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What New Presidents Need to Know (Chapter 1)

This is the first in a series of blogposts by seasoned college and university presidents sharing their best advice for new presidents and chancellors.

  • Stay student focused. Everything we do should be about the experience the student is receiving. If we are making budget cuts, make sure that the last thing touched affects students directly. No one picks a school or is retained by how well payroll is managed. Outsource or make cuts to those things first that do not affect the student experience. If we are thinking about an athletic conference, make sure the student athletes can compete in that division or league. We are all here because of the students so we should be here primarily for the students, and our decisions should be about what is best for them, not what is best for a department or another constituency group on campus. Worry less about prestige and more about building a reputation of excellence with your students. The second most important stakeholder beside the students are the alumni: they are the "owners" of the college in many senses. They have skin in the game for their alma mater to succeed. Know the culture of the student body and the alumni and try to understand and support that culture. Remember that culture eats strategy for lunch. Many a president has had a short tenure for failing to understand the unique culture of the institution that they have been chosen to run.

  • Building your team is never done. I would estimate 50% of my job is hiring and mentoring my senior staff. I seem to rarely get through three years without someone retiring or leaving the senior staff. I originally thought that I would get my senior staff in place and then really start to rock and roll. What I've realized is that I am constantly bringing in new senior leadership and mentoring the change in the team. It is an ongoing process and you will rarely keep all your senior staff members for long periods of time. Use this to your advantage. With each new person comes new ideas and new dynamics to the team. You won't be done with building your team; it is an ongoing process.

  • Watch your discount rate. Consultants and VPs of Admissions are quick to show that net tuition revenue increases when you increase the scholarships and then have more student numbers. What they cannot show you is the tipping point where the student number increases more costs on the balance sheet. For instance, 5 more students may not add significantly to the costs of educating them, but does 10? Once these increases happen in faculty or staff, the net tuition revenue drops and those extra students are now costing you more. Try to get to a place where you understand how many counselors, staff, faculty you need to serve well the students you have and then maximize other opportunities to diversify revenue. The net tuition revenue game is a fool's quest that will not end well for anyone.

  • Don't try to change a school. It serves a certain kind of student really well. It may not serve another kind of student well, and if the institution is changed, where do the current students being served well go? Instead, try to understand the culture. What kind of student from what kind of background does really well here? How can we find more of them and maximize our service/programming for them? These are much better questions than the one I often hear people say that they wish they were another type of institution (usually more prestigious) or had wealthier or smarter students. The grass often looks greener at other institutions, but you may be losing something that really makes your institution unique and valuable. Own and celebrate what makes you unique and valuable. Trying to change an institution into another institution is very risky. Don't take the job if that is what you want to do. I think every president should love their institution for who it is and for the students it serves.

  • Lastly, don't ever let your board chair be surprised. Keep them constantly informed about what is going on. You need to have a relationship with your board chair that is strong, loyal, and unwavering. You both need each other to help the institution succeed.

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