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Winter 2010

Not So Lonely at the Top

For the 50 women and men who flock to Cambridge each July for the annual Harvard Seminar for New Presidents, one of the best lessons learned may be that life doesn't have to be lonely at the top.

But it will be different.

Since 1989, such wisdom has been shared with professionals from around the United States and the world who share one common thread; all have recently assumed the helm of institutes of higher learning and -- knowingly or unknowingly -- are about to embark on the academic adventure of their lives.

"The role of the president is different, and if you are not in the position, you don't fully understand it," says Lori Bettison- Varga, the eighth president of Scripps College and a seminar participant this past July. "I feel really fortunate to feel so welcomed by every constituency of the college ... but you don't realize until you are sitting in the chair that you are on display to everyone ... and every audience is important."

Such sentiment is exactly why this workshop began, says Senior Lecturer Judy McLaughlin, M.A.T.'71, Ed.D.'83, chair of the seminar and director of the Higher Education Program -- namely to allow new presidents to "step outside of the busyness and reflect" for five days.

"There is only one president on campus, no one else holds that job. We provide people in the same job with introductions to resources who are their colleagues," says McLaughlin. "No one fully appreciates the feel of the job until he or she is in it, and everyone says you can't appreciate the pace, the complexities, and the expectations until they are yours."

The 50 participants are also provided with a full five-day schedule that includes workshops on fundraising, governance, financial management, and strategic planning, led by faculty experts as well as sitting and past presidents. In addition, there are ample opportunities for the new presidents to break down into smaller groups based on the size and type of their institutions, which run the gamut from small arts colleges to significantly larger state schools.

"There was a session on balancing your personal life with all of your activities as president. Hearing how other presidents have done that is helpful, but you don't always take that advice," laughs Bettison-Varga, the married mother of three children aged 11 to 19. "I think that my 16-year-old would say, 'You're not the president of me, you're just my mom,' but my 11-year-old is really enjoying being on campus."

As is Bettison-Varga, whose enthusiasm for her new role as president of the all-female liberal arts school is evident, as is the enthusiasm of her mother, Barbara Yunker Bettison, a member of the Scripps class of 1954.

"She went to her 55th reunion last spring and her classmates dubbed her the queen mother," says Bettison-Varga. "It was the first event where she saw me with my presidential robes on and she told me, 'I had goose bumps.'"

And when goose bumps have the occasion to turn into hives, new presidents are at the ready, thanks to another workshop where participants are presented with a "typical presidential inbox, and asked to cope with it in relatively short order," says Kenyon College President S. Georgia Nugent, an attendee of the workshop seven years ago.

"The contents of the inbox were, as I now realize, all too authentic: The local TV station seeks an interview on a sensitive topic, a faculty member is threatening revolt, an alumnus unhappy over a decision has e-mailed the entire board of trustees, an invitation to an important community event conflicts with a child's birthday celebration, and on and on," says Nugent. "The organizers of the seminar obviously had enormous experience in what, exactly, college and university presidents would face in their day-to-day lives."

Though the reality of the outlined expectations could be daunting to some, others, like Robert Huntington, Ed.D.'97, who recently assumed the presidency of Heidelberg University, left Harvard's campus in July feeling "more energized" than he had on his arrival day.

"Being surrounded by 50 really successful, talented people, and being exposed to sitting presidents from other schools ... it just doesn't get any better than that. It was a real honor to be in that classroom, in that opportunity," says Huntington. "There's a feeling you have when you know you are not alone."

-- Mary Tamer is a freelance writer whose last piece for Ed. looked at budget cuts and arts education in the United States.