Should Presidents Hug?

A president is on leave over allegations that include unwanted hugging. Should college leaders stick to handshakes?

February 19, 2018
 

Since early this month, President Ron Langrell has been on paid administrative leave from Bates Technical College, in Washington State. No one has said why he is on leave. But on Friday, The News Tribune revealed the reason.

The college and its board are investigating charges that Langrell has been intimidating and demeaning employees. One of the charges is that he engages in "unwanted hugging," and the investigation was prompted by a complaint from an employee who described being hugged by the president in November when their paths crossed in a hallway. He has acknowledged that he hugged her, and that he may have said that she "looked nice," but he has denied the employee's statement that he said she had "sexy" legs.

The interaction was caught on security cameras, and The News Tribune published video from which the above photo comes. The video suggests that the woman at one point hugged him back, but she told investigators (and colleagues to whom she spoke immediately after) that she was shaken and upset by a hug she said she did not seek, from the top official at her college. “I was shocked that, with all the news about sexual harassment, the president of the college thought it was somehow OK to hug me,” she told the investigator, according to a summary of documents by the newspaper. Those documents indicated that a number of other women employed at the college complained of unwanted hugs and what they considered inappropriate comments.

The president's lawyer told investigators that "Dr. Langrell was shocked and disheartened to learn of the recent allegations and the incidents reaching back to 2012 and 2013 … To the extent any complainant suffered due to his uninformed or unknowing actions, he accepts that his conduct must change and only wishes he was adequately advised on it sooner and given the opportunity to learn and adjust his behavior.”

Langrell and the college did not respond to requests from Inside Higher Ed for comment.

But several experts on college presidencies did. While not commenting on Langrell, they said that, as a general rule, handshakes are a better default greeting for a president to use than a hug. There are situations where a hug may be appropriate, they said, but they are the exception.

And while the Me Too movement has people more aware of gender and power dynamics than many have been in the past, these experts stressed that the issue isn't new.

"Unwelcome hugging has, of course, always been a problem," said Susan Resneck Pierce, president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, a consultant to colleges and presidents, and author of On Being Presidential: A Guide for College and University Leaders.

"I would advocate that, under normal circumstances, presidents greet their faculty and staff colleagues and their students with handshakes rather than hugs," she said.

Hugs may be appropriate, she said, at "public moments of celebration as commencement, retirement events and award ceremonies," but then "only when they have reason to believe that such hugs would be welcome." Further, she said, students, faculty members and other employees sometimes come to presidents "for advice and even comfort in moments of distress." In such situations, "a hug might be especially welcome and a handshake an inappropriate and distancing gesture." As with most things presidential, she said, "it is a matter of judgment."

But she said that the Bates Technical College case is an important reminder that "college presidents are always in positions of authority and power when it comes to all members of their campus community."

Roger Hull, president emeritus of Union College of New York, a consultant and author of Lead or Leave: A Primer for College Presidents and Board Members, said via email that he never addressed the hug issue in his writing. Sometimes he hugged faculty members and students when they hugged him in his office. But Hull said presidents need to always be aware of perceptions.

Common sense, he said, is the key rule. "My office door was always open, which meant not only that folks could approach me but also no one could ever accuse me of anything because we were not behind closed doors and conversations could be heard by my assistant," he said.

Judith S. White, president and executive director of HERS: Leadership Training for Women in Higher Education (and a regular contributor to Inside Higher Ed), said via email that she has noted differing expectations about hugging for people from different parts of the country. As a Southerner, she said, she sees in the region "high cultural expectations for hugging as a greeting." But she said she has "learned to use the two-handed handshake. Maybe one hand on the person's arm while I speak."

"Hugging is a pretty intimate physical gesture," she said. "It can be read as connecting or as controlling. The issue is whether a person with more status and power -- a president -- is attentive to how those around them respond. If they are not paying attention and just assert that they mean well, they are invading other people's space against their wishes."

White noted that she realizes that "presidents greet lots of people and have to make quick reads." But for that reason, she added that "they are better off not presuming a hug is the only way to convey a welcome."

Joey King, president of Lyon College and co-author of How to Run a College, said that context matters a lot, especially at a residential college. "At residential colleges and universities, the students are literally our wards," he said. "The younger ones, 17-18, are more child than adult. I have been in situations where they have literally cried on my shoulder. That would probably have been a bad time to insist on a handshake."

But King was quick to add that those situations are "more the exception than the rule." The bottom line, he said, is that when interactions involves presidents, there is "always a power dynamic at play."

King said that he knows "plenty of huggers, male and female, who are presidents and provosts." He said that they "tend to overdo it, in my opinion. My advice would be to stick with more professional salutatory behavior but for exceptional circumstances."

Judith Block McLaughlin, senior lecturer on education at Harvard University and education chair of the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents, which runs every summer, said "experienced presidents who teach in the seminar often warn new presidents that their behavior will be closely observed and interpreted, with meanings assigned that are far different than were intended. Hugging certainly is one current example."

She said that "we haven’t talked specifically about hugging, but it does seem like a topic worthy of conversation this summer."

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