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So You Think You Want to Be a University President

 

Alan G. Merten

 

 

Once I announced I was stepping down as president of George Mason University, the questions began. Some of the questions are those you would expect, such as “What are you going to do next?” But sometimes I’m asked what advice I would give to someone getting ready to take on such an important job. Recently, I have had time to reflect on this incredible experience, and have jotted down some of my thoughts.

  • Be there. Sol Linowitz, ambassador to the Organization of American States under President Lyndon Johnson, was one of my mentors. I met him when I was a dean of the Johnson School at Cornell. When I was named president of Mason, he gave me some great advice. He said, “You are going to have enormous demands on your time. Keep in mind that where you show up ‘blesses’ things.” He called it “presidential attention.” Man, was he right. It isn’t important to stay for the whole event, but just 15 minutes makes an impact.
  • Be approachable, friendly, and eager to listen. I’ve been struck by how many times in the last several months people have told me how approachable Sally and I are. That means a lot to me. People come up to me often to share their stories or problems. Over the years, I’ve discovered they don’t expect me to solve their problems. They don’t even expect me to find someone to solve it for them (although I often do). They are just happy that I was willing to listen.
  • The importance of the spouse. I misunderstood the significance of the role of the presidential spouse when I became president. In addition to the general support and encouragement a spouse provides during the ups and downs of the job, I found that Sally helped me extend my reach. Not only does she attend university events and activities, but she has a number of her own projects, organizations she supports and actively works for, such as the university’s book festival and various nonprofit boards. She has made contacts for me. We make a good team, and the work she has done has made a difference.
  • Have a short, clean message. It should be something you can say in less than 15 seconds. And the second part to this is you constantly have to repeat your message. We make a mistake when we assume people remember exactly what we said. Tell them again.
  • Know when to act decisively and know when to wait. There will always be a daily crisis. Sometimes you have to respond quickly; other times it is best to wait and see what “it” looks like tomorrow. Some people are disturbed by this approach, but by and large people will eventually understand.
  • Expect frustration. In fact, prepare for it. Chances are good you will deal with people who think you can do more and more with less and less. And when we are successful and manage to do more with less, it is almost as if we contribute to their delinquency. Be ready to explain your situation and make your argument over and over.
  • Be agile. At Mason, we plan, but are also flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. We didn’t plan on much in molecular medicine, but when we had the chance to hire world-class researchers in this field, we did. Now, lifechanging cancer research is taking place on our campus. Planning is important, but targets of opportunity coupled with action are even more important.
  • Surround yourself with smart, action-oriented people. You need a staff that is willing and eager to support you and not afraid to tell you when you are wrong. You need to create regular opportunities for your senior management team to learn more about what the others are doing. There is a fear that if you develop people’s leadership skills, they may leave. That’s the price you pay, but it is worth it.
  • Mind your business. People always say “you’re not a business.” In a sense, they are right. We don’t have a bottom line, or profits and losses. But there are things done in business that should be done in higher education. We should plan, and be entrepreneurial and action-oriented. Transparency is important. So is fiscal responsibility. A dollar improperly spent is a missed opportunity.
  • Make a good match. About a year into my job at Mason, one of my dear friends asked me how it was going. I told him I had realized that, given the way I do things, there are very few universities where I could tolerate being president. He laughed and said: “There are very few universities that could tolerate you.” Like all relationships, there has to be the right chemistry.

Do I like being a university president? I don’t know. But I do know that I have loved being George Mason University’s president. Some of my friends are university presidents; I wouldn’t want to be where they are, and they probably wouldn’t want to be here. These jobs can look a lot alike, but they are not. People often ask me if I am going to miss _______. They fill in this blank with a variety of things. I refuse, at least for now, to use the word “miss” because it implies sadness. I’m trying to celebrate everything I have done and what I am going to do. I’m not going to miss it, but I’m really grateful I got to do it.

 

Alan G. Merten is the outgoing president of George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.