One of higher education’s most vexing leadership challenges is the transition to a new a president. Unlike other industries, where executives are often groomed for years within an organization, university presidents typically get started with limited knowledge of the cultures and customs of the institutions they have been chosen to lead.
The University of Dayton has decided to break with that pattern, giving Eric F. Spina, the new president, a full 10 months to learn from his predecessor, Daniel J. Curran, before Mr. Spina takes over, in July. In a recent interview with The Chronicle, Dayton’s president and president-designate talked about the university’s methodical changing of the guard.
JACK STRIPLING: Well, hello. I am Jack Stripling. And I'm here with the president of the University of Dayton, Dan Curran, and the president-designate of the university, Eric Spina. And this is an interesting time to bring you guys together because you're kind of copiloting as you make this transition to a new presidency. You were named in September as president. But it's a long wait to start – 10 months – before you take office, in July.
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DANIEL J. CURRAN: Well, I have to say the initial reaction was: 10 months is a long time. But I also said to the board, if you see the right person, you should move as quickly as possible. And I think in Eric they saw the right person. So I think it's really been a blessing, really been a blessing to have the time to spend together, get to know each other. And then there's a lot of formal stuff you give people. But the informal conversations, I think, have been very positive, too.
JACK STRIPLING: What's the goal here? Are you trying to tell him a little bit about the institution?
DANIEL J. CURRAN: I think you tell him about the institution. There are many people telling him about the institution. I guess some of the insights I've gathered over the years as president – and Eric, obviously, has questions himself that only a president can answer. To have times to be in a taxi or be at a basketball game and, like, to strip down the washing – to be able to introduce people to Eric – has, I think, made it a little easier for him. And I think we share an institutional perspective.
JACK STRIPLING: Is there anything he's told you not to do?
ERIC F. SPINA: Yes. But I can't say what they are.
JACK STRIPLING: Fair enough.
DANIEL J. CURRAN: You promised not to say!
JACK STRIPLING: So you're not a stranger to higher education. You've been at Syracuse for almost 30 years. You were provost there. One of the sort of bad raps that higher ed gets is that it's not great at leadership transition, that it's not great at grooming new presidents. Talk about, maybe, why you think that is.
ERIC F. SPINA: I think too many of us think it's about us, right? And I think one of the nice things about the University of Dayton that I learned very quickly – and about the Marianists, the [university's] founding order, and about Dan – is really kind of a selfless leadership that I think is sometimes lacking. I think too many presidents, as they enter a position, are thinking about the institution in a frame that's around them rather than a frame around the institution. The University of Dayton's been around for a long time. It'll be around for a long time after me.
And I think Dan's graciousness and the trustees' graciousness in this transition has reminded me: This isn't about me. I'm picking up the mantle from someone who's done a tremendous job of leading the institution. And people are watching in the community of Dayton, at the University of Dayton, among the alumni community. And how we conduct ourselves, I think, has been and will be important. We're trying to be adults. I think we have been adults.
JACK STRIPLING: Are you succeeding there?
ERIC F. SPINA: We're trying to. But it is –
DANIEL J. CURRAN: No doubt so far.
ERIC F. SPINA: And I think it is really not making this about us. It's about trying to make sure the transition is as smooth as possible. The institution can continue to move forward.
JACK STRIPLING: So my understanding is, you're still in Syracuse. But you have visited the campus a number of times. I think you sat in on a board meeting. You might have even been involved in discussions about selection of some senior-level administrators. I can understand, from an orientation perspective, that's very valuable.
On the other hand, you want to send the message to the institution of who's in charge. So Dr. Curran, as the lame duck here, how do you send the message out about where the faculty and other stakeholders should look for leadership during this period?
DANIEL J. CURRAN: I don't think there's been any confusion during this period of time because I think we've been very direct. So you referenced we will be doing – we are in the process of doing – four vice-presidential searches and several interim appointments. And when they came up, it was said very clearly to everyone that this is key to the team developed by the next president. So, again, I don't think the lines have been blurred at all. And, again, Eric is very involved and will make the final call in regard to these four individuals. And that's a great advantage for him.
And I think we looked at it as an institution in the right way. You know, there's going to be the tendency for people to contact Eric. And Eric's been very gracious interacting with the people. But, again, I think we both know this is about the institution. And we've both been extremely reasonable about how we approach this. So, again, I've found no difficulties at all and the day-to-day interactions are mine.
And looking forward after July 1, Eric's going to need to have the team he needs. And these are, again, four critical positions. So I think it's just being upfront. I think the faculty and the staff have been very pleased to see that Eric is, ultimately, the individual who will make the decision about these four vice presidents. So I think we've been very straightforward.
We've talked directly to our Academic Senate. Eric has had, already, a good relationship, I would say, with the president of the Academic Senate and made good contacts on campus. So, again, I've been very happy.
JACK STRIPLING: So one big thing will change. The university has purchased a new home – 7,300 square feet, I think $1.6 million. Is there a mince jealousy between the two of you? I assume you've just been schlepping at some hole in the ground.
DANIEL J. CURRAN: I've been in a tent.
No. Actually, that was the decision by the Board of Trustees. And it's a decision that I had encouraged them to do. I came in, it was a different situation. I was the first lay president. So, again, there were periods during my tenure [when] they said, Should we do this? And my view always was the right time to do it was at the transition, you know, of a new president. So, again, the board made the decision. I think Eric's happy with the decision.
JACK STRIPLING: Now, I understand there is a guest house. Will you let Dr. Curran stay?
ERIC F. SPINA: It depends. It depends how he is the next couple of months.
JACK STRIPLING: Thanks so much. I appreciate it, really good to meet you.
ERIC F. SPINA: Thanks, Jack. I appreciate your time.