Advancing to the Presidency No. 5: Stepping Into the Position

S. Georgia Nugent provides insights and advice for women who are becoming a college or university president for the first time.

December 18, 2019
 
 
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Congratulations! You’ve become a president. Now what?

You may experience a brief period of “Be careful what you ask for.” The questions that come your way are never ending and new. And everyone’s looking to you to answer them. A few examples:

  • A particular group of students (or faculty members or alumni) is outraged over an event on campus (or in the news) or over the alleged acts of an alumnus (living or dead). They’re demanding that you take a stand. Your sentiments lie with them. Should you make a public statement? Or will that lead to an endless cycle of special-interest lobbying -- and diminish the power of your voice when you do speak?
  • The governor’s office has called. A particularly extreme editorial in the student newspaper has crossed the line of what the statehouse considers acceptable. Passage of a pending bill that your university needs may be jeopardized.
  • A neighborhood group is fed up with the late-night noise and antics of partying students. The university needs to put an end to this! Good luck with that one.

These issues are far from your expertise in the field, the lab or the library. What do you do?

As I mentioned in the first article in this series: remember you are not alone. Your senior staff members are your partners in the oversight and advancement of the college or university. Along with your board chair, they will be your closest colleagues and advisers. There is a great deal to be said about your leadership team, but I’ll make just a few points here.

First, rely on them and make sure that they can rely on you. Your vice presidents for student affairs, alumni relations, public affairs, academic affairs and other areas will all pitch in with their expertise and their institutional knowledge as you address together the wide variety of issues that confront your institution. The advice of all these senior staff members will be invaluable.

Of course, like you, they are not infallible. I suggest this rule of thumb: when things go well, give the credit to them, and when things go awry, step up to take the blame yourself. That’s the right thing to do, and it goes a long ways toward building a solid, reliable and confident team.

Many resources are available to you beyond your campus, as well. As with preparation for the presidency, so for the new president: professional development opportunities are numerous. I always recommend to new presidents the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents, now approaching its 20th year. No one knows more about the college presidency than the program’s faculty chair, Judith Block McLaughlin. The speakers are superb, and the collegial relations you form with your class members can offer support for many years. The Council of Independent Colleges and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities also offer valuable programs for new presidents.

I’ve also found some books especially insightful, including:

The 2009 ACE publication Out in Front: The College President as the Face of the Institution can also be particularly helpful for new presidents. (Full disclosure: I contributed chapters to several of these volumes.) No doubt you will find other resources.

Lessons From the Trenches

I’ll also highlight a few experiences I’ve had, and principles I’ve identified, as a college president that may be valuable early on in your tenure.

Before I accepted my first presidential appointment, I spoke with a number of sitting presidents. They all provided encouragement and advice, but the conversation I remember most was with Shirley Tilghman, who had recently become the first female president of Princeton University. (In fact, Shirley offered helpful advice several times as I navigated the territory of being an institution’s first female leader.) When I questioned her about what it was like to be a president, she was clear about what had been most striking to her. I’ve already mentioned it in the first article in this series: you’re always on; there is no down time.

That came home to me vividly in my initial year. My husband and I had attended family weekend at our niece’s rural liberal arts college. The drive home would be long, so we rose early on Sunday morning and headed for the meager offerings in the breakfast room of our far-from-upscale motel, the only lodging in town. Not a morning person by nature, I had shuffled down in sweats and no makeup, focused only on scoring my morning cup of coffee. Almost no one was in the room.

Except, as I discovered, an alumnus of my institution. Suddenly I heard, “President Nugent!” as a beaming fellow (obviously, a morning person) strode over to shake my hand and chat about the college. That was more of an eye-opener than the coffee. Lesson learned: there is no place, however unlikely, where you may not be called upon suddenly to be presidential.

With this ever-present visibility as the president, which you may encounter anywhere in the world, comes a more significant corollary on your own campus and its environs: people are always watching. Far beyond what you may have experienced before, everything you do is likely to be read by those around you. And the meaning read into your actions, words or gestures may be quite remote from what you intended. In fact, you may have had no particular intention. But one will often be attributed, nonetheless.

