Published on 2018/10/05

Five Things I Didn’t Know About Being a University President (Until I Became One)

The EvoLLLution | Five Things I Didn’t Know About Being a University President (Until I Became One)
The university presidency can be incredibly rewarding, but new entrants to the role must be aware of some potential pitfalls. A veteran president shares some of the secrets of the trade.
I thought I was ready to be a president. After all, I had decades of involvement in higher education. My Curriculum Vitae purely sparkled with the work assignments, titles and achievements that people need in order to be considered a leader. I had worked up the faculty ranks from instructor to assistant, associate, and full professor. I had been a program coordinator, an honors director, a dean and a provost. I knew how to raise money and develop an inclusive strategic plan. I had dutifully attended all the leadership seminars provided at conferences and truly believed in my ability to bring people together and make good decisions.

What else was there to know?

As it turned out… plenty. You see, a university presidency isn’t like any other job in higher education. It is a job for which no one is ever truly prepared. When asked the most important things I didn’t know before taking the job, I usually offer the following five points:

  1. Stay Standing

First, I didn’t know the amount of time you spend on your feet as president, either standing or walking. Presidents may have big offices, but we don’t have what you would consider desk jobs. Take the average home football game: On game days, I would get up early, hang the team flags out at the president’s house, dress in the school colors and head to any campus events. At about noon, I would start a walking tour, visiting the tailgaters and greeting returning alums, school groups and community supporters. The home team parade often involved leading the processional on foot and waving to the crowds. Next came the president’s tailgate party, where I would host two to three hundred guests, stopping at every table to welcome everyone. Next came a walk to the stadium, because the crowds were too thick for a golf cart to get through. By then it was time for kickoff. No chance of sitting and enjoying the game: the president’s box hosted about 75-100 donors, alums and politicians who had been invited to enjoy the game from a sumptuous venue AND have one-on-one time with the president. Usually, halftime involved a hike down to the field to participate in recognitions or to crown a homecoming queen. Three hours later, the game was done, but I wasn’t. One more trip to the field to shake the coaches’ hands, enjoy the band’s post-game concert, and then hike back to my car. It was not unusual for my pedometer to register 20,000 steps by the time I hit the pillow that evening.

  1. Have a Seat

Conversely, as a president I marveled at the number of hours I spent sitting. Board meetings in particular tend to yawn on endlessly over the span of a couple of days with few breaks, except for the end-of-day reception (when you are back on your feet). To make matters worse, at least at the universities I have served, the meetings are public and you have to sit still and appear attentive. You don’t want to be caught napping on camera or messing with your iPhone.

  1. Trust, But Verify

On a more sobering note, you will learn that not everybody wants you to win. I’m not talking about your competition; I mean the folks close by who may even work in the administration building. It’s not that they don’t want the university to succeed. They just don’t want YOU to get the credit. Maybe they applied for your job and didn’t get it. Maybe their brother-in-law was fired by someone you hired. Whatever the reason, they will deliver just enough support to stay in your good graces but nothing more. Even a small withholding of best effort can make the difference between simply meeting goals and knocking it out of the park.

  1. Time Flies

Equally terrifying, you have no control over your own schedule as president. You only think you do. Your days and weekends belong to the job. I remember nearly hyperventilating every week when I glanced at the calendar. Sometimes there wasn’t a crack of light between meetings. On some days, meetings were wedged on top of meetings, making the daily schedule look more like a ransom note than an orderly itinerary.

  1. The Hidden Dangers at Campus Events

To add insult to injury, all those wonderfully catered university events are packed with calories. You can literally gain 20 pounds by eating with toothpicks. I think I was six weeks into the job before I actually picked up a fork.

Some Solutions, Because This Is An Incredible Job:

I’m in my third presidency now. Over the years, I’ve discovered other surprises about the job, but for the five challenges listed above, I offer the following advice:

  • Eat a light meal before attending events and stay away from the canapes.
  • Fight for down time. Remember Stephen Covey’s 7th habit of highly effective people and “take time to sharpen the saw.” If you don’t take care of your own physical, mental, spiritual needs, you’re not going to be much good to anyone else.
  • Expect the best from everybody with whom you work. If you’re not getting it, figure out why, and take appropriate action.
  • Get a reminder app on your smart phone that tells you to get up and stretch during long meetings.
  • Wear sensible shoes.

Martha Dunagin Saunders is currently serving as President of the University of West Florida. Her previous presidencies were at the University of Southern Mississippi and the University of Wisconsin Whitewater.

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