Last summer, I had the opportunity and privilege to serve Augustana College as acting president while my boss, President of the College Steven Bahls, took a well-deserved sabbatical to work on a book project and travel the northernmost parts of this continent.
I never anticipated this opportunity when I started my career in higher education nearly 20 years ago as an admissions counselor at Elizabethtown College. I also suspect there are many who knew me then (and perhaps some who know me now) who might not have predicted this opportunity for me.
There were plenty of moments during this summer when I found it hard to believe. I was nervous and learned first-hand that serving as a college president is, as President Bahls had told me, “a serious job for serious people.”
In preparation for my service as acting president, I talked to a number of current presidents and read a great deal (including Susan R. Pierce’s excellent book On Being Presidential). While I understood the seriousness of the role, I also must confess to a number of less weighty activities early in the summer, which caused me to spend time thinking about Dos and Don’ts.
The list of Dos and Don’ts I put together in May guided me during much of the summer. I suspect many of the items on my list do not always enter into the minds of those transitioning to a presidency. Yet I also suspect that seemingly light issues can become serious issues during a presidency.
I developed the following list and did my best to remain faithful to it:
- Do not let the position go to your head; you can be replaced! (I was replaced on August 15, when my boss returned.)
- Do not mow the lawn with your shirt off; you don’t want those photos to get out.
- Do not offer political commentary anywhere, any time about any issue; political opinion will get you in trouble with some stakeholder (this was difficult given it was election season)
- Resist the urge to update Facebook status with anything that might spark controversy; you can’t see Facebook as just a social network anymore
- Resist the urge to Tweet or Retweet; there’s too great a chance of tweeting or retweeting the wrong thing.
- Follow the speed limit; being cited in the public record for speeding is not the type of media attention you want.
- Make sure the joke will work before you try it. You might think you are funny, but when serving as president each audience has a very different expectation. In fact, it’s probably best to not tell jokes at all.
- Behave at your college (or high school) reunion. Think about all of the things the president of your alma mater (Gettysburg College) is worrying about as hundreds of alumni return to campus. Do not add to her worries.
- Do not get caught wearing swag from other colleges; you are a primary symbol of your college’s brand.
- Do not gossip; when leaders gossip, gossip becomes truth.
- Do not fall asleep during the sermon (especially if a board member is the senior pastor.) This is never a good habit, but even worse if faculty and other administrators attend your church.
- Do not respond to email immediately; wait until your response is clear. Presidents, like others, too frequently get themselves in trouble by responding in the moment.
As a matter of fact, as I review this list now, I see it might be useful for any college employee. To best represent ourselves and our college, we must be thoughtful stewards of our positions and our work. I am sure this applies for my list of Dos, as well, which I tried to put into action during my time as acting president:
- Walk around campus more often; appreciate the place and people more than you have in the past.
- Communicate with key stakeholders, including the board and campus community, on a regular basis.
- Write congratulatory notes for student, staff and faculty achievement. Recognizing others is a chief role for any leader.
- Use this opportunity to learn more about the organization and the presidency; appreciate that you have a defined moment to learn more about the place you have been asked to serve. Commit to learning more and make sure people know how much you appreciate the opportunity.
- Finally, rely upon the expertise of others. A president is only as good as the people who advise him or her. Appreciate the wisdom that surrounds you, listen carefully and consult others before acting.
While I think my list of Dos and Don’ts helped me, it was those experiences not on the list that pushed me beyond my comfort zone and led me to learn and appreciate the depth and weight of the president’s role. College presidents, especially new presidents, are responsible for a vast array of things that most career paths cannot possibly prepare one person to do.
For me, in this short period of time, my expertise was stretched into the new territories of closing a major financial gift, organizing meetings and materials for board members, refinancing a portion of the college’s debt, issuing new debt, navigating new policies related to cadaver use, responding to an OSHA violation (unrelated to the new cadaver policies), approving airline refunds for a canceled study-away trip, selecting contractors for major construction projects, representing the college at special alumni gatherings (see “Don’t” no. 3), and helping to onboard a new senior-level member of the cabinet.
A number of times I was reminded I was a temporary fill-in. At one gathering of local college presidents I was told, “with due respect to those present,” the group was intended to be a gathering of CEOs. In a conversation with President Bahls just before his return, he made the comment that “it’s tough to be acting president.” My heart sank as I suspected I’d really screwed something up. He then asked me if I knew why? I was still speechless as he continued by describing an agreement he’d reached with a donor. He flatly concluded, “An acting president can’t agree to certain things that a president can.”
I suspect most people who work their way to a college presidency discover there are important parts of the job for which one’s previous roles, in academia or otherwise, have not provided full clarity. Even more than respect, I now have real empathy for college presidents and their challenges, great and small.
W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmissions