How University Boards Work - Campus Presidents as Chief Mission Officers

Over the past year, I have issued short descriptions of the topics covered in How University Boards Work: A Guide for Trustees, Officers, and Leaders in Higher Education. In this post, I discuss the role of the campus president as Chief Mission Officer as well as Chief Executive Officer.

I was asked recently about changes in higher education that I have noticed over the years. After thinking about the effects of technology, the force of social media in shaping public discussions, and the demand for private resources, among others, I recalled the following memories.

When I started at Ramapo College of New Jersey in 1985, the other presidents and I shared a vision for the purposes of public higher education. We worked together to inform the public and talk with legislators. Yes, we experienced overlap in admissions applications and wanted our fair share of the state budget, but we gathered as colleagues in common cause, not as competitors. During this period, I also worked with several other public college presidents to create the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC). We wanted a forum for discussing student learning and our responsibilities for advancing it, and not be limited to appealing to the governor and legislators in our respective states.

In both settings, we were educators first and competitors second. As institutional leaders, we advocated not only for our colleges but also, and cooperatively, for higher education as a public good.

When I came to Adelphi University in 2000, I was welcomed into the camaraderie of public and private institution presidents who composed the Long Island Regional Advisory Council on Higher Education (LIRACHE). The collective worked on building relationships with area school superintendents so as to improve communications on admission requirements and to help increase college attendance. We also met with regional business groups so to improve economic development. We saw our role as advocates for advanced learning and connecting student learning to community needs.

With these memories in mind, I was struck by the tone of two recent conversations I had with former colleagues. In the first, I heard that the competition among public college presidents and campuses for students and state resources in New Jersey is such that the organization created for the collective now has a lack of cohesion. In another conversation, I heard something similar about the Long Island group. Attendance at meetings is lagging in part due to a decline in the sense of common purpose.

I wondered if there are similarities in these two experiences. What had changed over time?

One suggestion is that the newer presidents who were not part of the earlier years in the establishment of these organizations do not have the same emotional commitment to them. I am sure that this is true to some extent. It might also be that higher education is more competitive for students and funding, and newer presidents are under different and greater pressures. They were put in the position of Chief Executive Officers of their campuses, with less emphasis on their roles as educators and community leaders but more on their duties as managers. This too might be an influence.

It also is the case that during the years in which New Jersey State Colleges were gaining trustee autonomy and seeking state grants to further campus distinctiveness, there was solidarity in seeking goals for the common good. However, once these goals were attained, most campuses sought to shed their “college” standing and be granted “university” status, seeking to be aligned with Rutgers and gaining a larger proportion of state higher education resources.

In a similar manner, the New York State competitive economic development grant program for universities assigned certain campuses a more prestigious designation related to their doctoral programs and “research” agendas. This decision created arbitrary divisions in what had been a more coherent higher education community and fostered competition instead of cooperation.

However, the continuing solidarity of the COPLAC campuses suggests still another explanation. In the New Jersey and Long Island cases, public policy and incentives emphasized competition over cooperation. They also emphasized the campus president as the captain of this competition, more CEO than educator. In the case of COPLAC, presidents believed themselves to be, and acted as, Chief Mission Officers. They did not give up their role as educator, or give in to pressures to put temporary public policy issues above student learning and the role of the faculty.

As I wrote in How University Boards Work, the campus presidency can be a lonely job with many divergent pressures. Partnerships are possible, but not always easy to attain. It is a role of the board to ask, “What is the most important goal you are proposing, and how does it relate to student retention and graduation?” This would emphasize the president’s role as educator and leader and do more to fulfill campus missions for student success.

Robert A. Scott is the former president of Adelphi University and of Ramapo College of New Jersey. He is the author of How University Boards Work: A Guide for Trustees, Officers, and Leaders in Higher Education.