Leadership & Governance

Listening to Today's Students, Not Pandering

James A. Troha, president of Juniata College

April 15, 2016

Produced by Julia Schmalz and Carmen Mendoza


James A. Troha, president of Juniata College, discusses how he draws on his background in student affairs to meet students "where they are" about their college experience, and to improve diversity on the Pennsylvania campus. Building relationships is at the core of presidential fund raising, too, he says.


LEE GARDNER: I'm here today with James A. Troha, who's president of Juniata College, and has a somewhat unusual background for a college president, although that's becoming less the case. He was formerly executive vice president for institutional advancement and university relations at Heidelberg University. And before that he was vice president of student affairs. Welcome.

JIM TROHA: Thank you. It's good to be here.

LEE GARDNER: I wanted to ask first about the fact that a lot of college presidents these days seem to spend a lot of time dealing with students. And sort of trying to figure out what they want and what they need. Maybe even more so than they might have in the past.

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And I'm curious about what you bring to the role of president from your background in student affairs that might be helpful for other presidents facing similar issues.

JIM TROHA: I think, first and foremost, it's just being a good listener. I think for me, from my time of being a dean of students, it was — it's about connecting with students in a way that really signals to them that you are interested in their success as an undergraduate. And from the time I got into student affairs to the time I'm the president, I would say that's probably the best skill.

And you asked about advice or counsel that I would give anybody who's serving in this capacity or in any administrative capacity for that matter, is just being a good listener. And really meeting students where they are. And I have taken that very seriously as I have joined the Juniata community, in the summer of 2013, of just trying to understand what our students, really what do they expect of us as an institution when they choose us to enroll? And they are making a tremendous investment in us.

I think we owe it to them to try and understand why they chose us and what are they seeking out of their educational journey over their four years. And for me the only way I get to know that is to be where they are. On campus, on the quad, in the residence halls, in the dining room. And I can't get things done in the office up on the third floor where I am, and so I have to go where the students are. And I feel like that was a skill set that I learned very early in my career in student life.

LEE GARDNER: You know, I think there's a perception out there that today's students want something very different than they did, maybe even in the not-so-recent past. Campus protests have certainly brought some of those issues to the forefront. In terms of the rising generation of students, are there things that you think they're looking for that are different from their college experience? Or looking for that are different from their college leadership?

JIM TROHA: I think what I've seen emerge is probably — I mean, it's more, certainly a more consumer-oriented environment. Where they look at the experience as something like: I am here. I am paying good money to be here. And I want it, and sometimes I want it now. And it can't come quick enough sometimes or in a certain manner that they want it.

And so I think that has evolved in my time being in higher education at almost a more frenetic pace. And sometimes it's coming from parents as well because the parents, as you know, are making that investment. There are certainly students who are part of that who are paying their way.

And so when you combine those two constituencies of mom and dad and the student, who have this major investment, it's only going to get I think going to a higher level because the cost continues to rise. They want things a certain way. Their residence halls, their dining plans, the parking they receive, the education that they receive.

And it does — there is a fine line I think between trying to pander to that but also to listen intently and say, you know what? They are making an investment. We have to respond in some reasonable fashion.

And the balance of what is reasonable, I think, is what I often struggle with. As you're thinking about the number of meal plans. How the meal plans work. The kind of programming that is offered. The evening program that is offered on our campus. Which classes might be offered.

I mean, from the social experience to the academic experience and everything in between, the students today are looking for something that fits their particular needs at this particular moment in time in their lives. And that's hard with a lot of choices. If students don't get what they want or need, they are talking with their feet, and they are maybe moving on to a different institution to get it.

So I think that — I mean, it's really incumbent upon us as administrators to do a better job of making sure at the front end, when they are choosing us as an institution, when they're looking at Juniata College, making sure that their experience when they get there matches what we are telling them what that experience is going to look like. If there is a mismatch, then I think they're likely to disappear from our campus.

LEE GARDNER: Right. Well, it seems like the role of university president these days, more than ever, involves managing expectations along those lines.

JIM TROHA: Absolutely. And I think, there's a good part — obviously what I do is fund raising. But I think an even more important part is about being a visible presence on the recruitment side of things and trying to talk to parents or students about what the Juniata experience is all about. And for us, as a college of 1,600 students, it's primarily around trying to deliver a really personalized and flexible educational experience.

LEE GARDNER: You mention the size of the institution, which is relatively small and a commensurate faculty. I'm curious: I know that you, like a lot of college presidents these days, are probably thinking a lot about diversity. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you try to manage or improve diversity when you only have so many students coming in the door each fall. And you only have so many faculty or staff hires each year.

JIM TROHA: I think for us at Juniata, I think the greater challenge has been around how are we diversifying our faculty and staff. Our student body has diversified at a much quicker pace than our faculty and staff has. And I know that's the case with a lot of smaller, more rural institutions like Juniata is.

And so I find myself really, as we have open positions of how we — where we search, how we search, and making sure that we're sensitive to trying to bring in a more diverse candidate. And it isn't all about ethnicity. I mean it is about from the different types of institutions, different parts of the country. And trying to deliver that experience for the more diverse student body that we've been able to attract.

If you were to look at Juniata 20 years ago and the Juniata today, it is far more diverse. Not just from a minority, ethnic-minority standpoint, but from international students. And religious diversity, economic diversity.

And how do we keep up with that as an institution? And structurally, how do we staff that diversity? How do we talk about it in our classrooms, in our campus? What kind of programs are we offering? All those types of things are issues that are right here for us today.

I mean, they are — it's a big part of what we have been involved in. And obviously with what's happening across the country with the racial tensions from last fall at Missouri, starting at Missouri. You know, we're having these conversations at the Juniata campus as well about: How do we meet our students where they are? How are we trying to be a more inclusive and open community to the students who choose us?

LEE GARDNER: I also wanted to touch on your experience in advancement. I'm wondering if you have any lessons that you've brought along from that experience that might be useful to some of your peers who are maybe taking over a presidency for the first time and facing the prospect of dealing with drumming up gifts.

JIM TROHA: Yeah. I mean, a big part of what we do obviously is trying to raise money that would either increase our endowment or better operating budgets. Because at the end of the day, the dollars that we raise as college presidents go to support the efforts of the students. Whether it's in the form of scholarships, or the buildings, or additional staff. All the dollars that we raise go into the infrastructure that supports the students' journey, those students who choose us.

But my counsel would be that, and I look back at my student-life work, my enrollment work, my work in development, and now my work as a college president. There is one word that is a constant in all that, and that is relationships. That, whether it's dollars, or whether it's prospective students, or whether it's trying to deal with student-life issues as their dean. For me, my entire career, it's been about relationships.

Trying to develop relationships that allow the work that we do as college administrators to work. And when you have a relationship with a student, with a parent, with a faculty member, with a donor, you usually have a better payoff. If there is no relationship there, it's hard to make progress.

And those relationships develop because you spend time with people, because you listen to people. You care about where they are. And that goes back to where we started this, about meeting the students where they are.

And for me it's about getting out of the office and getting onto campus and getting in the dining hall, the residence halls. And just trying to develop a relationship with those students.

And for me it's the same thing relative to trying to raise money. It's about developing relationships with our donors that they want to give. They're inspired to give. They're compelled by what we are doing as an institution.

And people aren't going to give if there is no relationship, either with the president or the development VP or with the college in general. That relationship has to existence in order to get results.

LEE GARDNER: Thank you very much.

JIM TROHA: You're welcome.