Fall has always been one of my favorite seasons. This fall, when classes resume at colleges and universities across America, freshmen and transfer students won’t be the only newbies on campus. They will be joined by hundreds of new faculty members, department chairs and deans, as well as new C-suite occupants, including presidents and chancellors. While new students will have access to a host of people and services to help them get off to a successful start, unfortunately the same cannot be said for new presidents, many of whom will be left to fend for themselves.
There will be the usual university press release announcing the appointment of the new president, including information on academic, administrative, corporate or political pedigree. If the new president is the first woman, ethnic minority or secular person appointed to this position, there will be an additional measure of self-congratulations for the institution’s commitment to diversity, equity, belonging and inclusion. If, on the other hand, the appointee is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, the press release is less likely to reference that fact. Although few former scholars, administrators, and supporters say so publicly, the hiring of openly gay presidents and chancellors has yet to gain full acceptance in too many academic circles.
In well-planned and precisely executed press conferences that include all genres of media, the new presidents will be introduced and should give listeners a glimpse of how the institution will become a more excellent, competitive, equitable and responsive university – all this before the ink has even dried on their contracts! The more challenges the institution faces, the more it seems the new president will be peppered with specific questions about how those problems will be resolved. Too often I have watched new presidents attempt to answer such questions for which they lacked the background to do so.
With the changing of the presidential guard at universities across the country, especially at many of my beloved HBCUs, I offer the following suggestions to incoming presidents as well as those aspiring to become college presidents, drawing on my experience as a university three times. chairman of two PWIs and one HBCU, chairman-in-residence of the United Negro College Fund, and numerous academic consulting firms spanning the higher education landscape. The ideas presented below belong to me alone and should not be attributed to any of the organizations or institutions that I have currently consulted or have consulted in the past.
· Take the time to learn about the institution’s history, traditions and cultural norms. Familiarize yourself with the milestones in the life of the institution and who led them.
· Get to know each board member and their aspirations for the university. While maintaining an effective working relationship with the Chairman of the Board is essential, the Chairman of the Board is not the Board. Although some board members may be wealthier or more influential than others, it goes without saying that everyone deserves the same respect.
· Do not insist on hiring your own staff to the point of destabilizing the institution. There are many smart, experienced, loyal and committed people in the institution who can help you achieve your vision.
· Get to know the faculty and staff, not just the leadership team, deans and directors. Without substantial commitment from faculty and staff, the presidential vision quickly becomes an illusion.
· Know the budget inside and out and don’t rely on the CFO to make decisions for you. Implementing, managing and monitoring the budget to ensure compliance with institutional and regulatory policies is the chief financial officer’s role. The audit results should not surprise you!
· Know why things are made the way they are before you begin to undo them. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s warning is that one must “know why the fence was put up before taking it down”.
· What you don’t know can hurt you and prevent you from achieving the goals you and the board have set for the institution. Always consult authentically, broadly and strategically. Prioritize seeking opinions, rather than making assumptions or acting on the advice of those who may not have the courage to disagree with you.
· Remember to remember that leadership is a process, not a position.
· Resist savior syndrome and learn to live with less praise than you give.
· If you ever reach a point where your vision is not aligned with the mission of the institution, go back to the drawing board or find yourself another job.
As a black baby boomer and student activist during the civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s, my decision to pursue a career in higher education was deeply influenced by an unwavering belief in the transformative power of education. , an unshakable faith that my parents transmitted to me. to all their children. Having entered the autumn of my life, this belief is stronger than ever. Yet I am also convinced that the chief executives of universities, whatever their title, play a vital role in ensuring that the institutions they lead are relevant, responsive and effective in meeting the needs of all students, and not only those of the most privileged. backgrounds.
As I wrote this column, I couldn’t help but smile as I remembered the encouragement I received from one of my staunchest supporters and mentors, Dr. Lawrence A. Davis, Sr., President of Arkansas AM&N, now the University of Arkansas at Pin Bluff. When I was a sophomore in college at 19, I told him I wanted to be a college president. He gave me a big smile and said, “Boy, you can do it!” It has been a privilege to serve as University Chancellor three times, and my greatest accomplishment has been to use my position to advance equity and excellence for the historically disenfranchised.
Here we wish presidents and chancellors from across the higher education landscape a successful term of office. As you progress, be sure to remember that the position is not about you, but about the people you are privileged to serve.
Have a good trip!
Dr. Charlie Nelms is a seasoned higher education administrator and Chancellor Emeritus of North Carolina Central University.