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End Note

Trading Places

Valuable lessons in leadership
University Business, Jul 2010

Last month's End Note featured a president who lived among students for an overnight. Here is the perspective of another president who has lived as a student for a day?and who allows a student to sit at his desk for that day.

At dinner parties and receptions, someone will inevitably say something about their college experience and comment, "I would give anything to be a college student again." Once a year, as president of Widener University (Pa.), I get that chance and have found it to be an eye-opening, humbling, and rewarding experience. This is also the eighth year an undergraduate has had the opportunity to serve as president of Widener for a day. The student gets my office, my parking space, and my schedule. He or she asks a prospective donor for a gift, makes a tough admissions decision, and is given an audience with faculty and administrators of their choice to pitch an idea to improve the university. The President for a Day has even been known to fire popular employees just to give them the day off (they are hired back the next day).

The program is a competition open to all undergraduates, who must complete an application, provide a resume, and respond to:

  1. If you were hired as president, what is the first issue you would address and why?
  2. Why should you be selected President for a Day?
  3. Explain what you feel are the characteristics of a good leader.

A selection committee made up of faculty and administrators meets with four finalists before one is chosen.

The President-for-a-Day program fits with the university's mission to engage students through experiential learning and to inspire them to be citizens who demonstrate professional and civic leadership. Based on the feedback from the students who have served, the program has been successful in helping to accomplish those goals.

On the flip side, I take on the selected student's schedule, attending classes and student meetings, even assuming work-study responsibilities. I have delivered newspapers on campus, given tours to prospective students and their parents, filed paperwork, worked at an off-campus internship, and answered telephone calls in the Student Life Office.

The student gets my office, my parking space, and my schedule.

Though much of the media and campus attention is focused on the President for a Day and the leadership experience it offers, the lesson in leadership is not one-sided. I hold student focus groups twice each semester, regularly accompany students on Alternative Spring Break, and still try to teach. But this program—more than any other initiative—allows me the opportunity to see the university from a student perspective.

Many students who serve as President for a Day marvel at the schedule of a university president and how many issues there are to consider in running such a large institution. Likewise, the life of a student may seem simple, but it is not easy for students to balance classes, work, family, community service, and study. They worry about paying for college and are concerned about the job market.

As a student for the day, I have no illusion of anonymity or that I'm receiving the same treatment a student may receive. But I do talk to other students and try to experience the campus as they do. Whether it's simply sitting in a classroom and discovering again how committed our faculty truly are to students, or experiencing aspects of college living such as campus dining or finding a parking spot, participating helps me make better decisions on campuswide issues later.

Administrators are responsible for day-to-day operations at complex institutions. There is budgeting, fundraising, personnel, town/gown relations, and hundreds of other functions that go into keeping a college or university running smoothly. It is easy to lose focus on the end goal. Stepping into a student's shoes—if only for a day—can serve to remind you of what is really important: teaching and learning. Everything else, though important, is a means to an end.

We would all like to think we know what it's like to be a college student because we were once in college. But the world is different today. To have been a student in the 1970s or 1980s is not the same as being a college student in 2010. The world is much more complex, the demands on students simply greater. We have all heard the old proverb, "Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes." We all have to remember that as times change, we change, and those shoes we wore in college probably don't fit anymore.

James T. Harris III is president of Widener University in Chester, Pa.