Top lessons for presidents in their first year on the job

University presidents must have a combination of good humor and resolve to handle the job

In a piece for Inside Higher Ed, Bill Mahon shares his advice for first-year university presidents entering a whirlwind of new responsibilities and concerns.  

Mahon offers the following tips based on decades of work with university presidents and inside knowledge from colleagues in higher education communications:

Skip the celebration

Leaders of public universities in particular should forgo a lavish presidential investiture ceremony and related events. In the midst of tuition increases and dwindling state appropriations, the pomp and circumstance will make you appear out of touch.

Be discreet about your housing

Faculty who did not receive raises and students facing tuition hikes will not look favorably upon any efforts to refurbish the university president's house. Either request that the governing board quietly find a donor to finance the project or ask that it be completed before you arrive on campus. 

Incoming president to university: Pay me less money

Don't reject controversial figures

Controversial speakers and faculty have their place on campus. Don't rescind their offers while claiming to be an advocate of free speech and diverse viewpoints.

Prevent Halloween horrors

Remind students that insensitive Halloween costumes mocking ethnic or racial groups have no place on campus. Not only that, but photo evidence of such disrespect can be truly haunting when it comes time for students to apply for jobs or seek promotions.  

Be prepared to discipline Greek life

Institutions with more than a handful of Greek organizations on campus are likely to see at least one shut down for misconduct. Get ready for an onslaught of negative national news coverage. 

Programming alcohol and other drug education in Greek affairs

Speak up about student drinking

Express your concerns about student drinking by sending notes to the parents of each student detailing statistics on alcohol deaths and injuries among young people. Throughout the year, bring staff, students, local residents, lawmakers, and businesses that sell alcohol into the discussion.

Be a team player

Communicate early and often with athletic leaders to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Include the athletic director in your cabinet to bridge the gap between academics and athletics and devise a faculty athletics oversight group that is invested in the intercollegiate athletics program.

Grant favors equally

While legislators have a crucial stake in the success of public institutions, remember that their requests are no more important than any other stakeholder's. The same goes for donors.

Embrace fake social media profiles

At some point in your presidency, someone will obtain website domains and social media handles that use your name to embarrass you. There's nothing you can do about it, so laugh it off.

Respect concerns about race

Understand that race is a complicated issue fraught with tension and emotion. Be supportive of student protestors and really listen to what they have to say. Make sure that you engage in conversations about race with students throughout the entire school year, not just when a scandal arises. 

University president: All students deserve safe spaces

Take sexual assault seriously

Put yourself in the shoes of both a sexual assault victim and alleged assailant to understand the process of handling claims of sexual assault. Determine every person these parties will encounter along the way and review all the forms that they must fill out. Ask university leaders to recommend improvements in the process.

Put safety first

As recent events demonstrate, shootings are a grim reality on college campuses. Practice emergency protocols repeatedly to fill in any gaps in preparedness. Ensure that your emergency communications team can respond to calls in seconds, ready to take action (Mahon, Inside Higher Ed, 6/14). 


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