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Professional Opinion

College presidency: A position with no equal

Leadership advice for new college presidents
University Business, December 2015
Jay Lemons is president of Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.
Jay Lemons is president of Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.

The college presidency is a high-risk occupation. The old challenges—fundraising, strategic planning, managing enrollment, protecting students—are still there, along with newer trials involving demographic shifts, flatlining family incomes, access, and compliance to growing governmental regulation. The list goes on.

It’s a wonder anyone wants to do it. Yet the ranks of new college presidents continue to swell. The Association of American Universities found annual turnover among presidents to be 15 percent, which will only grow as presidents age (the current average is 61 years old).

As my own career as college president was somewhat guided by chance, I appreciate any opportunity to meet and help rookie college leaders transition into their new roles. Here are some of the tips I’ve picked up along the way, discovered by first-hand failure or learned from my own mentors and colleagues.

Understand the difference between you and your job

Edward Penson, former president of Salem State in Massachusetts and the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, says “The president is not the presidency and the presidency is not the president.” The presidency is the institutional office.

The position is much larger than any individual. Protect the office you hold but also find a way to separate yourself from this extraordinarily rewarding but totally consuming job.

Find a friend

The opportunities and challenges of leading an institution are both energizing and daunting. It is enormously helpful to find a fellow president in whom to confide.

Higher ed is different from most industries. While we compete, our institutions also cooperate much more than do most businesses. Through the years, I have leaned heavily on presidents I’ve worked for, my predecessors and others who have become great friends.

Always take the high road

The annals of higher ed are filled with the perils of leadership at many levels. Even though it seems obvious and even trite, I have always found that in the most vexing or complex situations it is helpful to remind myself that the right path forward always involves the high road.

The simple question is, “What’s in the best interest of my institution?” Or, its slight variation, “What’s in the best interest of my students?” Asking these questions helps me to better discern the high road.

Surround yourself with talent

The best leadership often comes not as a solo act, but as part of a trio or a quartet. Presidents almost never accomplish anything without collaborating with others. Working with smart, talented, driven people is critical to success.

Find a home outside the fishbowl

Many presidents are required to live in campus residences. But one of my predecessors shared with me that finding time to escape the fishbowl is good for two reasons.

One is the chance to put your feet up on your own coffee table and the second is to maintain the discipline of upholding a mortgage because you never know how long you will serve.

Having a home away from campus has been the best investment I’ve made both financially and for my family.

Maintain your optimism.

Make no mistake: Bad things will happen and you will be blamed for many of them. It may be easier to take a cynical view of the world, but you can’t inspire, engage or truly succeed from a place of fear, uncertainty and worry.

Joseph Crowley, who served a record-setting 23 years as president of the University of Nevada, Reno, knew as well as anyone the challenges we face. Academic leadership—indeed, leadership of any kind—can be difficult and daunting.

And yet, as he wrote, the presidency “is still unique, still a job that demands a leader, still an office that makes a difference, still a profession that has no equal in the world.”

Jay Lemons is president of Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.

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