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Grinnell’s next president

Topics/tags: Grinnell

Yesterday, Grinnell announced that President Kington is stepping down at the end of the year [1]. That got me thinking about what characteristics I’d like to see in our next president or even who I’d like to see as our next president [2]. It’s unlikely that I’ll have any direct role in that selection; I have neither the personality nor the role on campus that would make me a good member of a search team for that position. I would also be reluctant to promise that much of my time for that task; I would much rather spend it on, say, better ways of assessing the open curriculum. Nonetheless, my muse insists that I reflect on these issues.

For the majority of my time at Grinnell, we’ve had presidents whose background you would not naturally associate with a liberal arts institution. President Kington came to us from outside of academia and there are still times that his background in government and policy show clearly. President Osgood, in contrast, was an academic at heart. But his discipline, law, was not one that is traditionally included as part of the primary offerings at undergraduate institutions like Grinnell [5]. That’s not to say that law and legal thinking could not play an important role; just that one rarely associates legal education with undergraduate education.

So, part of me says that I’d like to see someone whose background is more closely aligned with the core academic program of the College. That is, I’d like to see an academic whose scholarship is in one of the areas in which we offer a degree. I’ll admit that I’d see some benefit to having a president from a humanistic discipline, particularly at a time in which Grinnell is doubling down on the humanities [6,7]. While I’d like an academic, I also accept that there can be value in finding someone who brings in new perspectives and can help Grinnell grow in new ways. I guess it depends more on the person than on their background.

Perhaps it’s better to reflect on characteristics that I’d like to see in our new president. I accept that others will likely have a different set. For example, I won’t list fundraising as an important skill, but I acknowledge that it’s an important one for any president and, perhaps, a particularly important one for Grinnell at this juncture in time. But perhaps the fundraising skills, as well as the others characteristics that other people may value, are closely related to those I list below.

I’d like to see a president who appreciates and embraces Grinnell for what it is and what it can be. Of course, I accept that different folks have different views of what Grinnell is. But I also know that there are many shared values, particularly those represented by our mission statement and set of core values [8], particularly excellence in education, a diverse community, and social responsibility. However, those don’t include the strong sense of student empowerment that is reflected through both the individually advised curriculum and the notion of self governance, and I’d like that to be something our new president embraces.

As the market in higher education changes and as far too many people focus primarily on employable skills, I’d like like to see a president who can advocate well for liberal arts education and for the humanities. Raynard certainly grew into this but struggled at first in expressing an appreciation for the humanities.

I think of the president and dean as serving as a bridge between the trustees and the faculty. I’d like to see a president who advocates for both perspectives. Certainly, Pam Ferguson, who was president when I arrived, was known as a strong advocate for the faculty. Over the years, that role seems to have moved more to the Dean’s office. And, while I know that Dean Harris will be an excellent advocate for Grinnell’s faculty [9], I’d like to see our new president share that role.

A variety of other characteristics would likely support that role. Certainly, the president should have a strong appreciation for shared governance and the roles of of faculty in shared governance. The president should be someone who works collaboratively, interested in hearing the perspectives of others. However, I must note that different people have different experiences of collaboration. I’ve heard people describe both Osgood and Kington as not particularly collaborative. I’ve also heard people describe both as quite willing to listen to ideas. Personally, I always found President Osgood always willing to talk through issues with me, even if I sometimes wondered whether it was just that he found me amusing. President Kington and I seem to butt heads much more often. But in most circumstances in which we disagreed, he’s been willing to explain his perspective.

It is essential that our president is someone who supports the people who work under him and who people want to work with. Since I’m not one of the president’s direct reports, I’m not sure what might underlie those characteristics, or how we evaluate them [10], but they are essential. Of course, I would also hope that the president is someone who inculcates the values of shared governance in his staff.

I don’t know whether or not it’s the president’s responsibility, but I’d like to see a president who could take a leadership role in building bridges between faculty and staff [11]. I’m not sure all of the factors that have led to the state, but it seems like both groups are feeling under-valued and perhaps even undermined by members of the other group [12].

Finally, I’d like to see a president who is able and willing to explain their perspective to students and to listen to students’ perspectives. The same holds for alums, although I would prioritize students over alums.

[1] He’s moving on to be Head of Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. I’m not sure what it says that our Dean and President both moved on to leadership positions in secondary schools. I realize that both schools are incredibly prestigious. However, it’s not the normal path for a college leader.

[2] For example, I count at least five or six Grinnell faculty members who have left to become Deans, Provosts, or Presidents at other institutions [3,4]. Any one of them would likely make a great president for Grinnell.

[3] Let’s see … Brad Bateman is president at Randolph College; Jon Chenette was Dean, Acting President, and Interim President at Vassar; Kathleen Skerrett was Dean at the University of Richmond; Marci Sortor is Dean and Provost at St. Olaf, and Mark Schneider is Dean at Ursinus.

[4] Angela Onwuachi-Willig is now Dean at the Boston University School of Law. While she wasn’t strictly a Grinnell faculty member, she’s closely enough tied to Grinnell that I can add her to my list of five.

[5] Washington and Lee is a notable exception.

[6] At least I hope we’re doubling down on the humanities. I see the Center for the Humanities, the Institute for Global Education, and the Humanities and Social Studies Center as evidence that we are doing our best to emphasize the value of the humanities.

[7] I must admit that our hiring patterns, or at least our allocations of tenure-track positions, provide less evidence of that commitment.

[8] Has Support for professional well-being of all whose work contributes to the College always been part of this core values list? And if so, why is it not professional and personal well-being?

[9] And, I presume, for the trustees when speaking to the faculty.

[10] We could ask people who worked for them, but that is likely a violation of candidate privacy.

[11] Or between faculty, staff, and administrators.

[12] I fear that some of my musings might have played a role in some staff members’ negative experiences. Since I value our staff highly, I’m doing my best to mediate my comments.

Version 1.0 of 2019-12-06.