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9 Virtues Blog

Advice for New College Presidents, Part II

by Rob Jenkins

03/31/2016

A recent report from the Kresge Foundation found that 40 percent of college presidents plan to retire in the next five years—and that doesn't count the ones who stepped down at the end of last year.

Clearly, campuses across the country will be welcoming a host of new chief executives in the near future. Many of them will have past presidential experience, but others will be entirely new to the top job—a fact that raises the obvious question: Will they be prepared to lead?

Determined to do my part, I decided to write this two-part series from the perspective of a 31-year veteran of higher education, as both a faculty member and former midlevel administrator. During that time I have worked for 10 different presidents and gotten to know many others, learning a great deal from all of them (as I noted in Part 1) about what campus leaders should and shouldn't do. If I seem to focus more on the latter, it's not because I'm trying to be negative. I've just witnessed too many presidents make mistakes, creating problems that probably could have been avoided. I explained four of those common mistakes in the first installment. Here are six more:

Einstein, you're not. Ever notice how some medical doctors assume that they're smarter than everybody else about everything? Their reasoning, apparently, goes like this: The medical profession is obviously nobler than any other profession, and it also pays better than most. Who wouldn't want to be a doctor? Therefore, anyone who is not a doctor simply must not have what it takes.

I've observed a similar mind-set among many college presidents. To their way of thinking, being an administrator is much preferable to being a faculty or staff member. I mean, who in their right mind would spend their life chained to the classroom if they could possibly avoid it? Therefore, anyone who hasn't "advanced" into upper-level administration must not be smart enough, or capable enough.

The truth, of course, is that colleges are full of highly intelligent people. As president, you are probably not the smartest person on the campus or even in a given meeting. If you recognize and accept that fact, you can benefit greatly from the intellect, experience, and expertise of the people in your organization—many of whom, believe it or not, actually love teaching and/or working with students and can't imagine doing anything else. If you persist in believing you're smarter than everyone else in the room, you will not only alienate your colleagues but may on occasion look like a fool.

Listen and learn. All new presidents come into office promising to listen to faculty members, staff employees, and students. But in my experience, few keep that promise for very long. They may pretend to. They may even wrap that pretense in great fanfare. But they have their own ideas, priorities, and biases, and they're not really that interested in what anyone else has to say—especially the rank and file.

Here's a tip: If you hold a meeting ostensibly for the purpose of listening to faculty and staff members, and then notice that you're doing most of the talking, or constantly interrupting other speakers, or pointing out where they're wrong—well, you're probably not really listening.

My advice would be to create elected, representative advisory groups made up of various constituents on the campus. Meet with those groups regularly to run ideas by them and hear their ideas. Encourage people to speak freely. Listen to them carefully, and temporarily set aside your own agenda. Then be humble enough to recognize wisdom when you hear it and flexible enough to adjust your decisions accordingly.

Say "no" to yes men (and yes women). One trait that college presidents share with leaders of other large, complex organizations is the tendency to surround themselves with people who share their vision and priorities—or at least pretend to go along in order to advance their own careers. New presidents, because they're often insecure, are especially susceptible to yes men and yes women.

In my experience, what more presidents need to hear is "no": "No, you can't extend registration for two more days." "No, you can't just ignore that board policy." "No, you can't shove that change down faculty members' throats." Of course anyone willing to say those things risks being labeled a "naysayer" and accused of disloyalty. But people who are truly loyal to an institution, and not just to its president, will naturally balk when they believe a decision is wrongheaded. And even when they're wrong, dissenters serve the valuable purpose of making everyone else examine their own arguments.

Keep your priorities straight. Most presidents, and especially new ones, are highly focused on enrollment. That’s understandable, and it isn't necessarily a bad thing. If a college doesn't have enough students to support its programs and its budget, everything else is pretty much moot.

The problem arises when the president's focus on enrollment becomes an obsession, thrust ahead of all other considerations including academic quality, campus morale, and student success. Sure, it might be easy to shoehorn a few more students into a section of English composition or a biology lab. But is that really good for those students? For the faculty members? For the college?

