WELCOMING A HIGH-PROFILE PRESIDENT
TO A RESEARCH UNIVERSITY
BY PATRICIA A. WHITELY
Increasingly over the last 20 years, higher education institutions have become complex, challenging organizations to lead and to move forward. Budget cutbacks at state and federal levels, ever-changing teaching and communication technologies, diverse and challenging needs of student populations, pressure to raise money, aging facilities, and recruitment of talented faculty and staff have all resulted in
an average tenure of a college president of about seven years. Given this rate of turnover, student affairs
divisions and SSAOs need to be extremely adept at managing change, transition, and expectations when
new presidents and their staffs arrive to lead their institutions.
What can an SSAO do to prepare for this change in leadership? How can you work with your own staff and students to
anticipate and gear up for the change? How can you and your
organization forge a new relationship with the president? The
following suggestions may ease the transition process.
Learn About Your New Leader
Learn as much as you can about the new president. Speak to
former staff and faculty who have worked with him or her,
preferably before the new president arrives at your campus.
Learn about personal leadership and communication styles.
Discover his or her interests and the accomplishments that
ultimately led to a college or university presidency. Given
your role, it is especially important to get a sense of how your
new president prefers to interact with students. Does he or
she enjoy large events or look for smaller venues? Does he
or she like to meet individually with student leaders? Answers
to these questions are important to consider as you prepare
to introduce your new president to the student climate
Make sure to work with the president and his or her staff
to maximize opportunities to engage with parents and new
and continuing students. A number of forums with various
student leaders early on can go a long way toward setting a
positive tone with students.
Do not hold on to the past. The past is the foundation on
which the new president will build. While the history of the
institution should always be respected and affirmed, a significant challenge of new leadership is to infuse the institution
with new ideas, vision, strategies, and opportunities for success. New presidents most often will invest both in short-term
and long-term strategies and ideas to transform the institution
in subtle and profound ways.
Working for 10 years with my president, former U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Donna
E. Shalala, I have experienced these traits firsthand. On the
first day of her administration as the fifth president of the
University of Miami, she asked me during a tour of campus,
“Where do students sit on the campus?” When I replied “the
benches” she suggested immediately that tables and chairs
be located throughout campus. Within days, more than 100
tables and chairs were added and, subsequently, were complemented with our now-famous orange and green gliders all
over campus. Her response, or short-term strategy, to this
seemingly innocent question really changed the “feel” of the
campus, optimized our tropical location, and set the tone for
her to be viewed as a student-centered president.
Long-term strategies over the 10-year period included
completing a successful billion-dollar capital campaign, setting
the stage for a new student center set to begin construction in
fall 2011, and moving the university into the top 50 research
universities as recognized by U.S. News and World Report.
Prepare Your Staff
It is important that the student affairs staff is prepared to support your efforts to help a new president achieve success. If at
all possible, a new president should be invited to an event with
your full staff in his or her first weeks on campus to enable
the staff to meet the president, ask questions, and gain insight
about the new leader. Staff members welcome this type of
event, and, undoubtedly, they will be more supportive about
helping in small ways to implement the new president’s vision
for the institution.
Establish Communication Guidelines
Unfortunately, the reality of student affairs work today is that
responsibilities often involve student crises that receive media
attention and demand sensitivity and communication with