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Diverse Conversations: Nelms Discusses Path to College Presidency (Part II)

Here is Part II of my interview with Dr. Charlie Nelms, former chancellor at North Carolina Central University and the founder of Destination Graduation, a nonprofit organization focused on increasing retention and graduation rates at the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities. Recently, I sat down with him to discuss his suggestions for aspiring college/university presidents.

Q: “You cannot allow anyone to be responsible for your failure.” I love this poignant statement from your article, yet it seems that few people understand the gravity of it. Why do you think that some presidents make the critical mistake of keeping around friends, cronies and allies who are incompetent or not doing their jobs?

A: While all presidents must rely on a cadre of professional colleagues for their success, they must not allow anyone to be responsible for their failure. By this, I mean we should not hire or retain incompetent people no matter how well or long we have known them. The president must be clear about his or her work expectations, hire competent professionals, empower them and hold them accountable for desired results — not promises or excuses. In too many instances, personal friendships and loyalty, rather than relevant professional experience, form the basis for personnel decisions. One piece of advice that I always give my protégés who ascend to executive-level positions in the academy is this: “There are no substitutes for excellence and competence.” Surround yourself with people who are smart, who lead by doing and on whom you can depend for achieving agreed upon university outcomes. Hiring, promoting and retaining employees based on friendship is a sure way to fail.

Q: What is the responsibility of the university president in ensuring the academic success of students enrolled at the institution?

A: As university CEO, the president is accountable for every aspect of the university’s agenda — ranging from getting clean financial audits, maintaining accreditation and to graduating students. While the president doesn’t teach every class or provide every service, it is his or her job to make certain that all resources — human and fiscal — are properly deployed to achieve desired results. In the final analysis, it is the president — not anyone else — who has the ultimate authority to allocate or reallocate resources, human and fiscal, toward the institution’s highest priority, which is student success as measured by retention and graduation.

Q: During your tenure at North Carolina Central University, you did an excellent job of recruiting, retaining and graduating students. Any advice for aspiring presidents who may one day find themselves stepping into a situation where recruitment, retention and graduation statistics are extremely low?

A: My advice to presidents charged with leading institutions experiencing enrollment declines is four-fold. First, commission an in-depth analysis of longitudinal enrollment patterns before throwing money at the problem. Second, hire an experienced enrollment management administrator to develop and implement a comprehensive enrollment management plan with a focus on recruitment, retention and quality service initiatives. Third, empower all members of the university community to serve as enrollment management specialists, i.e., faculty, department chairs, support staff, etc. Fourth, refine the institution’s value proposition and mount a comprehensive and sustainable marketing effort.

Q: How important are the needs of the students to a new president? Do they supersede the needs of the faculty/staff?

A: Without students there would not be a need for the institution nor the president! Student needs do not supersede the needs of faculty and staff, though. The equation is far more complex than that. Without competent, committed and hardworking faculty and staff, students cannot obtain the quality of education to which they are entitled. Teamwork is the core of student success.

Q: What is your philosophy for dealing with the alumni? Can a president be successful without them in his corner?

A: To succeed as a president, alumni support is critical. My philosophy has always been to keep alumni informed and engaged. When they are informed and engaged, alumni are much more inclined to contribute financially, to refer potential students, and to assist the institution in telling its story in circles that may not be traveled by the president or other members of the university community. This is not to suggest that all alumni will be happy with everything the president does, but they are more likely to support the direction of the institution if they are informed about the rationale for administrative decisions and associated consequences.

Q: What is the biggest mistake that new college or university presidents make?

A: I think the biggest mistake that many new presidents make is attempting to lead the institution without taking the time necessary to gain an appreciation for the history and cultural traditions of the university and the accomplishments of their predecessors. Moreover, many presidents fail to build a base of support within various sectors of the university community and to examine the strengths of incumbents. Central to this idea is to spend time listening to the aspirations that faculty, staff, students and alumni have for the institution. If the president has an appreciation for the aspirations of those on whom he or she depends for success, and they understand the president’s vision, success is far more likely to occur.

Q: What is the greatest satisfaction associated with being a college president?

A: Without a doubt, seeing students graduate was the greatest source of satisfaction for me as a college president. Commencement puts into a positive perspective all of the challenges and obstacles faced by the president.

This concludes my interview with Dr. Charlie Nelms. A successful three-time president, his advice is worthy of consideration by those who aspire to be university presidents. We thank him for his willingness to mentor others and for his service to the academy.

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