When I became a college president 29 years ago, my goal was to bring together people, ideas, and resources in order to shape an environment that would help people advance in knowledge, skills, abilities, and values. I learned, though, that a campus president plays many roles, including budget master, fundraiser, cheerleader, and land-development entrepreneur.
Nevertheless, the president must always remember that he or she is an educator. It is all about the students and their satisfaction, success, graduation, opportunities, and engagement as alumni. One must have a philosophy of education and a philosophy of leadership. I have culled eight “lessons for leadership” over the years:
1. Listen. There are many occasions when we are with faculty or high-potential donor prospects who as us questions. We should, of course, provide all necessary information, but it is equally important to listen so that we can learn about others’ interests and priorities. And never say “no” for other people; let them say what they want. Listen or read before responding. The danger is that we might respond before knowing the actual questions asked.
2. Know our role. Leadership is about enhancing the environment for teaching and learning, about faculty, students, and donor prospects becoming partners as investors in quality, affordability, and fulfilling aspirations.
3. Not every conversation with a potential or actual donor is about an investment of money. Every gift is the result of four steps whose pace can vary from minutes to months. All donors must find their way through these phases: becoming informed, becoming interested, becoming involved, and becoming invested.
These steps cannot be rushed; each must be honored. The pace can be quickened, but the steps cannot be skipped.
4. Say “thank you.” We must be responsive-quickly. It is amazing how the simple act of returning a phone call or email can be viewed as nearly revolutionary, given the fact that many people fail to do so.
In the same vein, we must respond quickly to a complaint, even if it is only to say we will look into it. Too many people wait for the examination before responding, and by then a second complaint about the lack of responsiveness has been lodged.
5. Know your students, faculty, and alumni, along with the university’s “story.” Foundations, rating agencies, faculty, and donor and admission prospects want to know that we are intimately involved in the mission of the university, which, of course, is teaching and learning. I find that such audiences respond well to stories of particular individuals who have flourished in our environment. These stories of student, faculty, and alumni life and development help illustrate what makes the institution or organization distinctive.
6. Understand and be able to articulate the vision of where we want to go and the principles on which that future progress will be built. Visions and goals for academic or athletic programs must be put in context.
7. Show up. Walk the halls and paths at times of campus strife and before events. In alumni and community relations, I am amazed at how simply arriving early or being at a memorial service or other gathering and spending time with someone who is a friend or future friend can solidify relationships. We must take these steps with sincerity; the results can be significant.
8. Focus on principles and priorities. Whenever someone asks, it is important to be able to detail them.
A campus presidency requires an ethical commitment to a culture of conscience; compelling compliance rarely works. It is more than a contract: It is a commitment to advance the institution with the optimal matching of talent, resources, and ideas, through people, in fulfillment of the campus mission.
This essay has been accepted for publication in the June 2014 issue of The American Council on Education’s The Presidency. An expanded version of this essay is posted as “29 Years and Counting: A President’s Journey.”