Growth for its own sake—just so you can brag about the size of your college—is not in itself a worthy goal.

Not all change is good. Another legacy-building exercise in which new presidents frequently engage involves getting rid of all the old ways of doing things. That is known as "change," and is always assumed to be for the better, to the point where many college leaders nowadays attempt to brand themselves as "change agents."

Whenever I hear someone say, "I'm a change agent," I think to myself, "Big deal. So is hydrochloric acid." Just as growth for its own sake isn't necessarily desirable, neither is change for the sake of change. In fact, while change can be much needed, long overdue, and wonderfully revitalizing when it happens, it can also be stupid, destructive, and a slap in the face to all the people who worked so hard to keep the college functioning smoothly before you graced it with your presence.

The trick, of course, is distinguishing good, needed changes from bad, unnecessary ones. As a new president, you might want to spend some time figuring out what actually needs to be changed—and what deserves to be kept. (Hint: Your advisory groups can help with that.)

First, do no harm. I've often thought that college presidents (and politicians, too, but that's another subject) should have to sign a pledge much like the Hippocratic Oath, promising that whatever else they do, first and foremost, they will do no harm.

I understand how important it makes you feel to be entrusted with this job. Just remember that you're probably the college's seventh or eighth president, at least—and you might be its 75th. If you're lucky, you might be there eight or 10 years before handing off the reins to someone else. In the final analysis, you're just a custodian of something that actually belongs not to you, but to the community, to the students, and to the faculty and staff.

Your primary goal, as custodian, should be this: Don't screw things up too badly for everybody else. If you can actually improve things a bit, so much the better. Yes, there are times when you will need to take decisive action, and I hope you will have the courage to do that. But there are also many steps that you should not take, and I hope you have the wisdom to avoid them.

Leading a college provides countless opportunities to do good for students who need it most, not to mention faculty and staff members who may have been a bit banged up by budget cuts and public sentiment in recent years.

Please feel free to give them your best effort.

Advice for New College Presidents, Part I

by Rob Jenkins

03/24/2016

You might say I'm a bit of a connoisseur of college presidents. Over the past 26 years, I've worked for 10 of them, ranging in quality from pretty good to fairly awful. Collectively they've taught me a great deal about what presidents ought to do—but even more, I'm afraid, about what presidents ought not to do.

Given that dozens of presidents will take office this fall—a number that is likely to grow in future years as retirements accelerate—I thought this might be a good time to offer some advice from the perspective of a veteran faculty member and former midlevel administrator.

Not that college presidents don't get a lot of advice. It's just that nearly all of it comes from other presidents, politicians, and corporate types. Most faculty members aren't asked for our opinions on leadership issues. No one has asked me, either, but that's never stopped me before. I suspect that I represent the majority of low-to-midlevel employees who don't have this kind of platform and aren't in a position to speak candidly to rookie presidents and aspiring leaders.

In fact, I have so many tidbits of good advice that I've been forced to divide them into two batches. Here's the first:

It's not about you. If there's one thing the rank-and-file despise most, it's a leader who hogs the spotlight.

Anyone who has ever worked in higher education knows what I'm talking about: presidents who drone on endlessly in meetings, supposedly about the college's accomplishments but really about their own; who take advantage of every opportunity to publicly "toot the college's horn," which usually means tooting their own horn; who can't even present awards to students or employees without somehow turning the occasion into a celebration of their presidency.

Apparently that is a trap into which presidents can fall quite easily, judging from the number who do. But you must take care to avoid it, lest constituents begin to roll their eyes every time you speak. They may also talk about you behind your back, using words like "narcissist" and "bloviator." You're better off not saying anything than being perceived as always talking about yourself.

Besides, it really isn't about you. It's about the faculty and staff, who more than any other single group "are" the college, the one relatively fixed point in a sea of change. And, of course, it's ultimately about the students, right? Sure, every president says that. But will you be one of the few who actually mean it? And whose behavior matches your rhetoric?

