How a President Can Rescue, or Ruin, a College's Reputation

April 29, 2013

In their 1974 classic, Leadership and Ambiguity: The American College President, Michael D. Cohen and James G. March assert, "The status of a president is apparently less dependent on the quality of his tenure as president than it is on the quality of his school. Colleges make presidents, not the reverse."

I want to argue the opposite: The reputation of an institution is, in part, a reflection of the reputation of its president. Presidential actions have an impact on how colleges are perceived.

During the first 15 years of his presidency at Pennsylvania State University, Graham Spanier was sought after as a speaker, served on numerous boards, received prestigious awards, and was known and liked throughout the higher-education community and beyond. As his reputation grew, so did Penn State's. Then, in 2011, after 16 years as president, it was reported that Spanier had for many years covered up incidents of child abuse by a university employee. After an investigation, Spanier, who has denied the charges, was indicted, and the university's reputation was seriously damaged.

Repairing Penn State's image will take time. College reputations, for better or worse, linger for years, often trailing the current state of the institution. A good reputation influences the college's ability to attract outstanding faculty and administrators, secure gifts, gain federal funds, and attract positive media coverage; a poor one negates all those advantages.

Sullied institutional reputations can be rebuilt. In 2000, Eckerd College, in Florida, was the subject of negative press because the president and chief financial officer had made unauthorized financial transfers from the endowment in order to support college projects. The president retired, the financial officer resigned, and one bond-rating agency considered downgrading Eckerd's rating to junk-bond status. But the Board of Trustees brought in a respected retired president for an interim period who helped restore campus stability, and in 2001 the board hired a president who has re-established the credibility and reputation of the college.

Such institutional reputations are based on many factors, among them a calm climate, faculty scholarship and professional involvement, student success and postgraduate placements, and alumni and trustee prominence. Nobel Prizes, MacArthur Fellows, professors called to top government positions, high rankings, large endowments, significant government grants and contracts, and other distinctions also help to build an institution's reputation.

That all takes effort and time, but a strong reputation can be crippled in one news cycle. That is why presidents have an important leadership role to play in assuring the continuation of a positive reputation—and in overcoming a damaged one.

It has been aptly said that presidents do not simply represent their institutions, they embody them. Indeed, higher-education historians often refer to historical periods at colleges and universities as presidential eras.

There are many initiatives a president can take that will help to build an institution's reputation, including:

  • Publishing articles in higher-education publications.
  • Joining regional and national higher-education boards.
  • Serving on panels and making presentations at conferences.
  • Becoming active and visible in the community.
  • Making judicious comments to the news media on higher-education issues.
  • Building pride in the institution's accomplishments among trustees, alumni, faculty, students, and community.
  • Assembling an engaged board of trustees.
  • Becoming media-savvy.
  • Inviting well-known scholars to campus so that they can become ambassadors for the college.

"How am I supposed to work these habits into my crazy schedule, already disrupted by unexpected conflicts and crises?" may be the response of many presidents. The presidency is an all-consuming position, with limited time for family, friends, and personal activities. Some presidents have young children at home; others are caring for elderly parents. A number of presidents teach, although that activity does little to enhance the institution's reputation.

Despite the challenges, there is a big payoff for the institution when the president becomes a respected and visible force in higher education. Presidents who make the time and exercise the discipline to write and speak on higher-education issues help to build the reputation of their institutions. That goal should be written into a president's job description.

The assertion by Cohen and March that colleges make presidents, not the reverse, may be true at top-ranked colleges, but other institutions—the vast majority—can benefit from the positive image and the visibility of their presidents. And, surely, protecting and improving the reputation of the institution is worth any president's time and talent.

Rita Bornstein is president emerita of Rollins College, where she holds the George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Chair of Philanthropy and Leadership Development.