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The Road Less Traveled: Reaching the Presidency from Outside Academe

 

Thomas V. Chema

 

I didn’t grow up hoping to be a college president. In fact, I was the first in my family to even go to college. Unlike today’s students, I didn’t conduct a nationwide search or tour any campuses looking for just the right school. I got my marching orders from the Notre Dame nuns who taught me at St. Aloysius in East Liverpool, OH. They said the University of Notre Dame was the only place to go, and that’s where I went.

Eight years ago, when Hiram College was looking for its 21st president, members of the board of trustees didn’t sift through stacks of CVs and reference letters from academics across the country. They turned across the table and asked me—a fellow trustee—to take the job. I was flattered, of course, and surprised. Almost immediately, I began to make the connections and could see that my nontraditional path as an attorney, public servant, business developer, and now entrepreneur had uniquely prepared me for the challenge. I may have surprised the board by saying yes.

That was just the first of the surprises. Sure, I thought I knew quite a bit about Hiram College. As a board member for 11 years, I made the scenic 35-mile trip from Cleveland for quarterly meetings. I always loved the beautiful campus and the charming mid-19th century homes nestled in the quaint village of Hiram, OH, population 1,200. (Now I know a lot more about the challenges of heating those old brick buildings and keeping the basements dry.)

In terms of the new position, my multifaceted background came in handy almost right off the bat. My experience leading a private/public partnership to build downtown Cleveland’s professional baseball and basketball complex definitely helped me as we upgraded our campus facilities. Partnering with the right architects, contractors, and bankers smoothed the way to a new residence hall, dining hall, and townhouse apartments. Other crucial additions and improvements brought total costs to nearly $50 million— but we finished on time and on budget.

But looking back, I realize the value I bring to the campus community is not my nuts-and-bolts knowledge of how to build a building. Rather, it is being able to tell the story of the benefits of the plan, whether it is reconstructing an old church on campus or putting solar panels on the roof. No matter how glamorous or mundane the project, it’s always surprised me how many people have to be convinced first—and that always takes more time than I expect. I’ve learned the hard way that involving everyone on campus with our building projects is absolutely key.
As an outsider coming to the world of academe, I’ve found my Rolodex to be a big asset to the college. I’ve actively recruited old friends and new acquaintances to beef up our board of trustees. I met one of our most active—and generous—members when we served together on a for-profit company board trading on the New York Stock Exchange. He had never heard of Hiram College; now he’s on campus practically every month. My history with another new board member goes back a long way. She served as my campaign manager for an ill-fated run for the Ohio State Senate in the early 1980s. Infusing new life into our board benefits me and, more importantly, the college.

I believe the more people you can get involved, the better. Although we have only 15,000 living alumni, there’s no limit to the number of friends we can have. Our board of visitors now has over 50 energetic members with a new connection to the college. Many are friends, or others I meet, who can add a new perspective or expertise. I’ve been surprised at how interested people are in getting involved in philanthropic opportunities—and how many are just waiting to be asked. A leader with strong ties brings a big advantage to a small school.

How we hire those leaders, however, is a process that absolutely flabbergasts me. For someone with a business background like mine, learning just how people get key administrative jobs in colleges and universities was a real surprise. It usually goes something like this: A search committee drafts a “want ad,” which is placed in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Responses are thrown into a “pool” of candidates. Then the committee selects a few folks to interview. Next, meet our new vice president.

Rarely do we consider the idea of recruiting potential candidates. In my experience, few academics have an extensive “network,” and even fewer take the initiative to find or call people who might know someone well qualified for the job. Grooming candidates from within? Always actively looking for great talent? That’s just not happening in academe. It is true that increased competition, rising costs, and accountability are forcing colleges to act more like a business. And from my view, changing how we find, recruit, and hire leaders to run our colleges and universities must be the first step in moving our institutions ahead.

Today, I’m surprised I’m still here. It is the longest I’ve stayed at any job. For a guy who likes to throw lots of ideas at the wall and see what sticks, this has turned out to be a place where I wanted to stick around. Sure, the challenges keep coming. But that energizes me. Ultimately, I found out that colleges and universities can and do change lives. Even mine.

 

Thomas V. Chema is president of Hiram College in Hiram, OH.