Their form and function may vary, but there’s one trait nearly every president’s residence has in common: It’s much more than just a home.
“The residence is a tool,” says Dennis Barden, a senior partner at executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. Colleges prefer to keep their leaders on or near campus “and essentially on call 24/7,” adds Barden, who has played a central role in almost 400 searches, many of them in higher ed.
The homes are used for institutional purposes and rituals, especially related to alumni relations and development. “An invitation to a president’s home connotes an intimacy and importance with which most people resonate,” he says.
In Barden’s experience, a president’s home is often seen as an attractive part of the package—yet it’s not “primarily a perk,” he says. “I don’t know that most presidents, if given their druthers, would choose to live in an even more obvious fishbowl than that in which their position already puts them.”
A well-maintained house “can be a real attraction in recruiting,” says Jessica Kozloff, president and senior consultant at Academic Search and president emerita of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. “Unfortunately, it can also present real issues if it hasn’t been updated and a new president gets blamed for the costs.”
What gets updated and when
Most institutions aim to time renovations with a leadership transition. At Elon University in North Carolina, 19-year-president Leo Lambert moved out of Maynard House this spring to prep for a new president’s January 2018 move-in. “The renovation of presidential homes can be a lightning rod for controversy,” Lambert says.
The timing made it clear that “the trustees were in charge of the renovation and would review all expenses, to avoid putting a new president in an awkward situation,” he adds. With 3,000 guests hosted in a typical year, Maynard House needed updated furniture in its public areas, a new kitchen and bathroom renovations, Lambert says.
Kozloff recommends any renovations begin immediately after the outgoing president announces an impending departure. “This protects the new president to a large extent from the inevitable criticism that he or she ‘demanded’ the renovation,” she says.
Common updates involve opening up space to accommodate larger events and modernizing the kitchen for efficiency and elegance. The greening of presidents’ homes—such as with energy-efficient windows and with solar panels—is another trend.
After renovations, colleges will typically provide a modest budget for the new president to make cosmetic changes, Barden adds. At many of these homes, the separation of private and public areas is more pronounced today—mainly for enhanced security.
Tanger House at Millersville University of Pennsylvania had its last remodel in 1999, but each year more cameras are added and a large fence was recently built around the property.
Barden believes institutions are both proactive about security and responsive to requests for enhanced security from the president and family. Such upgrades, he says, are “a work in constant progress” rather than the sort of capital improvement that goes along with moving a new president in.
Melissa Ezarik is UB's managing editor.