9 Qualities That Every College President Must Have


Recruiting a college president is arguably one of the most important and difficult tasks for a Board of Trustees. The reputation of the school is on the line. A new president inevitably will impose his or her own style and perspectives on the way the college interfaces with its constituencies. 

The diversity of interest groups that a college president must deal with makes his job that much more complex. Having a productive and honest relationship with each group is the only way a new president can be successful.

Who are the parties that the president must interface with each and every day? Not in any order of importance, they include: the Board of Trustees, students, teachers, parents, alumni, donors, government entities and the local community. Effectively co-existing with each of these parties requires a very special skill set.

The following are qualifications that I believe are most important for a prospective college president. My experiences on search committees for Outward Bound for a national president and a president of one of the Outward Bound schools weighed heavily on my comments. 

1. Leadership. As mentioned, the president must be comfortable interfacing with many diverse people that could range from a 70-year-old trustee to an 18-year-old freshman on a given day. Being able to negotiate solutions when perspectives are far afield is critical. In many situations, there could be great disagreement; what is best for the students many not be in the best interests of the school from a financial perspective, for instance. The president must have a broad leadership resume during which he has proven he can bring together opposing camps and deliver compromises that all can accept. 

2. Academic credentials. Of course, a college president must be well educated, but he must also be able to relate to the educators at the college. It would be beneficial if he understood the importance of tenure, publishing and teacher/student deliberations. The president must have insight into establishing curricula and how to measure academic excellence. So, actual teaching experience should be a high priority. In fact, the president should be required to teach a class each semester. And finally, the president would ideally have published books and/or articles on a regular basis.

3. Business experience. Managing a college is akin to running a business. A college must operate efficiently, generate strategic plans, hire and maintain a large staff, raise money, recruit educators and so on. This issue is a sensitive one because the primary mission of an institution of higher learning is to educate. However, accomplishing the mission is greatly dependent upon financial considerations. The best teachers and the finest facilities are made possible by financial success. The president must be able to work with the Trustees to match wish lists with economic reality and budgetary restrictions. In these regards, fundraising and development experience is paramount. A history of managing a large staff of workers is also very desirable in a candidate.

4. Community perspective. The college president must be in tune with the student community, which could be comprised of thousands of diverse individuals from all over America and around the world, and the community in which the school is located. Dealing with so many people and their opinions is a daunting task. The plethora of problems that are possible when several thousand students collide with each other in a city that could be as large as Los Angeles or as small as Hanover, New Hampshire are limitless.

5. Tolerance. The president must be empathetic and sympathetic to many different issues, even if he personally disapproves. In fact, college should be a place where minority views have a forum. For sure, there will be great resistance to a completely open campus. This could come from any of the school’s constituencies. The potential crises that may arise as the college welcomes all perspectives will surely challenge the president’s diplomatic skills.

6. Government experience. Over time, the relationship of colleges with the federal government has increased. Government officials sometimes disagree with campus activities and perspectives. In some instances, certain activities could threaten federal support of academic programs and research. A president experienced in governmental relations can often times mitigate these circumstances and negotiate an acceptable arrangement.

7. Personal characteristics. The ideal college president candidate must be a person of high values, above any hint of impropriety no matter how trivial. Ethics are stressed in college, so the leader must live and profess a corresponding lifestyle. The president must be aware of what is happening in the world around him. He must do whatever is possible to fight ignorance, bigotry, poverty, hunger, health problems and so much more. A person who has exhibited this awareness and has done things to make the world a better place deserves consideration for the position.

8. Being a parent. This is a controversial issue. Nevertheless, I believe an ideal candidate should have a life partner and children. Understanding the issues surrounding intimate personal relationships, to me, is critical. There is no better way to do this than to live it. Moreover, having children before you are responsible for several thousand of them would be helpful.

9. School traditions. Every school has a very distinct personality. A college president can have an effect on the direction of the school to a certain extent. But, he should always remember he is only a caretaker. Some schools have been educating young people for more than a century. A ten-year presidential tenure is only a blip in the life of a college.