A President Reenters the Classroom. Why?

Karen Gross explains her reasons for teaching an undergraduate course beginning this week.

January 23, 2009

Note: This is first in a series of articles on teaching an undergraduate course while serving as a college president. The first class is this week.


Many college and university presidents across America occasionally teach undergraduate students within their institution. We do so for a variety of good and likely shared reasons. We want to get to know our students better. We miss the classroom. We want concrete examples of learning -- first hand experiences -- to share with donors and foundations. We want to link theory and practice so we can speak more authentically with faculty and staff about the challenges and costs of providing education to students today.

Teaching allows us to see our academic models in action and to test out the value of our educational hypotheses.

All this is true. But, in my case, several additional factors contributed to my desire to teach a course at my academic home, Southern Vermont College. These drivers inform my decision to teach, and they inform how the experience can be evaluated.

The Real Reasons:

The commissioner of our new athletic conference remarked to me last year that he adored coaching -- it is what he has enjoyed best over his career. I then asked him whether he was equally enthralled being an athletics director and now a commissioner. He paused and said wisely, “I still coach; I just coach different people. I used to coach student-athletes, then I coached coaches, and now I coach athletics directors and perhaps even presidents. Same job, different audiences and yes, I still enjoy ‘coaching.’ ”

I kept repeating that conversation to myself again and again. It made real sense. If the commissioner is right, I am teaching every day. And employing that argument, there may be no reason for me to re-enter a classroom. But, I still felt a need to teach our students (emphasis on the word our). I couldn’t quiet the interest.

Then, I mentioned to another college president the possibility of my re-entering the classroom as a president, delineating the above list of obvious reasons for teaching. She threw me a curve ball and suggested that if I were to do this (which she thought was a good idea), I should utilize my background in law in my teaching. I should, she remarked, apply the analytic method used in legal education for undergraduate students in a non-legal context. What better way to try teaching critical thinking for undergraduates, she suggested; students need problem solving skills.

Interesting idea. Important concept. Wheels turning. That was another conversation I kept in mind.

Then, the fiscal climate changed, and I, along with every other college president, started reflecting even more sharply on the costs of education and the ways in which they can be controlled. For example, after anecdotal information and then a survey, we determined that the cost of books was one expense that kept plaguing our students; their purchase often added another $600 -- $800 in expenses a semester.

And, when money was short, purchasing of books was delayed, if not altogether eliminated. That meant that students were not making purchases until well into the semester. In the meantime, they were sharing books, reading the library copies or not preparing at all.

The book situation and its ramifications troubled me. I needed to take steps to do something.

What Happened Next?

I decided to teach a seminar course of leadership and whether the gender of a leader made a difference in approaches to and effectiveness of problem solving strategies. The topic was timely, arising in ways students could see in their daily lives. Leadership issues play out in politics (Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama), business (Carly Fiorina, Bernard Madoff), health care (with doctors and nurses increasing their administrative roles) and criminal justice (Judith Kaye, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anita Hill, who is lecturing at our Four College Issues Forum with Williams College, Massachusetts College of the Liberal Arts, Bennington College and SVC). And, all of the just identified topics are reflective of areas in which we have major academic programs.

Not surprisingly, the decision to teach was the easy part. The pragmatic needs kicked in immediately -- well before the start of the semester. And they had to be balanced with the complex life I lead as a college president.

Within short order, I had to (1) determine and express in writing the goals of the course and the skill sets I wanted students to acquire (I had spent a fair amount of time on assessment in light of an upcoming regional accreditation visit and we require “goal articulation” from every professor); (2) select books in a cost-sensitive way (I actually created a Mercury Reader -- a personalized book that is remarkably economic); (3) craft the semester-long syllabus and get it posted online; and (4) focus on my past, present and future pedagogical approaches.

There were three more pieces of this adventure worth noting.

All syllabi of professors teaching new courses need to be approved by the provost. So as not to ask for or be accorded special treatment, I turned my proposed syllabus in to the provost. I am not sure he knew how to react. Paraphrasing his wife’s remarks later, she said, “What exactly was the needed level of scrutiny for a president’s syllabus?” Good question. Importantly, he did review it carefully, and his suggestions were valuable.

I had some angst over whether students would actually enroll. Was taking a course taught by the college president something that would scare off our students? Indeed, I regularly asked for and looked at the data on registered students -- much as I review data on admissions and retention, searching for trends and clues. (OK, not exactly in the same way, but you get the idea.)

And, I spent my holiday reading and preparing to teach -- I worked on the hypothetical for the first day, a group activity involving flashlights that I was keen on trying, the book passage I wanted to deconstruct. I re-read some of the assigned course materials.

The Approaching First Day

When I was a full-time professor, I often remarked to new (and returning) teachers that the first day of class was critical: it set the tone for the semester and one either captured the group or one did not. If one did, the balance of the semester was usually remarkable. And, if one did not, one spent most of the rest of the semester swimming upstream. And, even after 25 years of graduate teaching, my awareness of the crucial early tone-setting still brings on that strange excitement and apprehension before the first class.

Let’s see what happens when my first class begins this week. On all fronts, my re-entry into teaching a class of my own should be quite the experience.


Karen Gross is the president of Southern Vermont College.


Back to Top