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Videoconference examines changing role of today’s college president

American college and university presidents have less time than ever for the traditional rode of acting as the academic leader of their institutions. Instead they are fundraising, lobbying and acting as peacemaker among their different constituencies, several presidents and scholars told a nationwide audience at a recent Black Issues In Higher Education videoconference.


University of Virginia


President Dr. John Casteen, III said he spends three-quarters of his time on fundraising, followed closely by dealing with political issues. Traditional college presidential duties “come in last,” he said.


“Shrinking budgets mean we spend more time fundraising and the dollars are more readily available for institutions that already have an established record of excellence,” he said. The videoconference, “Prosperity or Turmoil: The Future of the American College President,” focused on some of the problems faced by presidents as they deal with smaller budgets, fractious faculty and the tensions surrounding affirmative action and diversity.


“When it comes to diversity and tolerance, a president needs to understand that it is his or her role (to act) as the facilitator and tone setter,” said Jonathan Alger, from the associate council for the American Association of University Professors. Alger said sharing information and receiving input from faculty is vita]. “Faculty are on the front line of education and should be seen as a resource … If information is shared and there is constructive dialogue, faculty can come up with solutions a president may not think of himself.”


That issue was illustrated by the presence of Bowie State University President Dr. Nathaniel Pollard, who recently received a vote of “no confidence” from his faculty, despite students who approved of the job he is doing. He is the third president of Bowie State to receive a vote of no-confidence from the faculty.


Pollard said the university has since accepted the recommendation of a task force composed of business leaders and educators that calls for “a more inclusive government structure,” with a change in leadership style and better communications.


“We are developing a governing structure that is powerful and will dead Bowie State into the twenty-first century,” said Pollard. Holly Madsen, staff liaison to the Commission on the Academic Presidency for the Association of Governing Boards, agreed and added, “Colleges and universities are looking for a president: who can deal with the external constituencies as well — the government, the donors, the business community.”


“You have to walk a tight rope to please everyone,” said Dr. Henry Ponder, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education and former president of Fisk University and Benedict College.


“What we are asked to do is almost impossible,” continued Ponder. “We have to work with the alumni, the students, the trustees, the community. … And what the alumni want is different from what the faculty and students would like to have.” Ponder remembers a different time, thirty years ago, “when the president said ‘this is what we’re going to do.’ … Now, everyone feels like they should have the last word.”


Dr. Stanley O. Ikenberry, the new president of the American an Council on Education, said that such conflicts require presidents to change leadership styles. The clays of the “dictator” president are over, Ikenberry told the conference. “Leadership demands have shifted … Today’s president or chancellor is more of a team player. He has to build consensus on campus. Part of the complexity of being president is the ability to lead in a number of different areas.”


Dr. Joshua Smith, professor of the Higher Education Center for Urban Community College Leadership at New York University and former chancellor of the California Community College system advised, “Be consistent with your message on and off campus. … build partnerships with the students, tile faculty, the trustees and the surrounding community.” “Don’t let the title define you,” Smith said. “It will eventually destroy you. Don’t let your ego get in the way.”


Attorney Felicenne Ramey, professor of business administration at California State University-Sacramento, and researcher of women’s leadership style in higher education, said that women college presidents are under particular pressure because many come to the position without significant fundraising experience.

While the average stay for a college president may be five years, Ramey said, women tend to leave after two years because “there is not much tolerance for what they are doing.” “But I think they should be given the opportunity,” she said, citing Spelman College president Johnetta Cole for her leadership and fundraising.


Despite the challenges, Ramey said the role of the college president “is more important to society today in 1996 than it was ten or fifteen years ago. It’s the most remarkable position in our society.”


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