2 Nontraditional Presidents Speak Out: 'We Bring With Us a Healthy Impatience'

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

February 26, 2012

I didn't plan to be the president of a small liberal-arts college in Vermont. I didn't expect to fall in love when I drove up the hill to Marlboro College to meet the members of this intellectual and creative community as the snow drifted down over the white-clapboard buildings. Now in my eighth year, immersed in the intensity of sustaining the college with my colleagues, I want to reflect on the experience of leading an academic institution having not professionally grown up in one. I am one of some 13 percent of college and university presidents who come from "outside" the academy—a small percentage, but a growing number.

The Council of Independent Colleges recently released a study revealing that only 30 percent of chief academic officers aspire to the presidency. Having seen the constant problem solving, continual fund raising, and variety of duties that compete for a president's time and attention, deans and provosts are choosing to stay put or return to the classroom. By necessity, then, an increasing number of "nontraditional" leaders may be a trend. After all, most trustees come from outside the academy; they may look for a leader who easily migrates and mediates between the larger environment and the world of higher education.

What perspectives and skills do we bring with us? Most of us have not been a faculty member, dean, or provost before being appointed to our posts, so we do have unique challenges. I believe that no one would even interview for the nonstop responsibilities of a college president without being attracted to the mission of educating the next generation of young people or providing learning experiences for older students.

Some of us worked in arenas where we tapped the resources of colleges and universities. If from government or the nonprofit sector, we called on their faculty for research or to consult on policies. We invited artists to offer their creative perspectives on community development, programs for youth, or interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving. If from the private sector, we might have supported research or helped to create and finance a study center of mutual interest.

If we are hired for a college presidency, we most likely have run other organizations or businesses. We understand administration. Budgets are not daunting, and deficits are problems to be solved. We know that fund raising is a necessity for a cause that is a public good—one where the price cannot cover the true cost. We understand that colleges and universities have, as the economist William J. Baumol said, "the cost disease." They are labor-intensive, handcrafted enterprises, in which it is hard to make up increased costs with increased efficiencies. But because we worked in other arenas, solving real-world problems, we see this particular enterprise in perspective. As much as we work to preserve the best of what the academy offers, we are also open to innovation. We bring with us a healthy impatience: The reply to "We don't do it this way" is "Why not?"

Colleges and universities are by nature conservative places. They strive to preserve knowledge and the best of their teaching methods and traditions. Their faculty members and administrators know that not every trend is worth chasing. But at the same time, knowledge is changing, with rapid discoveries, fresh ideas, and the increasing speed with which they can be shared. The economy is less predictable and more disruptive; family incomes have declined. Cultural forces are experienced more rapidly, pressuring institutions to be more nimble.

More students and parents are questioning the cost for the value of higher education. We must give them convincing answers. Nontraditional presidents bring credibility when we testify to having hired college graduates who are able to express themselves, conduct research, think creatively and analytically, offer a global perspective, find new solutions, and work together in teams with others. The competencies we searched for as employers are those we want our graduates to acquire in their college years.

College presidents who were not trained in the academy most likely have adapted to a number of institutions and workplaces. We look for what motivates people, how to tap their talents, how to negotiate when there are disagreements. We understand that different organizations have different cultures. We take care to learn our own institution's culture, including who and what is sacred even when there are aspects of that prevailing culture that we think would benefit from change.

One of the assets and one of the challenges of a nontraditional president is maintaining the ability to see the institution in relation to the wider economic, political, and social environment: to stand outside the academic culture in order to seek conclusions and actions that keep the institution responsive and healthy.

We might have a deficit of patience. It's sometimes hard to understand why a policy change, which has been discussed at length, gets further deliberated and delayed. It is hard, if you take democratic processes seriously, to talk with each constituency, listen to many points of few, then communicate those views back again, reaching toward a solution. I miss the automatic knowledge of what to do next that I had in my other leadership positions, where I quickly could decide what information I needed, whom I needed to call, who had to be part of the decision.

However, I have found that institutions of higher education are complex systems, even if small and collegial, as Marlboro College is. Every decision affects some other aspect of the college. Curriculum, admissions, retention, library, physical plant, technology, finances, student life—all are intertwined. I constantly have to stop and ask myself: How will this change or policy or project affect all the functions of the college, the whole living system? Yet I find I have less and less tolerance for discussions that roll from one meeting to another, and one year to the next, for processes that make it hard for good ideas to surface.

Another great challenge for me is leaving the campus to fulfill my obligation to represent the college, meet with trustees and donors, and make new friends for the college. I want to sit in on classes, talk with faculty, ask students about their experiences, and go to all the lectures, exhibitions, and performances I can.

If we love learning itself and believe in our hearts, along with Thomas Jefferson, that "an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people," then nontraditional presidents come with deep respect for the members of the faculty and, like our academic peers, pledge to uphold teaching and learning.

To talk with a faculty member about her or his latest research or class, to hear the student conversations spill out of the classroom into the dining hall, to applaud the courageous performances, see graduates invent new jobs: These are moments that should inspire every college president, regardless of background. I know that is true for me.

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Ellen McCulloch-Lovell is president of Marlboro College. Among her earlier positions were executive director of the Vermont Arts Council and chief of staff for Senator Patrick Leahy.