Mar 31, 2012

Should a College Presidency be a 24/7 Job?

By Gary Daynes | Senior Strategy Consultant

Westminster just completed a search, and hired Dr. Brian Levin-Stankevich as its 17th president.  The four finalists varied widely in their backgrounds, their passions, and their visions for the college.  But they shared one thing–they all said or intimated that being a college president is a “24/7” job.

Now if 24/7 job is simply shorthand for saying “being a college president takes a lot of time and I understand that” then there is no need to wonder about it.  But my sense from this search, and from discussions with other presidents and academic leaders, is that the statement means something more.  It means that the president has almost no life outside of the life of the college–that he or she is essentially owned by the school.

The ownership of the President (and other academic leaders) by the institution may not be a bad thing.  But it should at least cause the school to ask some questions about its leadership style and assumptions about the role of the college in society.  Here are a few key ones:

  • Have the assumptions and structures of leadership kept up with the literature on leadership?  The 24/7 leader grows out of two widely held but dubious models of leadership.  The first, dating from the early 1900s, suggests that the corporation should provide all shape to the lives of its employees–housing, food, work, recreation, etc.  The second, dating from the 1980s, assumes that the CEO has to be the face of the corporation, and lead through charisma.  Both models have been challenged outside of academe, but remain within.
  • Does the President have a clearly defined role? Show up at any late-night or weekend event on campus and you will find not one but several leaders–the President, the Provost, the VP for Advancement, the Dean of Students–plus assorted faculty and staff.  If they are there because they are interested, wonderful.  If they are there out of obligation, then one must ask why?  What is it about the presence of many leaders that makes an event more successful?  Or is their presence evidence that leaders haven’t determined what their strengths, responsibilities, and roles are? Must the President attend nearly every event on campus?
  • Is the President’s calendar planned or reactive? I know from experience that an open week on Monday morning gets filled past capacity by Tuesday lunch.  While it is true that stuff happens that must be responded to, it is also true that the President, more than most other people on campus, has limited control over her/his calendar. And much of the time on that calendar is filled with “dignitary work”–shaking hands, greeting visitors, meeting with donors, attending lunches and dinners.  Again, this is essential work, but much of it could be done by others, with greater long-term payoff for the college and for other leaders, whose experience grows and whose own special skills come into play.
  • Is the campus too busy?  Westminster, like many colleges and universities, offers several events, lectures, plays, and sporting events each night.  In addition to those things, the leadership has other events to participate in that aren’t open to the campus.  But these events, like formal academic programs, need a mission and purpose check.  Are the events we host matched with the institution’s mission?  And if so, do they advance that mission?  Busyness often masks uncertainty about the mission and appeal of an institution.  If you aren’t sure where you stand in the market, or what your students need and desire, then you try to have a bit of everything for everyone.
  • How serious is your campus about reflection and renewal? We know from the literature on learning and on contemplation that growth and well-being emerge from regular acts of contemplation, reflection, and renewal.  If the president is owned by the institution, and moments of reflection and renewal are haphazard (15 minutes here and there, a last-minute weekend escape) then it is evidence that the campus is not as serious about reflection and renewal as it ought to be.  (Please note that I do not consider planning and other sorts of “retreats” to be reflective or renewing.  They are business, and serve more to summarize work that is already going on and spur more work than they are to provide a space for reflection.Once upon a time most presidents (and other senior leaders) taught a class on campus–today most don’t.  But preparing to teach is education’s native contemplative practice. If it is absent, then it may be that contemplation is gone as well.
  • Is the college the most important thing in the world? The answer has to be no. No job ought to be more important than family, than citizenship, than god, than happiness. So if a job, even one as important and useful as college president, owns a person, then it is a sign that the job needs to be rethought, if only to bring it into alignment with what humans know about the relative importance of things.

Gary Daynes | Senior Strategy Consultant