And just as there are sins of commission and sins of omission, what you do not do or say may also be perceived as full of meaning -- a meaning that would be the last thing on your mind. As you’re striding across campus, you may be focused on the meeting you’re heading to or preoccupied with an issue that needs resolution. The faculty member you fail to greet doesn’t know that; they just feel snubbed. You have no way to undo or escape this phenomenon, but remaining conscious of it can help to avoid many misperceptions.

In time, it becomes second nature to realize that you are never not perceived in the role of the president. My closest faculty friend had the habit of referring to me as “the boss.” It was a good-natured jibe, but it held a message, as well.

And that brings up another dimension of the presidency, potentially more troubling than your now-ubiquitous identification with the role. Given the many years I spent in Ohio, my husband and I dubbed this phenomenon “funny in Ohio.” I assure you, it has nothing to do with Ohio. Wherever your campus is, your perceived authority and power will alter others’ relationship to you. Suddenly, all your quips are funny, all your ideas are good and mere suggestions are taken as directives to be acted upon. Well, that’s hyperbolic -- some of your jokes still don’t go over. But you will detect -- and should be watchful for -- a marked difference in the deference you’re afforded.

This newly acquired attention can be particularly striking for women. Just as mansplaining seems to be a universal experience for women, I have yet to encounter a professional woman who hasn’t experienced her voice being silenced in a discussion by that of a more authoritative-sounding male, who actually reiterates what she just said. But while her thought seems to have slipped silently into a black hole, his idea is pronounced brilliant. When you’re the president, however, things change. When you speak, folks actually listen. That is refreshing, of course. But it can also be hazardous.

Any leader needs to guard against groupthink and the tendency, even unintended, toward sycophancy. When you become president, prepare intentionally to deflect deference. Otherwise, you may be seduced by it. Some leaders find it useful to identify a devil’s advocate in meetings -- someone charged with asking, “What if?” and officially introducing a different point of view. Establishing the practice of asking, “What are we missing?” “What if we’re wrong?” can be especially useful. It’s also often a best practice in crisis management.

The folk wisdom that “No one wants to bring the boss bad news” is oft repeated because it’s true. The danger of hearing only what people think you want to hear is very real. As much as possible, try to make clear to your team members that, if they provide only positive feedback, they are not serving either you or the institution as well as they might. Of course, that requires that you actually develop the difficult ability to hear the unvarnished truth, which can include negative feedback. One instance of killing the messenger will deep-six that. Word gets around.

Building Relationship vs. Being Right

I’ll conclude with a piece of hard-won leadership advice that may seem to us, as academics, not only counterintuitive but also offensive: building relationships is more important than being right. That’s an unsettling thought. Advancement in an academic career rests significantly on being right, maybe even standing out as the smartest one in the room. Often, as well, what we call critical thinking is directed largely to being critical of others, finding the holes in their arguments, dismantling their theories. The search to be right, to have our intellectual prowess shine out, powers much of our career in the professoriate.

The administrative role has different goals. That’s not to say, of course, that administrators don’t seek to be right in what they do for their campuses. Of course they do. But they are not -- as in Newton’s famous description of research excellence -- standing on the shoulders of others in order to see farther and better. The successful leader doesn’t stand on anyone. Rather, they stand beside others, seeking to inspire them with a vision and to organize their collective efforts toward achieving that vision. That work is often best accomplished not by a leader’s heroic, individual effort but by building, with time and patience, strong pillars of trust and a web of personal relationships.

People on your campus, whether students or faculty or staff, aren’t looking to you to win the Nobel Prize. They ask of you something quite different (though it requires just as much commitment and sustained attention): to recognize and acknowledge them as individuals and help them and the institution achieve their full potential. You’ll receive no global recognition for this work, no gold medal, no bountiful prize money. The joy of a successful presidency comes in a humbler form: the satisfaction of having made a positive contribution, however modest, in the lives of your students, your colleagues and your institution.

Bio

S. Georgia Nugent is interim president of Illinois Wesleyan University, president emerita of Kenyon College and a senior fellow of the Council of Independent Colleges.

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