Cassoulet and Leadership

A trip to the movie theater and an offhanded comment from an employee prompt Karen Gross to reflect on the similarities between cooking and presiding over a college.

September 15, 2009

Before I became a college president, I enjoyed cooking for family and friends. Many of most well-liked recipes were reflective of holidays – brisket, sweet potato casserole, turkey stuffing. I also made a quality spaghetti sauce and my lasagna wasn’t too shabby either. Fruit soup was another specialty, and I had a gift for salads of any sort. Desserts were not my forte but I made pretty tasty brownies and chocolate chip cookies.

I always made extras”of everything, and people left our home with containers filled with the evening’s leftovers. I am a big believer that breaking bread with others creates important bonds. With leftovers, the warmth of a wonderful evening carries into the next day.

Now that I am president of Southern Vermont College, we entertain in our home all the time but my cooking for guests has come to a virtual standstill. With a full schedule, I barely get home in time for the events themselves. Then, there is the wee problem of food shopping – I rarely have time to go to the supermarket or smaller specialty shops (something I love to do). As much as I would like to cook for college guests, I am missing the most important ingredient: time.

I recently saw the movie “Julie and Julia” (starring Meryl Streep as a wonderful Julia Child). I smiled and laughed and cried. There was the sensuality of the cooking process and the gracious dinners for friends and associates that followed a day of cooking. There was competitive zeal of Julia chopping onions and Julie’s failed boeuf Bourguignon. While Julia was saddened by her lack of children, I saw her cooking as evidence of her creativity and her book and television show as her link to a new generation. Julie’s struggles with her mother – who did not believe in her – were played out in the kitchen as she conquered her fears: think lobsters and ducks.

The day after I saw the movie, we welcomed 50 college staff to our home. It was a lovely catered event to launch the start of the academic year. People seemed to be enjoying themselves. I gave a toast to the upcoming year and the importance of everyone there helping our students to succeed. All was proceeding swimmingly until one guest asked, with a wink in his eye, whether I had spent all day cooking since the food was so good.

Pause. It was like a stab in my heart, no doubt exacerbated by the movie. No, I had not cooked. I silently rushed through a list of what I had actually done that day instead of cooking: met with a prospective donor, greeted new SVC students and their parents, talked to the provost about both online hybrid courses and faculty development, visited our new Healthcare Simulation Laboratory, welcomed returning SVC Mountaineer athletes for the pre-season, and conferred with our new athletic director about our fall sports and the New England Collegiate Conference.

Two things followed.

First, I offered to bring the staff member who made the quip some matzo ball soup when next I made it. He seemed pleased. (He shouldn’t expect it before winter.)

Second, I reflected on the event at our home and realized that while I may not literally be cooking for guests in our home, I am still cooking. I am finding and blending ingredients; I am measuring and adding spices; I am helping create and shape an institution and those within it. At the end of the day, food cooking is all about producing something remarkably wonderful. That’s what leading a college is about too – producing something remarkable, including students who will be the leaders of tomorrow.

The recipe for that is even more complicated than Julia Child’s recipe for cassoulet, and the product is equally, if not more, delicious.


Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College.


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