What I wish I'd known: College presidents share lessons learned
A panel of higher ed leaders offered insight on governance, culture and best practices
"You never quite know what type of institution you're going to wind up in," said Prairie View A&M University President Dr. George Wright, leaning over the lectern as he spoke about his experiences at public and private institutions as a faculty member before his first presidential appointment. "I learned something at each and everyone of those schools."
Wright was addressing more than 25 deans, vice presidents and provosts with presidential ambition, all gathered in Washington, DC, last week for the 18th annual American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ Millennium Leadership Institute.
Wright, who held executive and faculty positions at the University of Texas at Arlington, Duke University, UT-Austin and the University of Kentucky prior to his appointment, was the moderator for a discussion on lessons learned from experienced campus CEOs that ranged from understanding campus culture to engagement with governing boards and building diversity.
Unorthodox paths and strategic matching for presidential vacancies emerged as a highlight of the discussion. Armstrong State University President Dr. Linda Bleicken talked about being recruited for and working in student affairs positions, despite having a passion for academic affairs.
Her advice to the 2016 cohort? There’s no such thing as being ready for an executive appointment or presidency, but pay attention to your level of comfort and skill for any position which may be offered.
“Don’t try to follow my career, because basically I was the utility infielder,” she said. “You will never really feel like you are ready, particularly if you are a woman. Ask yourself, how might I contribute? If you are nervous about something, and think 'this could be a bad role for me long term,' don’t hesitate to negotiate up front about how long you will be in that role.”
Hilbert College President Dr. Cynthia Zane is a first-generation college graduate who began her career in nursing before earning faculty positions at Saint Xavier University and a dean appointment at the University of Detroit-Mercy in 1991. She served as chief academic officer at the College of Mount St. Joseph’s before being named Hilbert president in 2006.
While she did not have presidential goals early in her career, she told participants that governance, particularly at institutions with specific parochial or cultural missions, creates a unique level of insight and engagement with board members.
“Our institutions have a very different governance structure. [They're] governed under civil and canon law. In New York, members of our board of trustees are the owners of the college, but it is accountable to the church and state of New York. Bylaws governs board function, hiring, evaluations, and all decisions are internal. There’s no other control.”
When panelists were asked about the amount of time they each dedicated to fundraising, a majority of the leaders suggested more than 70% of their time was spent building relationships or making direct asks.
“Its very important to understand that we don’t have a safety net from a government or state or county that backs us up,” Zane said. “We have to be financially independent. Every dollar we spend is a young person or family making a sacrifice in terms of saving for this institution."
Fredonia State University President Dr. Virginia Horvath added that strategic transparency with stakeholders was key in the fundraising role of the president.
She said it is key presidents find “the balance between sharing information about limitation of resources, providing hope about why the work remains worthwhile,” she said.
Discussion about institutional culture rounded out the discussion, with presidents agreeing building understanding and support for new administrative vision is among the hardest parts of the presidential function.
“It's how to lead a culture where people understand that the good old days aren’t coming back,” said Zane. “Getting our leaders, from trustees to faculty to administrators, to understand the world is going to leave us behind if we can’t make fundamental basic changes.”