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Public Roles, Private Lives

Universities have become cognizant of the independent lives of presidential spouses, but it’s still a role these “accidental ambassadors” must grow into.

When Phyllis Wong’s husband, Leslie, was named president of Northern Michigan University, she found herself uncertain about how to approach her new role of first lady. The spouse of a college president is often an ambassador for the school and in the spotlight as much as the president. So Wong asked her father for advice. The most important advice he had he couldn’t overstate enough: listen and listen more.

The advice sounded simple enough, but “I came to understand the importance of listening,” Wong says. “I’m serving a wide variety of people. It’s important to be attentive to the needs of many.”

She and her counterparts believe those priorities illustrate the breadth and complexity of the role of a presidential spouse. Indeed, expectations vary among college governing boards and campus constituencies of what a presidential spouse’s responsibilities should be. Typically, a university spouse or significant other not only accompanies the president to events on campus and in the surrounding community, but also serves as a proxy when the president can’t attend. He or she is expected to regularly entertain and host gatherings at the president’s home. At a time when universities rely on private gifts more than ever, spouses are crucial in maintaining donor and alumni relations.

Presidential spouses even have networks similar to those of other higher education professionals. Since 1981, for instance, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) has sponsored its Council of Presidents’ and Chancellors’ Spouses. Membership is voluntary, as is attendance at annual meetings. Meetings often coincide with professional development sessions for presidents. For the spouses, meeting topics include, but aren’t limited to, fundraising and advancement, campus security and how to work with the news media.

“We’re not chatting about color schemes for our homes,” says Chris Foster, Purdue University’s first gentleman. Executive search consultants say college governing boards across the country have taken such a deep interest in presidential spouses that when filling vacant presidencies they often include spouses when they meet with finalists.

“They might not do the same level of background checks they do with the (presidential) candidate, but they usually want to see the spouse or significant other in social situations with his or her partner before a hire is made,” says search consultant Dr. Jan Greenwood. She also is former president of Longwood University and the University of Bridgeport.

Fortunately for Fathy Shirvani, socializing and entertaining come naturally. As one of five siblings in a large extended family, she grew up accustomed to frequent homecooked dinner parties of 50 people or more with multiple conversations going on at once. So it isn’t surprising that Shirvani and her husband, Dr. Hamid Shirvani, built a home large enough to host dinners of similar size soon after he was named president of California State University, Stanislaus, in 2005. The school doesn’t own a home for its president.

But during more than a year of construction, the couple found improvisation challenging, Fathy Shirvani says. They entertained at campus facilities or local restaurants in their town of Turlock, population 55,000, or the nearby county seat of Modesto. Sometimes, they simply couldn’t secure reservation dates and times convenient for their guests. And restaurant gettogethers usually had time limits to allow staff either to serve other patrons or to close for the night.

“It was difficult,” Shirvani says. “I couldn’t wait for our home to be ready. At home, it’s easier to connect with people. It’s a different feeling than at a restaurant.”

The couple navigated their restauranthopping and other outreach successfully anyway. In late 2006, more than three months before the Shirvanis moved into their home, CSUS received $2 million from the family trust of a California almond grower. It marked the largest single-gift donation to the 8,300-student school in recent years.

Shirvani estimates the couple now hosts a dinner party at home once a week on average, with some seasons busier than others. Last December, for instance, they hosted events almost every night leading up to Christmas. Interestingly, they prefer to do the cooking as often as possible, whether it’s traditional American entrees, pasta dishes or their native Persian cuisine.

Presidential spouses also learn minute, onthe- job details of entertaining. When his wife, Purdue’s Dr. France Córdova, was chancellor of the University of California, Riverside for five years, Chris Foster paid attention to food and wine pairings by their kitchen staff so he could get more involved in planning various functions. But protocol can widely vary from school to school. He and his wife moved to the 39,000-student Purdue a year ago when she assumed its presidency. The couple inherited a house manager and events planner to handle details large and small for official events at the house Purdue provides its president. That has allowed Foster more flexibility to shape his role as first gentleman as well as continue his longtime career as a science educator. As first gentleman this past year, he served as a judge in the annual Miss Purdue beauty pageant as well as grand marshal of the annual kart grand prix race, among numerous events on campus and in the community.

Forging Their Own Paths

Foster is also Purdue’s director of K-12 programs in science, technology, engineering and math education for Discovery Park, the university’s interdisciplinary research hub. So far, he has hosted local school groups on campus and worked with Purdue officials on determining what programs at other campuses would translate well there. A 30-year science educator, he taught high school much of that time. Because his wife’s climb up the career ladder has required moves from one university to another, Foster has sought positions in and out of higher education, letting him work with undergraduates as much as possible as well as applying for grants to finance programs in STEM fields.

Search consultant Bill Funk, who has recruited college presidents for 27 years, says a growing number of governing board members of many schools now view the so-called trailing spouse differently from the way their predecessors did in the past. “There’s greater recognition of the emerging, independent spouse. The spouse doesn’t necessarily have to be part of the institution. It’s great if they participate, but if not, the university community is becoming more understanding that the spouse has his or her own career.”

Docia Rudley, Texas Southern University’s first lady, has been soul searching in a potentially opposite vein in recent months since her husband, John, was appointed president in February. Most of her 24-year career has been spent in education. A TSU law professor since 2003, she teaches courses that include consumer rights, antitrust law and professional responsibility.

Her employment at TSU pre-dates her husband’s, so no nepotism rules were broken. Still, Rudley is considering whether to teach full time beyond 2008-09.

“We’ve been discussing how intimate a role I want to be in as first lady,” she says. “There are a lot of new initiatives unfolding, and I’m trying to figure out where I might best fit, where I’ll make the most difference. And, are there projects of my own I want to initiate?” Wong stepped away from her career when she became NMU’s first lady four years ago. She taught college-level English and U.S. history for 15 years and was director of online learning at Valley City State University, where her husband was vice president of academic affairs. “My role as a teacher is now different,” she s a y s . “It’s to promote community.

” One of the causes she has championed is the “One Book, One Community” initiative between NMU and the county it’s in. Each year, organizers ask students, faculty and residents of the surrounding community to read a particular book and participate in group discussions and activities related to it to get better acquainted with one another.

Wong and other presidential spouses say their roles are like full-time jobs in which they could conceivably meet with constituents, host an event, or make public appearances every day. It is not uncommon, they say, to have to turn down invitations or decline requests because of time constraints and scheduling conflicts.

A physical therapist, Shirvani began working part time for CSUS athletics last year. She has worked in health care for more than 20 years, including for private companies. “My career is second to representing the university as the president’s wife,” she says. “But I try not to let my being his wife affect my patients. When I work with patients, they are my first obligation.”

Not surprisingly, presidential spouses rarely see one another, the exceptions being development seminars such as those offered by NASULGC. “It’s a good place to talk, get advice,” Foster says.

Perhaps the common challenge they face is balancing their public roles with a private life, says Wong, who has spoken at seminars for spouses new to their ambassador roles. “There’s no easy answer,” she says. “And even though we don’t see one another often, it’s good to know there are others out there in the same position we’re in.”

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