• August 1, 2014

For College Presidents, the Interview Never Ends

When you do research on candidates running for public office, you seek to learn their positions and promises. And later, when you’re deciding whether they should keep their jobs, you compare what they have done against that election-year rhetoric.

The same holds true in other leadership posts, including the one I hold: community-college president. To ensure that an institution is making progress toward its goals, candidates for positions like this must do more than interview well at the outset; they must engage in what I call the "everlasting interview" and be forever accountable to the college’s students, faculty members, administration, and community.

For me, the desire to become a president was neither preordained nor obvious. In the beginning, I engaged in serious self-reflection. I asked myself, "Why would I apply for the position?," and realized that I wanted to leave an imprint on an institution in a way only senior leadership would allow. I had 40-plus years of experience, and in 2011 I was as ready for the opportunity as I could have been.

During the marathonlike interview process, members of every constituency from every corner of the college get out their microscopes and, like medical doctors, begin poking and prodding. Screening committees, faculty and staff members, students, community members, and public forums are all part of the lengthy and deliberate process. Not for the faint of heart, it is meant to be thorough, helping the hiring committee find the best "fit" for the institution.

What kept me going was the confidence that I was the one the institution needed, and when I received the phone call offering me the position, I felt like I had won Olympic gold, with all the cheers and adrenaline rush.

What is not often said, however, is that being the successful candidate does not mean the interview is over. Far from it. The continuing interview is the everyday measure of the congruence between what the candidate said and what the president does.

The minute I arrived on campus, I was tested: favors of every kind requested; private emails suggesting the most successful leadership style; public scrutiny of my decisions both large and small; and frequent "to do" lists offered. These tests came in the form of requests for purchases that had been heretofore denied; the need for travel to places around the world; luncheon invitations (for the discussion of private matters); and complaints about office locations. The savvy president will know that while many of the requests are not necessarily strategic to the college’s agenda, they are clearly part of the protracted testing process. And this testing is particularly extensive when a president is bold, sees herself as a change agent, incorporates accountability standards, and insists on moving the college forward.

While not surprised by this round of "interviews," I was struck by the intense, mysterious feeling I had with regard to this uncharted territory. Was the entire college now the search committee? Had the criteria for the position changed? Was I now required to solve problems (historic and personal) in my first month? Was the staff prepared to pounce at any misstep or faux pas and pronounce me unqualified? The answer to all of those questions was yes … maybe.

Other constituents also want a say in the president’s report card. Community leaders, legislators, business and nonprofit leaders, and the media are all in line with their questions at the ready. The public face of the president is just that: very, very public. And I know that my actions as president in this "second round of interviews" is tantamount to a test. If I "pass" the examination I will be labeled successful.

Overshadowing the entire continuing interview is the importance of communication. Barry Glassner, president of Lewis & Clark, and Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, recently commented in The Chronicle that "today, taking a stand on matters considerably less consequential than war and peace can put a college president’s job in jeopardy."

Nonetheless, the college community desires, perhaps demands, to hear from the president continuously and in every modality, and my campus is no exception. The range of topics that individuals expect the president to solve still astonishes me. From landscaping and local wildlife to state funding, it seems there is nothing that should not be within my purview. The scorecard on communication may ebb and flow, but the cardinal sin is not communicating enough or at all. Hiding in my office and not being seen on campus is a close second.

Presidents are in the people business, and to shirk that responsibility is a recipe for disastrous results. College employees’ expectations and my level of success are inextricably intertwined. To build relationships and garner trust, I must be willing to put myself out there on a daily basis, and employees must trust that I will take their suggestions and concerns seriously, within the context of what is best for the college.

The situations that have been the most challenging are those of long standing—my interest in changing some of the campus "culture" was seen as akin to heresy, and some still see it that way. The fact that higher education must change to meet current needs seemingly has no effect on the people who need to make those changes.

Anyone seeking the highest college-level office is to be commended and lauded. Any successful president must embrace the position, eyes wide open and in battle armor. With that understood, embracing the everlasting interview becomes a part of a successful and satisfying journey.

Irene Kovala is president 
of Glendale Community College 
in Glendale, Ariz.

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