Interestingly, over the past several months, I have received a number of telephone calls from reporters and others who have heard that I spend considerable time informally with students. The question is always, “Why?” And then the second question centers on whether this use of time might have been helpful to other college and university presidents in building rapport with the student body, particularly to those presidents who have resigned or are under attack for unpopular or passive leadership.
Simply put, the answer to the latter is unequivocally “yes.” The answer to the first question is this: I work for the people of West Virginia University and the state of West Virginia, and I can only understand the life of the student or a faculty or staff member by connecting with them in their world.
To the parents who ask me why they saw me in a photo tweeted by their son or daughter from a party the other night, that is my genuine response. Since returning to West Virginia University in 2014, I have become a frequent, familiar face at the residence halls, sorority and fraternity houses, and the downtown watering holes. I even got to experience my first-ever toga party. (Fortunately, I did not don the distinctive garment of ancient Rome, though I am sure a few local optometrists would have seen a spike in business if I had.)
Forging bonds with our students is not some newfound revelation that struck me after years of trial and error. From my early days as a president— starting in 1981 at West Virginia University—one of my top leadership goals has been to put students first. In order to do that, I strongly believe that you must envision yourself as one of them. Try to see what they see. Feel what they feel. After all, it is the students that create our colleges and universities.
I carried this strategy of relationship building with the student population everywhere I went, from the University of Colorado to The Ohio State University to Vanderbilt University (TN) to Brown University (RI). Some presidents balk at this line of thinking. They believe college and university officials should not make personal connections with the students— that a wall must be maintained between student and administrator to run an institution efficiently. That is the wrong way to run an institution—university or not.
College and university presidents live in a rarified and protective cocoon. All too often, they become very comfortable and, in so doing, become very isolated. In some ways, it is the academic equivalent of Marie Antoinette admonishing the rioters in France to eat cake.
Understandably, students too often fall into the pit of perceiving college and university presidents as standoffish and indifferent to their overall well-being. Therefore, it is important to spend time with students in a variety of settings to understand their needs and concerns. However, my first admonition is to not view this interaction as a public relations stunt or a way to appear “cool” or “hip” to a younger generation. Rather, do it as a legitimate listening and learning experience. Only then will you be able to gain the trust of those you serve.
I believe this student-centered philosophy has paid off. My tenure at Vanderbilt saw a dramatic increase in student applications—more than 50 percent in six years. In addition, Vanderbilt completed a $1.75 billion fundraising campaign two years ahead of schedule. And that is just one institution’s story; remember, I have served five—two of them twice.
But here lies perhaps the greatest benefit to fraternizing outside your comfort zone—you gain a firmer grasp on the social ills our students face and how they impact the American college campus.
Every college campus in this country deals with the same challenging issues of hazing, underage drinking, parties, overcrowding, obstructing first responders, and the list goes on. Those dark clouds have made appearances under my current presidency, and it would be a disingenuous to sweep that under the rug.
Last fall, we faced many issues on campus, including a high-profile alcohol-related student death. There is nothing more tragic that a college or university president can face than the loss of a student. So in addition to addressing our challenges from a university perspective, I also had a heart-to-heart conversation with our student population—and our entire campus community—about changing the culture at West Virginia University. Empowering students with the responsibility to tackle these issues head-on gains respect and nets more effective solutions. When you treat students like responsible adults, they will act like responsible adults.
In fact, university police reported fewer arrests and incidents at the beginning of the 2015 fall semester, compared to previous years. That window includes our annual FallFest, a back-to-school concert that usually results in several citations. But not this year. There were zero incidents reported at this year’s concert.
I am convinced that part of the reason for this reversal is my visibility with students outside the classrooms and lecture halls. I am always present in their world, and that has paid invaluable dividends. They see me not as a totalitarian guardian figure, so to speak. Instead, they view me as a friendly neighbor, mentor, or even a grandfather, who speaks with them, not at them. And they do not want to let their grandfather down. In other words, I replace in loco parentis with in loco amicus.
I owe any success I have had to refusing to let myself be captured inside my office. I challenge you, president or not, to get out from behind your desk. Feed your curiosity with conversations. Meet your students on their turf. In doing so, you will not only build credibility with those you serve, but also gain valuable insights and lasting friendships that will endure far longer than their time on campus.