowing an adjunct, or a university cop, or a student counselor, or an untenured faculty member, then think how much more important your contribution really is.

Also in the rationalization category is the idea that you need to look rich to get the rich to give you money. This warped logic is how people justify the $1,000 suit or the inlaid ivory furniture. The “you have to impress the donors with your elegance” concept isn’t fact, it’s just an extreme form of self-serving rationalization.

Rule #13: Remember that you're not as important as you think you are. If you disappear tomorrow, the place will maybe stumble for a few weeks, but it'll be fine. There’s no example of a university falling apart just because a president left.

And don’t make your lifestyle standard the same as a corporate CEO's, even if you’ve got a bunch of those on your board.

If a line of CEOs started jumping off a cliff, would you do it, too?

Rule #14: Remember that hubris and an edifice complex go together more often than not.

A recent case worthy of attention is that of Turkish President Recep Erdogan, who started in politics preaching equality and humility but who recently built himself a $650 million or so palace on the simple theory that “I’m worth it.” People in Turkey now refer to him as “the palace.” For someone who looked like he was going to be a major figure in history, Erdogan has made a quick trip from respect to ridicule.

Rule #15: Stop to reflect about your own role in history.

Yes, it’s true that the total compensation of large company CEOs is on the order of about 30 to 200 times what the average worker in their business makes. And it’s also true that your job is likely even more demanding -- not only because the size and complexity is comparable but also because CEOs don’t have to entertain at their home every night. Finally, the public nature of your position and the fact that you don’t really control your most important employees (darn faculty!) means your continued employment is at much higher risk.

But universities aren’t about making money, they’re about enlightening individual lives, creating better people whose work and lives will in turn benefit all of society.

Your role isn’t to follow others. On the contrary, you should consistently strive to set a standard.

When you look at it from this perspective, three or four times the total compensation (vs. average faculty) is quite enough and living in merely pleasant surroundings should bring satisfaction.

Garrison Walters is a retired higher education bureaucrat. His most recent publication is a novel, Killing Justice.

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Bergen Community College faculty and president in conflict over many issues

Faculty at Bergen Community College vote no confidence in president, citing loss of key meetings, changes in planned tenure rules and a disputed interpretation of a "Game of Thrones" quote.

After months of controversy, a $90,000 bonus for Rutgers's president

After months of controversy, a reward for the president of Rutgers -- which he is donating back to the university.

Minority faculty at University of Pennsylvania question president's commitment to diversity

Senior Africana studies professors at Penn pledge to skip president's dinner, saying diversity push at Penn is more talk than action.

Appeals court: HR administrator's controversial op-ed not protected speech

Appeals court says University of Toledo had right to fire human resources director for op-ed questioning legitimacy of gay rights.

Essay on leading community colleges during times of transition

Institutions are making needed changes to how they operate. Leadership also needs to evolve in the sector, writes Stewart E. Sutin.

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