You're not the college, and the college isn't you. Perhaps those presidents who are so prone to making everything about them have trouble distinguishing between themselves and the institution. In fact, many of the presidents I've dealt with over the years clearly believed that they were synonymous with the college, and the college with them.

That can create problems for faculty, staff, and low-level administrators, because anything they say that might be perceived as critical of the college is therefore perceived as being critical of the president. It's like pointing out that someone's baby is ugly: There's no way to do it tactfully. By the same token, presidents who blur the lines between themselves and their institutions also tend to turn any criticism of their leadership into criticism of the college. The message is, "If you love the college, you will approve of me; and if you dislike me, then you must be an enemy of the college."

Remember: As a new president you are just one of many employees at the college. Most of them were there before you arrived, and most of them will be there long after you're gone. They have just as big a stake as you do, if not bigger, in the success of the institution. They must be able to point out things they believe are wrong with the college without your taking those comments personally (and perhaps retaliating against them in some way).

Just because they criticize your performance doesn't mean they are disloyal employees. Your treating dissenters in that way might, in fact, be the reason they don't like you.

It's brick, not marble. Another common presidential behavior that faculty and staff members detest is what we refer to as "monument building."

Monument-building occurs when a president starts some program not because it's integral to the college's mission but because it will look good on his or her résumé. Or when a president wins approval to construct an extravagant building even though an older one is still working well. Everyone understands that those presidents aren't really trying to improve things on the campus; they're just erecting shrines to themselves.

Monument-building can be expensive, draining money from other, worthier projects. It can also lead to resentment and a decline in morale. Sure, new programs might very well be in order, and new buildings sorely needed. But before you embark on any new project, seek some consensus on the campus and examine your own your motives to make certain that they're pure, that you aren't simply falling victim to the natural presidential urge to make a name for yourself with taxpayers' money.

You're not so special. A president with whom I had a pretty good working relationship once confided in me that he was "just an ordinary guy doing an extraordinary job." As much as I appreciated his modesty and candor, I realized that he was only half-right: The job itself isn't nearly as extraordinary as some imagine.

Let's be honest: Serving as a college president is hardly the same as being an astronaut or a Super Bowl-winning coach or a Nobel laureate or CEO of the Ford Motor Company. It's a job that a lot of people could do well, some of them better than the people who actually have the job. And yet this belief in their own elevated status, their natural superiority, seems alarmingly prevalent among college presidents.

Years ago, when I was coaching basketball, my team lost a close game on the road following a questionable call by a referee. On our way back to the locker room, one of my players lost his temper and shattered the glass panel over a fire extinguisher, setting off an alarm.

Called out of the locker room to meet with the host college's rather irate president and athletic director, I assured them that the young man would be disciplined, that he would write a letter of apology, and that he would pay for the damage (all of which happened). But the president left me speechless when he insisted loudly, obviously incensed, that "breaking the glass wasn't the worst part. He was also disrespectful to a college president!"

"Oh, no!" I wanted to say (but wisely didn't). "Not that! Shall I summon the firing squad?" Of course, what I was really thinking was, "What a ..."—well, you can imagine what I was really thinking.

New presidents, don't take yourself so seriously. Try a little humility. I think you'll find that it goes a long way.

Becoming a Successful Dean in the Health Professions

by Dr. Karl Haden

03/17/2016

For many in academia, becoming a dean marks the pinnacle of a career—a pivotal accomplishment achieved after many years of advancement as a faculty member, department chair, program director, and/or assistant or associate dean. Assuming this high-level position, however, should not mean the end of one’s professional development, but rather the entry into a new stage of leadership growth to satisfy a new set of criteria for success and job satisfaction.

