Leadership & Governance

A Lonesome Minefield: College Presidents Discuss the Demands of the Job

March 12, 2012

The college presidency is an often-lonely place, where the only certainty is a pending ambush, a panel of academic leaders said here Monday.

During a panel discussion at the American Council on Education's 94th annual meeting, four college presidents described with some exhaustion the perils of a position that invites a constant spotlight. With one slip of the tongue, speaking to a lawmaker or even a parent at Wal-Mart, a president can be thrust into damage-control mode, said Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System.

"As a president, you can't think out loud," she said. "You have to be very careful with what you say and what you do. You are an official. You have no private life."

The conference session, titled "Presidential Leadership—Lessons Learned," was moderated by Lawrence S. Bacow, former president of Tufts University. Joining him and Ms. McCallin on the dais were Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, and Diana S. Natalicio, president of the University of Texas at El Paso.

In a recurring theme, the presidents described the "high-wire act" of college leadership as one that forces presidents to serve as cheerleaders, lobbyists, and even grief counselors. While they lead very different institutions, each of the presidents soberly answered that their "worst day" on the job was dealing with the death of a student. Beyond the "profound sadness," Ms. Natalicio said, there are often accompanying legal questions and demands that presidents try to make some sense of tragedy.

"Those days are just nightmares," said Ms. Natalicio, who has led the El Paso campus for 24 years.

Ms. McCallin's memories of dealing with tragedy were particularly vivid. In 2006 she received word that Mike Davis, then-president of Pueblo Community College, had disappeared while flying a private airplane in southwest Colorado. Ms. McCallin was on the phone with police officials when they told Mr. Davis's wife that her husband had perished.

"It's a pastoral element" of the job, she told an eerily quiet audience. "Nothing would prepare you for that."

There are elements of the job, however, that presidents can prepare for, Mr. Ayers said. Among them is the reality that presidents sometimes have to fire people, and it does not do any good to string that process along.

"If you have a hard personnel decision to make, make it early," he said. "It's an easier story for the person who is moving on" to say "we just had different agendas."

In other strategic advice, Mr. Bacow cautioned against coming into a presidency and immediately laying out a grand vision. Counterintuitively, he said, it is the worst thing a president can do.

"You put a big bulls-eye on your back if you do that," he said.

Rather than trumpet an early agenda, a new president might benefit from asking faculty and staff how they would change a college if they had "three wishes," Mr. Bacow added. Doing so not only helps a president to learn from those who have been at the institution longest, but also provides the president with some safe political distance from ideas he can rightly say came from someone else, Mr. Bacow said.

"It was a safe way to float trial balloons without having to own things," he said of the shrewd approach.

While campus-level politics present their own challenges, one of the hardest things about being a president is accepting that it is a job without end, Mr. Ayers said. Trained as a historian, Mr. Ayers spoke with some nostalgia for the closure of finishing a book and sending it off to a publisher. The presidency offers no such sense of completion.

"You have the perpetual illusion of 'I could get caught up,'" he said.

Ms. Natalicio agreed that the duties of a president are endless, and the growing accountability demands from lawmakers have only added to the deluge of responsibilities and the "urgency" of the job. The notion of a president "ambling around campus" with a tweed jacket and a pipe could not be more antiquated, she said. Presidents are far more likely to be flying across the country raising money than reveling in the charms of a college.

"The quality of life of presidents has declined," Ms. Natalicio said. "Something's got to give."

But the pay is not too bad. Public college presidents earned a median total compensation of $375,442 in 2009-10, according to The Chronicle's most recent analysis. Private college leaders earned a median of $385,909 in 2009.