New College Chiefs Get Survival Tips at Summer Boot Camp

It's your first week on the job as Podunk College's new president. You're racing to prepare for a meeting that the trustees called in less than an hour. But you've also just been handed an in-box with items demanding immediate attention.

One item reminds you that tonight is your daughter's piano recital. And then there's a note that says a top donor wants to meet for dinner.

Where to start? What to do?

Dry-run drills like this kick off basic training at Harvard University's boot camp for new college presidents. Each year, the nation's colleges spend millions on orientation sessions for freshmen. But only Harvard and a few other schools offer something similar for the adults who will lead them.

The seminars aim to give college presidents at least an inkling of what to expect, and how to handle probably the most demanding job in academic life. And while these new arrivals may have run many gauntlets en route to the top office, as presidents they can face daunting tasks for which they've had virtually no preparation.

"A new president is like a diver standing at the end of the high dive for the first time," says Judith McLaughlin, director of the Harvard seminar. "It may be exciting to reach a new level of skill and challenge. But there's also the risk of a belly flop. And those hurt much more at a higher level."

Lesson No. 1 to avoid belly flops: Don't let your private life be overrun by the demands of a "24-hour-a-day" job, Ms. McLaughlin says. That may seem all too obvious. But what if you have millions of dollars to raise in a short time - like most college presidents in the country today? Suppose, too, that you also have students, faculty, alumni, donors, and the local mayor all wanting to meet that same day.

"During the school year, an average school day is at least 12 hours, and it's filled with people," says Barbara Sirvis, who has been president of Southern Vermont College in Bennington for a year and attended the seven-day Harvard seminar, held in July. "Days are for people and nights are for paperwork. I always take home more than I can get done."

Two years ago, when he attended the Harvard seminar, Paul LeBlanc heard the lecture on guarding private time. Hired away from a Boston publisher to become president of Marlboro (Vt.) College, his mandate was to take a small liberal-arts school that had struggled financially and return it to fiscal soundness.

To Dr. LeBlanc, being a president is "engaging, demanding, fascinating - the best job in the country."

Still, he realized recently he was skipping lunch, eating cookies on the run, and staying up too late. He now eats more-regular meals at home. Sometimes he's in bed by 11 p.m.

"The presidency, at colleges small and large, has a way of taking up all of one's free time if you let it," LeBlanc says. "You might say: 'I would never go to a meeting on my daughter's birthday.' But it's the regular evening dinners you start to miss, the baseball practice, that ruin the quality of family life and hurt your ability to be a good president."

College presidents have always had a tough job, of course. But the past decade's emphasis on cost cutting, competing for students as well as donation dollars, and more-active trustees have made the job more complex.

A growing number of constituencies inside and outside the college must be wooed rather than ordered about, says Marlene Ross, director of a study of college presidents by the American Council on Education (ACE) in Washington.

Glenda Price, a new president at Marygrove College in downtown Detroit, heartily agrees. "It's just not possible to dictate to people any longer," she says. "It takes longer to lead - you have to include all the constituencies."

Besides being less hierarchical, higher education has lost its secure economic foothold in society. College presidents must regularly justify budgets to state legislatures and compete for donor dollars to fill the gaps. "College presidents used to spend maybe 10 to 20 percent of their time on fund-raising," says Dale Rogers Marshall, president of Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., who lectured the Harvard group on the importance of fund-raising. "I spend about 50 percent, and others say they spend more."

Despite the added pressures and complexities, predictions that presidents would be fired more often as a result have so far not been borne out, according to ACE's Ms. Ross.

Presidential tenure actually increased a bit over the past decade through 1995. There has also been a rise in hiring of presidents who already have experience as presidents, reflecting a conservative trend by boards of trustees.

With all the complexity and fund-raising challenges, one of the best benefits of the Harvard seminar, according to participants, is becoming friends with others facing similar problems. Despite many meetings, the presidency can seem lonely.

"You're with people all day but you have to keep your own counsel," says Dr. Sirvis. "The most valuable thing to me was establishing a lifelong support group of people you can call."

Dr. Price echoes that sentiment. She has been president of Marygrove for just five weeks. Students won't return for weeks, but she is feeling pressure to start raising the remainder of a $21 million endowment drive. "It's just pocket change to places like Harvard," Price says. But to her, the $9 million still needed could be a tough slog. And that could put her on the phone to others in the Harvard group - looking for tips. "It's always those last few completion dollars that are the toughest," she says.

* Send comments to: claytonm@csps.com

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