As a veterinary dean commented in a 2010 study, “The need for leadership training and renewal never goes away.” Recent research conducted by AAL and others has helped to define the specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes required for successful deanships in the contemporary environment of health professions education. Understanding these requirements can help deans identify their own developmental needs, assist institutions with selection of and programs for these top administrators, and provide guidance for those who aspire to a dean position.The AAL Competency Model for Deans provides a conceptual framework that combines the elements of a successful deanship (Figure 1). In this model, four competency domains serve to bridge desirable personal characteristics (natural traits, preferences, intelligence, influence, and values) with the many elements of the health professions education environment (higher education, health care, community, etc.). This configuration illustrates the essential linkage between inner and outer: to be an effective dean (indeed, an effective leader at any level), one must marshal the internal resources necessary to both take account of and have an impact on the external environment.

Continue reading….

The Lump

by Rob Jenkins

03/08/2016

We often write about leadership as if it were some sort of Manichean duality: authoritarians versus libertarians, control freaks versus true leaders, power-mongers versus those who exercise authority properly. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

The reality, of course, is that administrators and managers don’t always fall at one end of the “good-bad” spectrum or the other. There is a broad middle area, and I’ve known plenty of “leaders” during my 27-year career who have taken up permanent residence there.

Please note that when I say “middle area,” I don’t mean that in a positive sense. I’m not saying these people are moderates or that they’ve somehow arrived at the perfect balance between authoritarianism and libertarianism. Rather, I’m suggesting that they’re neither hot nor cold but tepid. I refer to them as “Lumps,” because they’re mostly just there.

Simply put, The Lump doesn’t really do much of anything, whether out of sheer laziness or apathy or a desire not to upset the applecart or just an overdeveloped sense of self-preservation. The Lump is the manager who never answers your e-mails. The one you rarely see except at meetings. The one who attends all the meetings but doesn’t say much. The one who, when asked a direct question, will hem and haw, dissemble and deflect.

Some Lumps are simply spineless, deathly afraid of making a decision. They’ve long since determined that the best policy is just to lay low and pass the buck. Some are jaded and cynical. They’ve been there and done that, and nothing much impresses them anymore. They don’t see any need to act decisively, or maybe they just don’t see the point: It wouldn’t do any good, anyway. Some, nearing retirement, are motivated purely by reluctance to lose their high salaries and accompanying pensions.

But some Lumps are much more calculating. Lacking genuine ability and creativity, they’ve determined that their surest and safest route to the top is simply to go along to get along–to spout the party line, support whatever the higher-ups are doing, and otherwise not do much of anything lest they risk doing the wrong thing.

In any form, Lumps are incredibly harmful to an organization. They’re responsible for most of the negative attributes that people (including students and customers) rightly associate with bureaucracy: interminable waiting, “red tape,” buck passing, narrow and rigid interpretation of policy, stubborn intransigence.

They’re also a drain on group morale. Although perhaps not as actively vindictive as authoritarian power-mongers, most Lumps will throw their colleagues under the bus in a heartbeat in order to preserve or advance their own careers. It’s not that they don’t like you. They just don’t care about you.

Moreover, while Lumps can’t necessarily be expected to do the wrong thing, they certainly can’t be trusted to do the right thing, because in the end they’re most likely to do nothing at all. St. John the Beloved described this type of person perfectly when he wrote in the Book of Revelation, “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot; I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth.”

Would that those of us who have to deal with Lumps could do the same.

A Matter of Trust

by Rob Jenkins

03/03/2016

If you're planning on going into academic administration, you should probably think about what kind of administrator you want to be: one who fundamentally trusts faculty members or one who doesn't.

I say that because 30-plus years at six different institutions, including 18 years as a midlevel administrator, have taught me that there are basically only those two types. And although I've had the pleasure of working for, and with, several of the former, the latter certainly seem more common.

Administrators who don't fully trust faculty members are easy to spot. They're the ones whose default response to every situation is to whip out the policy manual, as if it were the sole arbiter of professional conduct. And when an issue arises that isn't covered by a policy, these administrators can usually be counted on to concoct one.

