You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Bars of music with colorful and playful notes

Evgeniya_Mokeeva/Istock/Getty Images Plus

Years before I thought of becoming an academic administrator, I dreamed of singing at the Metropolitan Opera. I did in fact have a reasonably good dramatic soprano voice, but in my sophomore year at Duke University, I confronted the sad truth that reasonably good was not good enough.

My voice instructor sped up my realization by beginning to undermine my confidence, questioning my ability to sing on pitch. Singing well is dependent on confidence; being told repeatedly by your mentor that you have a pitch problem assures that you will, in fact, have a pitch problem. But that lack of confidence was only part of my decision to choose another path. After all, that teacher was just one of many options. Deep inside, I knew that it was beyond pitch; it was talent.

Almost by default, I began to focus more on my academic major, English. I loved to read. The challenge of dissecting a complex Henry James novella or a cryptic Emily Dickinson poem became my focus. By my senior year, I decided to attend graduate school. Ironically, in that first year of graduate school, at Yom Kippur services, I was listening to the Kol Nidre, and this tenor was singing that haunting melody, but poorly and frankly off pitch. In a truly inappropriate reaction, I laughed out loud. It was my former teacher. He had a terrible pitch problem.

As I progressed in my administrative career, I was often asked about how I honed my skills as an administrator. What were the important leadership, education or business courses that I had taken that prepared me to become provost and executive vice president of Drake University and later president of The College of New Jersey? Except for a wonderful several weeks at the HERS Summer Institute for Women in Higher Education, I took no such courses. I did benefit from this exceptional introduction to talented women administrators and from generous and supportive mentors. 

In addition, I began to realize that I learned how to do the job from the study of academic disciplines far afield from leadership, business or education. One of the most important such disciplines was my serious study of music. I learned a lot from that study about leadership skills that I’ve been able to apply in my career and share with others who are senior administrators at colleges and universities.

The most obvious lesson from my voice instruction was how I processed and stepped beyond the disappointment of not becoming a Met diva and also overcame my teacher’s frankly cruel treatment of me as a student. In my career in higher education, there were many times when as an administrator I was convinced of a path forward, only to discover obstacles in my way. Sometimes even good plans were not successful. In both cases, I had to redirect my energies and my strategies. I had to reconceptualize a future.

In addition, I experienced many moments in my administrative career when people in positions of authority were unfair and cruel. There were times when I had supervisors who were simply incompetent. Yet whining is not a good career path. Instead, I learned resilience. Often the cruelty of those supervisors was based on the other person’s insecurity, not on any failure of mine. I refused to internalize their failures.

Other lessons were not personal but based on the specifics of the discipline of vocal instruction itself. Those include a sophisticated appreciation for the reality of performance, an understanding of the importance of ensemble and how to modulate your voice to fit that ensemble, a realization of the value of breathing well, and a love of the impact of melody on meaning.

For example, unlike many of my colleagues in higher education, I was successful at not confusing myself with my position. Perhaps it was the fact that I had teen-aged children when I became provost, but I never thought of myself as the position—rather as Barbara Gitenstein playing the role of the position. 

Sometimes the performance aspect of the role is clear, as in giving a speech; sometimes it is more nuanced, as in managing a crisis. As a leader, you must portray confidence and empathy in the midst of crisis. That awareness allowed me to maintain the humility to get things done and to be able to watch myself from the outside as I played the role. In retrospect, I could also learn how to confront similar situations better the next time around.

Another lesson: Singers rarely perform alone. There is almost always a partner or partners in the enterprise, and the singer must listen to those partners and work together to accomplish an excellent performance. In the same way, no administrator accomplishes anything by herself. As provost and president, I endorsed the notion of team leadership and found that such a philosophy was the foundation for much of my success. A leader should identify partners who have strong talents in their own disciplines but understand that their roles are to work with a team to support the larger enterprise. The leader then must give these partners support, latitude and praise as I did in one of the most important changes made during my tenure as president: the “transformation” of the curriculum.

The simplest way to describe the change was revising all courses from a three-hour credit model to a four-hour credit model. Provost Stephen Briggs was insistent that we not use this instrumentalist description. He felt strongly that focusing on the rationale for the change would be more effective. The transformation was to provide a framework for implementing a true teacher-scholar model and allow time for intense student-faculty interaction. 

I was concerned that his more nuanced description would be confusing to the public. But because we followed his advice, the faculty buy-in was overwhelming, and the student understanding quite sophisticated. I willingly and publicly gave Steve credit for this way of explaining the curricular change.

In addition, if a singer is going to sing over an orchestra, she must know how to breathe with her diaphragm in such a way that her voice carries. When I gave speeches, I often found members of the audience remark that my speaking voice was different. It was not that the volume was louder, it was that my voice carried farther. 

This attention to breath control became a way to be conscious not just of the delivery of a message but also of the message itself. I sounded and communicated differently when I delivered the annual Welcome Back Speech than when I spoke at a memorial service. It was still me, but it was a different voice for a different audience and with a different message. As with singing, I found that it can be a key advantage for administrators to tailor their communications in ways that particularly resonate with those with whom they are speaking.

Finally, a singer cannot sing well unless she really enjoys the singing, really appreciates the melody and really wants to perform it in such a way as to move an audience. Being a president or provost is similar. I am convinced that my success at The College of New Jersey, where I was president for 19 years, was because of fit. I was the right person for the institution at that moment, and it was the right place for me at that moment. I benefitted from truly enlightened and supportive trustees, and I loved and admired the students, faculty members and staff members at the institution. My greatest joy in the performance of being president there was because I really believed in the mission and purpose of the place. 

My last piece of advice to other administrators is to choose an institution with the values and goals you most support. And then work to stay in tune with its melody.

R. Barbara Gitenstein is President Emerita of The College of New Jersey and a senior Fellow and senior consultant at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Next Story

More from Advancing as an Administrator