Advice From 2 Streetwise College Presidents

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

April 20, 2015

Is it just us, or does it seem as if you can’t throw a stone at a national-association meeting these days without hitting a new, fresh-faced, first-time college or university president? No offense, of course. But combined with other recent reminders of time’s passage — the approaching end to the academic year, birthdays that are far beyond the "fun" numbers — the rapid swelling in the ranks of new presidents is both a reminder of the mortality of our generation and an exciting revelation for the future of higher education.

This much is certainly true: Our colleagues who look down upon their universities from their offices in the ivory tower are a diminishing breed. A 2012 study of college and university presidents by the American Council on Education found that the average age of presidents is 61, which means the rate of turnover will continue to rise. Moreover, at the 62 institutions in the Association of American Universities, annual turnover among presidents is already approximately 15 percent.

So as we welcome new colleagues to the table, may we offer a few words of wisdom from — dare we say it? — an elder statesman and stateswoman of higher-­education leadership?

With nearly 50 years of college presidencies between us, we have learned a variety of lessons. But perhaps the single most important lesson that we can pass on to new university presidents is the indisputable importance of building and fostering relationships.

For new university presidents, the sheer number of people with whom you will interact is mind-­boggling. We choose just a few of those key audiences to highlight.

Above all, never underestimate the importance of building a relationship with your student body. Consider yourself a student of your students. To do so, you must step outside the comfort zone of your past roles and match the students’ pace. They not only keep you in business, but also keep you in touch with the present. It will require you to recalibrate how you communicate. That may ultimately prove to be challenging, but never forget this: Your university will not be judged by its president, the beauty of its campus, or its football team — it will be judged by how seriously it has taken the education of its students and how well they perform in the world.

Another relationship in need of nurturing is with elected officials, particularly for leaders of public universities. Gone are the days when college presidents were able to hold out their hands, palms up, to their legislatures. Instead, we need to hold out our hands in partnership.

The return on investment has never been so crucial, nor the need for public funding under such strict scrutiny. You must consider public officials as partners in student learning and faculty teaching and research. Most important, you must be able to explain, in very plain words, what your university does for your state. Then, shout it from the rooftops!

Equally vital is your ability to develop and sustain real partnerships with businesses and community organizations, as well as with donors and alumni. Your university’s success must be the success of your extended community, which means you must foster integration and cooperation. That will allow you and your faculty to use research and teaching as the basis for tangible and lasting impacts that benefit the people of your state. If you build those relationships carefully, you will develop some of your most loyal supporters who can advocate clearly and forcefully for your institution.

Of course, beyond the student body, you will be hard-pressed to find a relationship more important than your relationship with the faculty. Shared governance is alive and well in the 21st century; therefore, the faculty must be an empowered partner in driving the university’s future.

Academic leadership means allowing the expertise and dedication of faculty members to advance your mission. Always encourage creative new approaches to solving the world’s most pressing issues, and remember that, as president, one of your most important jobs is to shape an environment that allows for your faculty’s success.

Early on, you may find resistance in some camps if your background does not meet a preconceived image of a traditional leader. But remember that you do not have to have personal experience in every aspect of every component of an organization to be effective: Your work is to enable the work of others.

Of course, there will be stones in the road with every assignment and challenge. Do not be afraid to admit, "I was wrong," and then change.

We would be remiss if we did not admit that those stones in the road may sometimes be closer to boulders. Avalanches, even. Years ago, when we were new presidents ourselves, things sometimes did not go as planned. That pattern continues today. Many variables that leaders are expected to manage are outside their control. This is not meant to serve as an excuse for situations’ going awry; rather, it is a fact of life that leaders must understand to remain grounded in reality.

At West Virginia University, we have had our fair share of very public challenges recently regarding student culture and behavior, including riot-­inducing celebrations and excessive alcoholism leading to destruction of property and the death of a student. Those events, however tragic, have given the university a chance to redefine its position as an institution.

University leaders learned the importance of making students accountable partners in their own higher education. Today, university leaders are working with students on grass-roots, transformational initiatives to improve the student culture, and the Greek community is working to focus more on philanthropic activities, dry events, and educational programming.

The University of Arizona faced another type of challenge in identifying and securing a strong clinical partner for its College of Medicine-­Phoenix. Eventually, working with a number of partners, the University of Arizona Health Network merged with Banner Health, a nonprofit organization, to create a redesigned, more innovative, and complex $1-billion academic-affiliation agreement that will benefit the university’s entire health-sciences enterprise.

Both of those instances could have been severe setbacks for our institutions. But the ability to adapt to the needs and realities of our environments enabled stronger relationships — within the university and with an important outside partner. In both cases, our success came from enabling the work and success of those around us.

Being a university president is perhaps one of the most challenging leadership roles, but the sources of those challenges — complexity and size — can also produce the diversity and depth of impact that have made universities so crucial to our society. Guiding a university is a privilege, and if you can successfully balance its many components, then you will find that the hard work is well worth the effort.

E. Gordon Gee is president of West Virginia University, and Ann Weaver Hart is president of the University of Arizona.