Counterpoint to Presidential Careerism

In era of million-dollar campus CEO's, small college group urges focus on "fit" between leaders' personal "call" and the mission of their institutions.
January 8, 2008

At a time when the pay of leading college presidents soars over $1 million a year and many a campus leader prefers the title "CEO," it sounds almost quaint to hear several dozen top administrators wrestle with such a fundamentally personal -- and yet outward-looking -- question as: "How might the thoughtful coupling of a president's personal sense of calling with the mission of the institution she or he serves enhance presidential leadership?"

Yet that's just what unfolded during the just-completed Presidents Institute of the Council of Independent Colleges, where presidents of some of the group's small and midsized, private liberal arts colleges -- most of whom operate in a far different financial universe from peers at places like Ohio State, Vanderbilt and Emory Universities -- contemplated the impact of "vocational thinking" on the work and lives of college presidents.

Nominally, the session was designed to introduce presidents to the council's Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program, a Lilly Foundation-sponsored project in which groups of presidents (and of potential presidents) are brought together for several days of reflection, discussion and examination of how their own personal goals align (or do not) with those of the institution they oversee (or, importantly, might oversee).

But while those leading the session did discuss how their participation in the program changed their views of their roles and how they managed their institutions, the discussion was most noteworthy for how strongly it served as a counterpoint to the usual fodder of such meetings and to the prevailing perception of what occupies the minds and agendas of college presidents in an increasingly commercial, careerist age.

That is precisely the point for William Frame, president emeritus of Augsburg College, whose own experience spawned the council's program. Frame had an iconoclastic career in which he abandoned a job as a tenured professor of political science at Kenyon College for 10 years as a banker, and when he sought to return to teaching, found that colleges had no interest in having someone with that career arc in their classrooms. So he returned to academe through finance, becoming chief financial officer at Pacific Lutheran University in the early 1990s. One of the tasks assigned to him there was to study the college's history as part of a reworking of its strategic plan, and that brought Frame in contact with Martin Luther's definition of "vocation" as a way of fulfilling a spiritual mission in everyday life, including through one's occupation. That experience, among others, Frame said, made him a candidate when Augsburg needed a new president, and chose him, in 1997, as its first non-Lutheran, non-Norwegian leader.

But Frame found that being a student of Lutheranism, as he had been at Pacific Lutheran, had not fully prepared him for being a representative of it as the Augsburg presidency required, and he admits to spending almost every night early on fretting, "Why am I here? What caused this to happen?"

"I must have nearly killed my wife" with the angst, he said at Saturday's session. But the time he spent thinking and writing and understanding how his own personal goals as president aligned with Augsburg's institutional sense of mission, he said, persuaded him that others would benefit from similar reflection. He and CIC's president, Richard Ekman, persuaded the Lilly Foundation to finance a new program aimed at providing an outlet for it.

The sponsorship by Lilly (which is known for its backing of spiritual causes) and the use of words like "calling" and "vocation" that have religious roots give the impression that the program aims only at religious institutions, but that's not so; 30 percent of participants in three years so far come from nonsectarian colleges.

But presidents of religious institutions, who might have been expected to have the strongest innate sense of their own missions and their institutions', described how much they had benefited from the chance to spend several days doing "nothing but talk with one another about big questions," as Sister Mary Ann Dillon, president of Mount Aloysius College, a Pennsylvania Roman Catholic institution, described it. Questions, Sister Mary Ann said, like: "Does the metaphor of 'presidential vocation' have empowering potential for those of us who don't tend to think in those terms? Can you develop a sense of vocation -- can you get a job and say 'Whoops' -- I need to figure out why I'm here? Can an institution's mission, its culture, be changed by the presence who is particularly charismatic?"

James T. Barry, president of Mount Marty College, a Benedictine institution in South Dakota, said the time he spent preparing for and immersed in the "sanctuary" of the vocation program with his colleagues (and their spouses) helped him "pause" to consider the question, "What is prompting us, calling us, tugging at us, to participate each day in the life of our institutions?" Upon their return to their respective campuses, Sister Mary Ann began a series of discussions with faculty members about the "saga" of Mount Aloysius and hired a vice president for mission integration; Barry started having dinners with groups of 10 employees at his house (the college has only 100 altogether) to "talk about introspective things" and established a "mission effectiveness" committee. (Proof, perhaps, that in higher education, even the lofty and ethereal require a committee to bring to fruition.)

Audience members (undoubtedly a self-selecting audience, as the session was up against others on intercollegiate athletics and international education, among other topics, plus the contract and retirement planning consultations that were offered throughout the meeting) seemed drawn to the opportunity to engage in what Sister Mary Ann characterized as "great therapy for being eaten up by your work." The panelists tried to alter the attendees' misconceptions, not only about the perceived religious tilt but also their sense that the program was geared toward people earlier in their careers.

In addition to the ways the program helped Barry and Sister Mary Ann reshape their presidencies midstream, Frame recounted that he wrestled with questions of presidential vocation at the very end of his time in office, and that it influenced his thinking about how he help set the stage for a successor and what he might do in retirement.

Ensuring an alignment or "fit" between individual goals and priorities and the institution's own mission not only helps presidents lead their colleges better in good times, but can be the sort of intangible that can help them survive when trouble hits. "Times when you find yourselves in tough spots, where the ability to navigate is difficult, are much easier for people who are inside the mission of an institution because of a personal sense of call," Sister Mary Ann said. To nods from the audience, she recalled presidents she had come across who were eminently prepared to be president and, based on their C.V.'s and qualities, seemed like sure-fire successes at their institutions.

But they failed, "not for lack of quality, or knowing 'stuff,' but simply because the two pieces" -- their own goals and the "stories" of their institutions -- at a qualitative level didn't come together."

That conclusion led her and others to suggest that it might make sense for search firms and trustees charged with finding presidents to steep themselves more than they generally do in candidates' sense of "calling" and institutions' sense of "mission."


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