10 Things We Have Learned as College Presidents

By Barry Glassner and Morton Schapiro    //    Volume 24,  Number 6   //    November/December 2016

Between the two of us, we have served more than two decades as college presidents, learning a few things along the way—including that maintaining a sense of humor about the job is key. Here are 10 reflections on issues that presidents regularly confront.

Stereotypes about the current generation. Common characterizations of today’s students are that they are entitled, self-absorbed, and fragile. They are nothing of the kind. The young people on campuses today are as committed, hardworking, and resilient as any we’ve met.

Liberal indoctrination. And while we’re on the subject of who our students are, can we get real about the familiar assertion that “ultra-liberal” faculty indoctrinate gullible undergrads? We wonder if these complainants have ever met our undergrads. Present-day students are anything but gullible.

Town-gown relations. While we all want our institutions to be good citizens, colleges are not foundations. Good luck explaining to tuition-paying parents why we diverted their money to build a city park. Enlightened self-interest, on the other hand, is a lot easier to defend. Supporting a local high school that might be a source of future students or a place for our faculty to conduct research appeals to almost everyone.

Unhappy people. A key word in the previous item is “almost.” Some people can’t take yes for an answer. Do what they want you to do and they only get angrier. Academic leaders can save a lot of grief by identifying those who are more interested in the battle than the outcome, and treating them accordingly.

Outraged donors. We regularly hear from angry alumni who say they will never give another dime based on something that allegedly took place on campus. Fortunately for our development offices, their threats are typically less scary than they sound. Many of these “donors” have yet to give their first dime. Did they really think we wouldn’t look up their giving records?

Student protests. Whatever the current cohort of students is known for—be it protesting, partying, or careerism—the next cohort will be known for something else. What is equally important to recognize is that there is no shortage of student interest in parties or career preparation during times of protest. And vice versa.

Nasty emails. Some people who comment most viciously about liberal indoctrination, the current generation, or whatever incident on campus has been (mis)reported in the media should learn basic spelling and grammar before they expect anyone in higher education to take them seriously. When we receive a message that begins “Your an idiot,” we hit delete. And as we like to remind students, no one should assume that we understand internet shorthand. Even when we do, the college president is not your BFF.

Things go wrong. Media and internet hyperbole notwithstanding, bad things do happen on campus. Colleges and universities are too large and complicated to hope otherwise. And when things do go wrong, the best approach is to take ownership, be transparent, and refrain from being defensive.

Aging in place. Developed to describe people who continue to live in their homes late in life, the phrase is sometimes invoked on campuses by colleagues who believe an older professor should retire. In truth, everyone who makes a living on a college campus is aging in place. Faculty and staff members grow older but students stay the same age. Presidents are especially aware of this phenomenon because every fall, we welcome not only students, but parents, who are also roughly the same age year after year. Instead of lamenting youth past, embrace the fact that being around young people might just keep you young.

A great job. Finally, colleges are incredible places. Faculty are brilliant, students are eager, and our missions are laudable. Being at the helm is an honor, even if, on occasion, we need to remind ourselves of this.

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