• September 18, 2014

Lessons Gained From Decades in the Post of College President

Lessons Gained From Decades in the Role of College President 1

Bennington College

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Bennington College

Elizabeth Coleman

President of Bennington College, a private liberal-arts institution in Vermont, since 1987

Age: 74

Next step: She will serve two years as the first director of Bennington College's Center for the Advancement of Public Action, which encourages students to integrate their coursework with fieldwork on critical public issues.

On keeping the various groups involved with the college satisfied: "Throughout my tenure as president at Bennington, I've had the privilege of working with remarkable people at every level, and I can assure you that that is what sustained me." Because of them, she says, she never felt alone. Though she knew that some of them would be unhappy with the tough decisions she made, "that's one of the obligations of leadership. You can't stay in everyone's good graces, not and lead."

On some of the high and low points of her tenure: "Some of the most remarkable experiences I have had as president have been days that were very, very difficult, when I was under attack and under siege of one kind or the other. In the middle of that, something would happen, a human being would do something—often people I didn't know at all—would send me a note or a letter that was just a remarkable human act of kindness and support and understanding. ... What happens sometimes in the most difficult moments can be every bit as remarkable and life-affirming and splendid as, of course, what happens in the wonderful and seemingly most successful."

The Rev. Jonathan DeFelice

President of Saint Anselm College, a Benedictine institution in New Hampshire, since 1989

Age: 64

Next step: Father DeFelice intends to return to the college in an unspecified capacity after taking a one-year sabbatical.

Key to having a long term: Benedictines "take a vow of stability to remain in one community for life," he says. "Pretty much my whole adult life has been here."

On staying in varied groups' good graces: "I'm a miracle worker," he jokes. "Many constituencies at every college and university want to have a say in the direction of the college. One of the president's roles is to try to balance those and to help educate the constituencies, too, on what some of the needs of higher education are at this point in history. ... It is important to keep the vision of where you want the institution to go in mind, and not get bogged down in the daily battles or challenges that may come and forget about the vision."

On high and low points: "The happiest day for me in the academic year is commencement," he says. "Because of the length of my tenure and the size of our institution, I've gotten to shake hands with over half of our living alumni as they received their degrees. It's a marvelous feeling for me." On the negative side, "there have been instances where I or others have wanted to move in a direction more quickly than we were able to," he says. For instance, a change of governance, which added lay people to the college's governing board, took 10 years to accomplish. That change occurred in 2009.

Anthony J. DiGiorgio

President of Winthrop University, a state institution in South Carolina, since 1989

Age: 72

Next step: After a year's sabbatical, he will be named president emeritus and a distinguished-service professor, a role in which he will combine public service with consulting, writing, and lecturing.

Key to having a long term: "I'm sort of an obsessive-compulsive person who likes to finish what they start."

On high and low points: "I think the lowest points always have to do with loss," he says, recalling a highway accident in 1993 that killed one member of the men's tennis team and seriously injured several others. High points include achieving "100-percent accreditation of all our academic programs," raising the minority representation among students by about 20 percentage points, and athletic successes.

On keeping various groups satisfied: When the university started counting all its stakeholder groups, he says, it stopped at 30. "So there are a lot of balls to juggle. You can drop a couple, but don't drop 10 of them at one time."

On how higher education has changed during his tenure: "Universities used to be the storehouse of information," Mr. DiGiorgio says. But now, "if you're only concentrating on the dissemination of information, you're doing students a great disservice." Institutions need to help students develop the capacity to learn throughout their lifetimes, he says. Universities "remind our civilization of who we were, what we were, what's important, values, and all the rest, but we can't get caught there. We cannot get caught in legacy thinking because the world has transformed itself and has transformed higher education."

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