To Preside or not to Preside, that is the Question

After a tough year across the country, many leaders of colleges and universities may be rethinking their future plans. For many college presidents, 2005-2006 was the academic year that would never end.

The Houston Chronicle recently ran a fascinating story entitled Hard Year for College Presidents Ending, which chronicles the plight experienced by top dogs across the nation. From community colleges to the Ivy League, presidents are thankful that school’s out for summer.
This year, college students aren’t the only ones anxious for summer. The academic year that’s winding down has been one of the most contentious in recent memory, and a brutal one for college presidents.

What has caused this past year to be such a tough one for college presidents?

Circumstances vary, but broad themes are apparent. Often, the cast of characters includes an ambitious president, alumni and faculty who insist on being actively consulted, and a board of trustees caught in the middle _ all under the media spotlight.

Of the reasons listed above, there is no question that Texas A&M embodies all of them. From Dr. Gates’ excellent initiatives to improve the school to helicopter donors who appeal for “no donation without representation”, Texas A&M is right on par with the challenges that other schools are experiencing.

What challenges do presidents face that contribute to the tough environment in which they work?
Many leaders are overwhelmed by the unrelenting fundraising demands (22 colleges are in the midst of official campaigns to raise at least $1 billion), tripped up by big-time sports programs, or bowled over by parents and students who pay more than ever and no longer hesitate to complain about the slightest imperfections.

But the article suggests that a new style of campus leader is in town who brings their own problems to the table:

Many also agree on another factor behind the campus turmoil: the new, CEO-style leaders that many colleges hire, and who arrive with major agendas for reform.

The pressure on college presidents is immense because they must be a jack of all trades:

Modern college presidents must be “intellectual leaders, scholars, managers, sensitive to people, knowledgeable about monetary affairs and investments, boosters of athletics, culture and dance, good with neighbors, agile fundraisers,” [George Washinton University President Stephen Trachtenberg] said. “The job description is so expansive and so unforgiving that what is impressive is there are as many people as are willing to stand up and take a shot.”

Before you have too much compassion, the article also points out that most presidents are well compensated for their troubles:

There is ample prestige, the company of erudite colleagues and perks like a free house and 50-yard-line football seats. Median compensation for presidents of research universities is about $470,000, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s latest survey (compensation is about half that at smaller schools).

In light of all the challenges, would these presidents do it all again?

A Chronicle survey last fall reported 94 percent of college presidents would choose the job again.

This article from the Houston Chronicle provides some great insight into the challenges and chores of being a university president. The main thing that it neglects to mention is the pursuit of political correctness that drives most higher education institutions in general and college presidents in particular. The efforts to please people, avoid bad press and advocate for diversity and tolerance clearly rival the other purposes carried out at an administration level. Politics and political correctness create a daunting situation on any level.


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