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The President's Residence

Despite long-held tradition at some institutions, the official presidential home is not considered the one-building-fits-all facility that it used to be.
University Business, Jun 2007

IT'S A PERK THAT TENDS TO BE MORE DREADED THAN WEL-comed by institutional leaders. The official president's house could be the grandest property on campus, but actually residing there requires a balancing act between public and private lives that many presidential families would rather not perform.

Do nearly all institutions of higher ed have an official president's home? Not exactly, American Council on Education data shows. According to "The American College President: 2007 Edition," a report based on a 2006 study of 2,148 presidents, just 27.9 percent of all employment agreements include a presidential house (in two categories, doctorate- and baccalaureate-granting institutions, more than half of agreements do).

Regional differences tend to exist in these homes, says Claire Van Ummersen, vice president of the ACE Center for Effective Leadership and a two-time former president. Those in the South are more likely to have large public spaces and high ceilings, while homes in New England tend to be more modest and most suitable for small-group entertaining. The size of private living quarters varies along with house size and layout, but separate entrances and other hard boundaries between public and private are rare.

Today's on-campus presidential homes "are not as important as they were over the last 50 years," asserts James L. Fisher, a consultant who has written several books on the college presidency. But that's due more to the outlook of presidents, not boards. Boards tend to maintain tradition and assume an official home makes the president more accessible. While the number of functions hosted by presidents has increased in recent years, other on- and off-campus location options are now being used, so functions aren't necessarily taking place at a presidential home, Fisher says.

SOME FORMER PRESIDENTIAL HOMES CONTINUE TO BE USED mainly for president-hosted public functions. The fate of other former homes:

- When James L. Fisher, former president of Towson University (Md.), requested an off-campus home so that, he says, "my kids could be treated as normal kids," the official presidential home, Glen Esk, was turned into a counseling center.

- When The College of St. Catherine (Minn.) stopped using Derham Hall as the official president's residence in 1964, it was converted into an administration building, with parlors used for meetings and small receptions.

- When officials at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee determined it would be too costly to upgrade the aging chancellor's house last summer, the home, which overlooks Lake Michigan, was put on the market.

CHILDREN: Presidents with kids "don't want to be embarrassed by typical family problems," says John Kuhnle, managing director of search firm Korn/Ferry International's Global Education Practice. He knows of one president with "teenagers blasting stereos out the window" who was asked to move. Chuck Bunting, managing director of the education practice at Edward W Kelley & Partners, adds that official residences tend to "convey an institutional rather than a family identity."

That makes sense to Sister Andrea Lee of The College of St. Catherine (Minn.), who adopted a Haitian child in 1996 and chose to live in a private residence when she became president in 1998. The home "helps me balance between the important work of fulfilling the mission of St. Kate's and the precious time I knew I would have with my son," she says.

SPOUSE'S CAREER: In two-career families, Kuhnle has found, "campus housing can pose problems." The spouse may not want to be expected to host campus events at home, for instance.

HOME EQUITY: Presidents who own their own homes near campus whether those homes are purchased with a housing allowance or on their own like the idea of building equity for when it's time to move on. This has especially been the case in the strong housing market of the past decade, notes Claire Van Ummersen, a vice president at ACE. According to ACE research, about one in five presidents in 2006 reported a housing allowance as a condition of employment.

HISTORY: Built in 1910 and remodeled in 1987, the President's House at Stetson has housed five presidential families since it was purchased in 1948. The neoclassical style home has nearly 4,500 square feet and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

LOCATION: Southern end of campus, on a U.S. highway that runs through campus.

LAYOUT: 14 rooms (excluding bathrooms), plus a garage apartment and a garden pavilion. Most indoor events are held in the living and dining rooms; the upstairs rooms and main floor family room and office are private. An adjacent native plant garden will be used for entertaining while the house undergoes renovations just before President H. Douglas Lee's spring 2009 retirement.

IF WALLS COULD TALK: Lee and his wife Margaret have hosted 80 to 100 events a year at home, with up to 300 people at a single function. Besides the campus community, guests have included former First Lady Barbara Bush, former President Jimmy Carter, primatologist Jane Goodall, and author Elie Wiesel. The Lees recently bought a postretirement home, which they expect to move into just before the president's retirement. As interior upgrades to the official residence are made, small events may occur at their new home.

HISTORY: Clark purchased two buildings for about $250,000 in 1996. One, which had held apartments, was renovated; the other was torn down to accommodate an addition to the remaining structure for a total of about 10,000 square feet.

LOCATION: A historic area of Worcester, next to and across the street from university-owned office buildings. A change in address for the former president (who used to reside elsewhere in the city) served as a symbol of the university's commitment to its own Main South neighborhood. As part of a revitalization plan, Clark helps faculty and staff in the purchase of homes in the neighborhood, and several have done so.

LAYOUT: 14 rooms, plus a gallery hallway and a catering kitchen. Two rooms and the gallery are used as public space, three of the original house parlors are shared space, and a kitchen plus eight rooms on the second and third floors are private.

SETTLING IN: John Bassett, the second Clark leader at Harrington, has lived there with his wife Kay since he assumed the presidency in 2000. Of living on campus, he says, "We realized that if we heard noises in the morning, it was probably people setting up for an alumni breakfast and not a burglar." Realizing the need for privacy, they escape to their own residence on the shore of Massachusetts about once a month.

For institutions with a house designated for the president, an incoming leader who insists on living elsewhere may wind up in political hot water. Chuck Bunting of the search firm Edward W Kelley & Partners says most presidential candidates assume an official residence is not negotiable. And executive recruiter John Kuhnle of Korn/Ferry International says he's known of presidents who voiced a desire to live on their own-"and it cost them and their administration dearly." That sort of request may even contribute to a shorter presidential term.

Renovation requests are another frequent presidential home controversy. Despite the probable need for redecorating and refurbishing after years of constant entertaining by a former president, new presidents who embark on a home project are perceived to be "feathering their own nest," Kuhnle says. Enlightened boards realize that work on the home must be done prior to the new president's arrival. "If there's any heat, it should go to the board," notes higher education consultant James L. Fisher.

Fisher offers this example of a president taking the fall for renovations: A few years ago, a president went about half a million dollars over budget in remodeling his on- campus residence, an old mansion needing work; despite support from some campus groups, he was forced to resign by state officials.

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