Many new names and faces in campus leadership will be introduced at commencement ceremonies across the country in the days ahead. Just as students walk out as graduates, leaders will be walking in, replacing those who are retiring, resigning or otherwise stepping down—in some cases, even after a relatively short tenure.
While the pandemic is often partly blamed for the recent surge in presidential departures, the trend of shorter tenure among college and university presidents has been underway for several years. Indeed, a recent American Council on Education report noted that, in 2022, presidents had been in their position an average of 5.9 years, 2.6 fewer years than in 2006.
What does a new president need to know in 2023? With over six years at the helm of Franklin Pierce University, I encourage new presidents to study their campus, community and programs and remain students of higher education themselves. Prioritize ongoing professional development. New presidents’ priorities and expectations of them evolve as familiarity with the institution increases.
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The biggest hurdle for new presidents
A good strategic plan gives direction to a university and serves as a valuable touchstone for the president. But many are more aspirational than practical and don’t end up serving as the helpful guide and resource they intend to be. For young presidents—and even those seasoned—starting the strategic planning process can stir a high level of dread. Having one is great, but communicating and implementing it is critical.
Consider this: Every new president inherits a college or university’s operations from previous administrations. It takes time to assess the degree to which a university’s myriad of initiatives are resourced and functioning appropriately. The biggest mistake presidents make is that their strategic plan is usually too ambitious and unrealistic and not distinctive enough to the university’s needs.
It was no different for me. When I started my presidency at Franklin Pierce University as the first woman and alumna to lead the university with several decades of experience in higher education, I was already equipped with a deep personal and professional perspective on this university. Still, there were many new things that I needed to learn and familiarize myself with to build a viable strategic plan.
For example, one of my priorities was establishing more proactive, predictable and comprehensive internal communications. Without a reliable approach and infrastructure, communications—especially from the president’s office—can seem random, or worse, only about “crisis management.” To solve this, I hired a team with the synergy and energy to develop and execute a more sophisticated approach to “all things communication.” Establishing this team took time, a few years, actually. It has paid dividends.
The communications team now leads weekly Monday morning meetings with the senior administration and lays out the plans for all the upcoming university events and announcements. Additionally, presidential forums are now at predictable times during the academic year and announced weeks in advance. Presidential video messages and newsletters are professionally executed and broadly shared with all constituent groups, including families.
At a multi-campus university, consistent outreach through multiple platforms is very well received and presents the university’s educational efforts, student and athletic successes and plans in thoughtful, intentional ways.
Most new university presidents lack my longtime insider’s view when they take the helm of their higher-education institutions. They need to listen, learn and work to understand better their campus culture and the specific resources and challenges they face from day one on the job.
Take some advice from a vet
While the role of college president has sometimes been referred to as “an impossible job” in the headlines, it certainly doesn’t have to be. Lean into positioning your administration as proactive and constructive, and ask that of all of your senior team.
Here are a few specific helpful tips gained from my own experience:
- Embrace collaboration: Modeling and fostering collaboration in an experienced and agile senior leadership team has strengthened my university’s position and reputation.
- Accept imperfection: The details and clarity offered in a president’s vision provide a destination to move toward, but the methods and outcomes along the way will be far messier than described. If you are still making significant and necessary progress on the journey, go with it.
- Accommodate emotional ricochets: On any given day, most often without forewarning, a range of issues unfolds for a president’s direct input or management. Some represent the truly urgent and others the seemingly absurd—sometimes all within minutes of one another. Priorities are whiplashed into new perspectives as you delve into the maelstrom.
There is much they need to know—even if this is not their first appointment as a president—and, for many, being really and truly open to this new reality is the first step toward achieving successful and happy long-term leadership of their college or university and the many positive rewards that come with it.
The president’s job can be challenging, sometimes lonely and certainly requires a special set of skills and more than a dash of resilience. But it can also be stimulating, intellectually fulfilling and immensely rewarding. Presidents who are in it for the right reasons celebrate meaningful victories every single day, and we all learn new things along the way.