Years ago, I had a department chair who created a policy to address faculty bathroom breaks. (I am not making this up.) The gist of the policy was that, if a faculty member needed to use the facilities during scheduled office hours, he or she had to find a colleague who wasn't currently holding office hours and ask that person to sit in the faculty member's office for a few minutes.

I once asked that distinguished chairwoman, during a discussion about hiring substitute teachers for faculty members on leave, if we could hire them to sit in our offices while we went to the bathroom, too. My suggestion was not well received.

Trust-challenged administrators are also notorious micromanagers, which in a community-college setting usually takes the form of constantly checking up on faculty members to make sure they're where they're supposed to be. (And not someplace subversive, like the bathroom.) These are the department heads and deans who spend their time roaming the halls, scanning posted office hours, peering into offices, and sauntering by classrooms five minutes before the end of a session.

The worst thing about administrators who don't trust their colleagues, however, is the credence they tend to place in every negative comment or bit of gossip. Such administrators constantly call faculty members on the carpet because a single student (or another faculty member) has made an unsubstantiated complaint -- even if the complaint itself is risible or if the faculty member's history at the institution suggests that he or she deserves (at a minimum) the benefit of the doubt. Their attitude: If someone said it, there must be some truth to it.

Such a lack of trust has a devastating effect on faculty morale. And although some administrators apparently don't care about faculty morale, my experience suggests that it's the most important factor in creating a dynamic learning environment, a place where both students and faculty members want to spend time.

The question you should ask, then, as a new or prospective two-year college administrator, is, How can I foster an environment of trust in my department or division, or on campus?

The first step: Recognize that faculty members are highly educated professionals and treat them as such—and not as if they were conscripts or low-wage hourly employees. Don't insult them by constantly checking to make sure they're where they're "supposed" to be. In fact, don't go to their classrooms or offices at all unless you have a good reason.

If you have problems with specific faculty members consistently not fulfilling their obligations, deal with those individuals directly—and privately. Don't take their behavior as evidence of general laziness on the part of all faculty members. Above all, do not institute policies that penalize everyone just to address the bad behavior of a few.

Speaking of policies, if you want to be known as an administrator who trusts faculty members, throw out the policy manual. OK, maybe you shouldn't literally throw it out; some policies are necessary, after all, like the ones mandating pay raises and vending-machine restocking. But at least recognize that policies are not "one size fits all" and that they are not, in the final analysis, more important than people.

To the extent that policies are a necessary part of academic life, do your best to craft and/or support policies that are pro-faculty, that give faculty members more freedom, not less. Whatever you lose in terms of immediate control will be more than offset in the long term by gains in productivity as faculty members feel empowered and morale rises correspondingly.

Another good idea is to be careful how you respond to complaints, gossip, and intradepartmental sniping. Although some complaints, such as those involving charges of sexual harassment, require immediate attention, the vast majority don't.

In fact, many complaints from students -- regarding grading standards, rigor, fairness, etc. -- are baseless and deserve little more than a few moments of quasi-sympathetic head-nodding on your part. The last thing you want to do is start an inquisition every time a student drops by with some petty gripe.

If such complaints are frequent in regard to a particular faculty member, or if they suggest a pattern of unacceptable behavior, or if they involve something particularly egregious, then it might be time for you to have a conversation with that individual. Otherwise, assume the best. If you have no reason, beyond an isolated complaint, to believe a faculty member might be guilty of something, he or she probably isn't guilty.

Departmental gossip and sniping from other faculty members can be treated in much the same way. In fact, you might just want to dispense with the head-nodding and politely tell the sniper you're not interested. But if you choose to let the person vent, remember: Don't believe everything you hear. Your own experiences with a faculty member should weigh more in your judgment than what someone else says about him or her.

Finally, if you want to demonstrate trust for faculty members and earn theirs in return, do everything in your power to support them. Go to bat for them when they're proposing new initiatives that you believe will benefit the college. Nominate them, when they deserve it, for campus, state, and national awards. As much as possible, help them find travel money to attend and present at conferences.

After all, becoming an effective college administrator isn't exactly rocket science. It's just a matter of trust.