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Why Become a College President?

Some one once asked me what a president does all day. They thought, like so many others, that presidents held out tin cups traveling the world searching for alumni with money.

I replied that presidents are better thought of as King Solomon determining how to divide the baby. They behave most days as nineteenth century political ward bosses rationing funds and dispensing favors while working to manage an enterprise run by faculty operating like a medieval craft guild. A large, unwieldy, archaic volunteer governing board further confuses their job.

There was a thoughtful interlude between the question and the answer. Then – I hope graciously – I accepted their quite sincere condolences with good humor.

In fact, for those attracted to the work it’s a pretty unique job. Presidents meet interesting people, promote big ideas, and affect the lives of countless students. They watch as students and families live dreams that are limited only by their imagination. College remains that one special place where dreams still matter.

The best presidents see themselves as holding title to a tradition as well as a job. These presidents recognize that the job is a limited term engagement. Every day that they hold the office must count. Some preside. Others focus on the issues that interest them. A few “duck and cover.” The strongest and most respected ground their actions in strategy devoid of personal interests and passions. For these individuals, the price is always worth the costs paid to lead.

There is a somewhat tired debate, of course, about whether higher education is a calling or a business. The answer is that the two positions must be respected and are not mutually exclusive. A good education is built upon intellectual property.

Yet colleges also run with revenue derived by providing excellent faculty, a differentiated and respected academic program, and good facilities. Families – consumers in the business world – pay most of the bill.

If the job of being a president is fulfilling, why then do presidencies typically last only seven years on average?

First, the job requires stamina. A president remains on call each hour of every day. A president can’t phone it in. Duties on campus are extensive, especially if you value time with the students, enjoy interaction with the faculty, and commit to management. While presidents complain to one another about students and faculty, most enjoy their time together. What can take the most time is managing a team, especially an inherited one, since administrators are most inclined to inertia and vigorously resist change.

Their motto is: “We’ve never done it this way before.” The battles loom large because the turf is so small.

Second, the duties and responsibilities spread across shared governance vary greatly among colleges and universities. There is seldom a perfect moment when administrators, faculty, and trustees sing from the same choir book, even if they maintain a public face pretending to do so. There is a healthy tension among these groups, with those feeling threatened complaining of a lack of “transparency” over issues that may be decades old.

The president is often caught in the middle as the facilitator and intermediary. It can be exhausting and even debilitating when the intrigue becomes more important than the vision. Once the institution loses its focus, the effect can last for years regardless of the quality of the strategy.

It’s something like the political stalemate in Congress right now. John Boehner was right to complain about his critics denouncing plans that they had not read. A president has the responsibility to manage the college. Others can criticize at little cost to themselves. Presidents make mistakes. And sometimes, they are courageous when making unpopular decisions. It comes with the territory but tolerating the outcry requires a thick skin.

Finally, higher education is in crisis. Simply put, the numbers no longer work. Consumers are voting with their feet as tuition sticker prices fail to moderate quickly enough. For most institutions, demographics work against established practices. The ability to cut costs, identify new revenue streams, and create common efficiencies is limited. Technology, for profit tuition pricing, and a lingering deep recession are creating pent up internal demands that cannot be adequately met. The outlook for most mid-market colleges and universities is dismal.

So, why take the job?

American colleges and universities are one of the last unique institutions left in global society. They stand distinct from national state university systems elsewhere. American higher education is respected and emulated across the globe. While the model no longer works, the principles underlying them still apply.

If change is coming, an incoming president is well positioned to have an impact. The job remains a good one for those with the courage to lead. Serving with the faculty is a noble and enriching experience. Boards of trustees will change, adapt or lose influence. As America moves from an industrial work rhythm to new educational models, this evolution will occur on college campuses.

If you take the job or encourage others to do so, remember that it is an honor to hold it. Do what your gut tells you is right. After you’ve left, think about it as retiring from the army. You’ll have the satisfaction and contentment of knowing that you acted honorably in the service of something greater than your best ambitions.

You might make a difference.

About Brian C. Mitchell

Brian C. Mitchell is the retired president of Bucknell University and former president of Washington & Jefferson College. He is president of Brian Mitchell Associates and director of the Edvance Foundation. Follow Brian on Twitter @briancmitchell5

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This entry was posted on December 16, 2013 by in faculty.
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