Sometime this week, perhaps through a board memorandum or a campus-wide email, Washington College will install Kurt Landgraf as its new president. For a small college, and this tiny town, that is a big deal since it has only happened twenty-nine times since 1782.
And since it is such a rare occurrence, the Chestertown Spy has made it a habit of welcoming WC’s leaders on our editorial page since the first Spy began publication in the 1790s. That tradition continues here.
As an observer of Washington College and its presidents, the Spy has always had a high degree of respect, admiration, and more than a little sympathy for those that take on this line of work. It is no secret that being a president of a small college in today’s world is perhaps one of the most challenging jobs one can have, not only in higher education but any profession. Budgets are tight, expenses are high, student recruitment competitive, and fundraising goals aspirational, while trustees, faculty members, and alumni continue to have their own enormous expectations. This list goes on.
Given all that, it is truly remarkable there is so little done in the way of training for those rising to this level of academic leadership. In fact, except for some crash courses offered by places like Harvard, and perfunctory meetings with board members and senior administrators, new college presidents are responsible for their own orientation.
Given these limitations, the Spy, fondly devoted to Washington College, wants to help the new president climb the learning curve with a few suggestions beyond the standard, and often repeated, mantra that every president needs a “vision.” Here are some points, some ideas, for any new president to keep in mind, and – since it’s a college – some suggested supplementary reading from both the Spy and other sources.
1) Honor institutional memory: Washington College’s revolutionary position in higher education always seems to get lost in the College’s public relations push to promote the role George Washington played in the College’s creation. The Washington connection is a great story to tell, and all of WC’s presidents have fully embraced this narrative, even to the point where one president had been so limited in his knowledge that he spent the first six months of his tenure incorrectly telling audiences that Washington had been the “founder” of the institution. That kind of fake history helps neither the school or its students.
But more importantly, the other story, the one in which Washington College’s creation fundamentally changed the role of higher education when it opened its doors in 1782, gets lost in all the hype. The Spy’s interview with WC’s retired professor Colin Dickson for a delightful discussion of William Smith and the College’s early years.
2) The Town and the College are intertwined: There has always been an active, if the not particularly valuable, debate in Chestertown on whether it is a “town with a college” or a “college town.” It doesn’t matter. It is only important for a new college president to know that this community and Washington College are irretrievably intertwined economically, intellectually, culturally, and physically. Rather than face an uncertain future separately, WC and Chestertown must work together in a serious and strategically meaningful way to remain relevant. The Spy most recently addressed this special relationship in an editorial a few months ago.
3) Choose scholarships over campus amenities: One of the most unforgivable sins in higher education these days is that a college’s endowment does not determine its commitment to economic diversity among its students. Case in point, Bowdoin College in Maine, with an endowment of almost $1.4 billion, only provides scholarship support to 45% of its students, but consistently wins the “best dormitory food” category in higher education by investing loads of money into that area. Washington College, on the other hand, supports about 60% of its students using its relatively modest endowment of $200 million. While there is always the temptation to keep up with the “Joneses” to improve recruitment of students who can pay $60,000 a year for that high end buffet at Bowdoin, President Landgarf and others would profit from journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s work last year that documents this moral conundrum.
4) Manage expectations: The dream of every college president is to have a “transformational” gift during their tenure which can catapult their school to a much higher orbit in ranking and prestige through the generosity of a $100 million-plus donation. The good news is that these gifts do sometimes happen (WC alum Betty Casey are you listening?) but not often. It is more often the case that a college president has to devote a decade or more to better position their school. Be realistic in your goals until that rare transformational moment takes place.
5) It’s ok to preach: At the end of the day, colleges need leaders, not administrators. While some may now consider the job as the “fundraiser in chief,” in reality the students and most faculty want a college president to use their bully pulpit to connect the dots between the issues of the day and the importance of critical thinking, moral judgment, and citizenship. While this suggestion might have seemed redundant a few decades ago, nowadays college presidents are taking on a corporate CEO model where commentary from on top might jeopardize the value of the “brand.”
6) Find your inner poet to lead: While it is true that students and parents demand higher “returns on investment” for their $100,000 plus tuition fees, in reality, they need and want a liberal arts experience. The fusion of the humanities with such things as “business management” is the essential differential between vocational education and the limitless capacity for knowledge and experience that comes with a small residential college.
Joseph McLain, an internationally recognized chemist before he became WC’s president in the 1970s, insisted on holding weekly poetry recitals with students to drive home his conviction that science and the humanities must learn from each other. President Landgraf must find his own way to demonstrate his commitment to this ideal.
7). Enjoy the job and the town: As the Spy has noted before, surveys of new college presidents have found an overwhelming percentage either disliked or hated their jobs after their first year in office. There might be good reasons for that, given the enormous pressure placed upon these individuals, but the odds are that those who hate their job, regardless of their station in life, rarely perform well. One way to do that is to follow the first six points outlined here, but also fall in love with Chestertown and its people.