College Presidents Need Help Lately, Too

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By Shelly Weiss Storbeck

Earlier this month, a group of college and university presidents, meeting on Zoom to talk shop, ended up chatting about yet another American crisis: the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Every president reported drawing harsh criticism, no matter how they commented on the riot. Those who condemned the violence too pointedly got angry calls and emails from conservative alumni and trustees. Those who were too mild in their condemnation were shamed on social media.

But that’s been the nature of the college presidency lately. Every campus leader woke up in 2020 to the ringing alarm clock of the three p’s: pandemic, protests, and politics. And so far in 2021, those leaders haven’t been able to hit the snooze button or turn the damn thing off.

In our executive-search firm, we work with many college and university presidents who say their job has become almost impossible to manage. Frequently these leaders say they are under intense pressures — from trustees, faculty and staff members, students, and local residents — to find immediate solutions to complex problems that are broadly societal and not specific to their campus.

It isn’t uncommon now for us to get calls from presidents asking questions like: By any chance, are you recruiting for any openings at great foundations? In asking, they often acknowledge that their career experience simply has not prepared them for the avalanche of financial, medical, political, and social issues they now face on their campuses.

Certainly, presidents are very well paid to tackle those challenges, and some are rising to the challenge. But even their harshest critics must acknowledge that a president can’t do it alone, and that some of these challenges are unprecedented. More than ever, presidents need help in dealing with this long list of crises, while also handling the standard business of running and improving their institutions.

So what kind of support do they need? Any or all of the following:

A strong, supportive board. Presidents need a governing board whose members know their role and are in partnership — not in conflict — with the president or among themselves. Because of all the strife on campuses and in boardrooms, there is a great need for the board and the president to support one another and put the institution first in all decision making. Presidents easily blame boards for not understanding the slow pace of academic culture, and, in turn, boards easily blame presidents for not making institutions more market-driven. Perhaps having at least one board member with higher-education experience could be useful for perspective and balance, but the bottom line is that presidents and boards need to strongly support one another at this critical time.

A safe place to vent. Every leader needs someone — a coach, a colleague, a former trustee — to be a trusted ear. Presidents need to be able to discuss their concerns and anxieties, without fear of retribution or judgment, before presenting them to the board, the president’s cabinet, or the campus. If the board is willing to pay for it, a leadership coach from outside the institution can be helpful. Presidents need thought partners to try out their ideas at a time when rapid response is critical.

A strong, diverse management team. They may need help in locating, hiring, mentoring, and retaining that team. Presidents are only as good as the senior staff members who support and challenge them. The team should be not just a collection of effective individuals but a coherent group of people who know how to collaborate and disagree but who ultimately come to actionable conclusions. A diverse team is essential to bringing unique perspectives to the table and setting an example for hiring across the campus.

Stress management and coping strategies. Presidents need an outside interest — a pet, a hobby, a meditation routine, a sport, a second home. Boundaries need to be set and respected, so that presidents have time to think and refresh. And they need to extend the same grace to all who work with them as well.

Cultural-competency training. Many presidents think that if they have been to a seminar on diversity, equity, and inclusion, they are good to go. They really need experience and practice on those issues, especially when facing down mass hatred by any constituency. This includes knowing how to hold boundaries without inciting violent reactions. Again, a trusted adviser who has been down this road is essential. So is an outstanding communications team.

Experts. The pandemic has created all sorts of new issues, related to health care, technology, enrollment, athletics, and space management, for leaders to deal with. Presidents need advice from experts on all of those fronts. If the expertise does not reside on the governing board, the senior staff, or the faculty, the president needs the resources to hire external expertise. Who has experience in distributing Covid vaccines? Many of these issues are pressing, changing daily, and unique, so contemporary thinking is essential.

Creative ways to connect with students, staff employees, faculty members, and junior administrators. These might include open office hours, scheduled time to attend virtual events, unscheduled time to walk the campus. When most presidents reflect on their past, they usually remember that they jumped into education because of the joy of working with students. Why not reignite that enthusiasm to regain a sense of purpose and nourishment?

Help in working with the neighbors. Town-gown relations are a perennial challenge for presidents for all sorts of reasons, but the fallout from the pandemic has heightened tensions. Many communities are worried about their economic health as colleges struggle to cope with the pandemic and maintain enrollment. Local citizens also worry that students, faculty members, staff employees, and administrators will bring Covid to their town. It’s essential to designate someone — in addition to the president — to work with the community.

Help in using social media effectively. Presidents need to have Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram accounts that can be seen by readers on and off the campus. If this is not a strength of the president, then someone else needs to manage these communications. At a time when so much is changing so fast, it’s important for leaders to offer quick, thoughtful reactions, without shooting from the hip.

Time! A president’s schedule begins early and ends late, and is usually 24/7. The issues facing campuses need careful thought, consultation, and flexibility. Most presidents are highly intelligent people, and problem solvers by nature, but they need time to think through these complex problems and to consult on possible solutions. Few presidents in these times can arrange a sabbatical. Instead, short breaks — one day off a week, one free weekend a month, even one month vacation a year — need to be built into their calendars. Excluding a crisis, presidents need brief moments to disconnect. Every president needs a savvy scheduler who is a trusted player on the campus and skilled at time management.

The late Rev. Timothy S. Healy, who was president of Georgetown University, was famous for saying, “Every search committee is looking for God on a good day.” Committees might still invoke God, but they are now asking for a “transformational” leader. The traumatic events of the past year will change our educational industry and its leaders, too. Who will those leaders be, and what will they need to succeed?

Shelly Weiss Storbeck is founder and managing partner of Storbeck Search, an executive-search firm, and leader of the education practice of the Diversified Search Group.

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