• August 30, 2015

More College Chiefs Bounce Babies on Their Knees

Today's Presidents Might Come With Toddlers 1

Jeremy Drey for The Chronicle

President Carmen Twillie Ambar of Cedar Crest College at home with her triplets: "This is a public space, but a family lives here."

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close Today's Presidents Might Come With Toddlers 1

Jeremy Drey for The Chronicle

President Carmen Twillie Ambar of Cedar Crest College at home with her triplets: "This is a public space, but a family lives here."

Babies mean chaotic days and sleepless nights for most parents. But for college presidents, they might be the one thing that puts a limit on the 24/7 schedule.

Just ask Jim Yong Kim, president of Dartmouth College. On most nights, the leader of the Ivy League institution with a $735-million budget, nearly 10,000 students and employees, and some 70,000 alumni, is home by 6:30, eating dinner with his family and crouching by the tub to give his 17-month-old, Nicolas, a bath.

The first-time president clusters out-of-town meetings with alumni and donors to avoid too many overnights. And when his strategic-planning committee goes off to dinner after evening meetings, he heads home.

"If you're going to have a job with young children, the presidency is actually a good one," Dr. Kim says. He and his pediatrician wife, Younsook Lim, had their second son just three days before he was named Dartmouth's president last year. "You can build in flexibility. Meetings can't start until you arrive."

With an average age of 60, college presidents tend to be empty-nesters getting ready to retire. But as search committees look to broaden the pool of potential college presidents, they are coming across younger academics with babies at home, and those who became parents later in their careers. The new presidents at Bucknell University and Grinnell College, for example, arrive on campus this summer with toddlers in tow.

Sleepy On Stage

How to pursue an academic career while pushing a stroller has long been a topic of debate in faculty lounges. But the top job brings with it plenty of extra disruptions: lots of travel, campus events every night and every weekend, and last-minute changes in the schedule.

And as the public face of the campus, the president needs to be ready on short notice to be "on." Sometimes even advance warning is not enough. Thomas R. Rochon, president of Ithaca College, had to preside over his first commencement ceremony just weeks after his first child, Liam, was born last year.

"I was sleep deprived," Mr. Rochon recalls. "I had never been to an Ithaca College commencement and had not reviewed the script closely. I almost didn't graduate the entire Park School" of communications. And the next day? "I showed up to the office without a belt."

So when Liam was 3 months old and still waking every few hours, Mr. Rochon says he moved to a bedroom in a different part of the house, leaving the middle-of-the-night child-care duties to Amber, his wife. "I'm mildly embarrassed to admit that we turned to the traditional roles," he says.

While a college president may command the attention of those who work on the campus, the fact that Mommy or Daddy is the big boss is totally lost on their toddler children. For them, the quad is just one big playground.

Carmen Tillie Ambar, president of Cedar Crest College, in Pennsylvania, remembers when Gabrielle, one of her 3-year-old triplets, wandered onto the stage just before the curtain rose on a student ballet performance. "To her, everywhere on campus is home," Ms. Ambar says.

When Tracy Fitzsimmons, president of Shenandoah University, in Virginia, can't easily get home for dinner, she brings her 6-year-old daughter, Shayla, and 4-year-old twin sons, Dash and Jag, to the campus dining hall where they join students for dinner. But like most parents with kids that age, she can't guarantee they won't have a meltdown.

"One night we were in the dining hall and one of the boys wanted seconds of mac and cheese," Ms. Fitzsimmons says. "I told him no, and he lost it. Just because he's on campus doesn't mean he gets what he wants."

The line between when it is and isn't OK for college presidents to bring their little ones along is usually pretty clear. "I will never bring my children to a situation where it would be inappropriate for others to bring their children," says Ms. Ambar. "That's not a precedent I want to set."

But at certain events, like reunions, where Ms. Ambar needs to bring her children and act in her official capacity, a staff member will be designated "triplet handler." (Parents, don't go rushing off to apply for a job at Cedar Crest. That's a presidential perk.)

One worry presidents don't seem to sweat as much as other academics is child care. Because the presidency pays well, and some negotiate child care into their contracts, presidents often have more options available to them than others who work on their campuses.

Some presidents, such as Ms. Ambar, employ a full-time nanny. Others take advantage of campus day-care centers—Ms. Fitzsimmons has two of her three children enrolled at Shenandoah's. And a few presidents, like Mr. Rochon, have spouses who stay at home.

Mr. Rochon also realized, after spending his first year on the job without a child, that the president is invited to just about every campus event, so it's acceptable to skip some or stay for only 20 minutes at others.

Students and professors coo over his now 15-month-old son when he does come to the campus, but Mr. Rochon says he is careful not to use Liam as a "prop."

"Amber chose this life," he says of his wife. "Liam didn't."

Parents considering what a presidential job will mean for their families often overlook the public nature of their position, says Shelly Weiss Storbeck, a managing partner of the search firm Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates. "When the president makes a decision that is unpopular in the community, suddenly the president's kids aren't invited to birthday parties," she says.

And as boards increasingly hire presidents with young children, they need to offer support to help the new hires "be a successful president and a successful parent."

"These are really hard, intrusive jobs," says Ms. Storbeck. "The days of boards dealing with candidates as disembodied people are over."

Separating private life from public life is most difficult at presidents' homes, the venues for frequent official entertaining. In particular, well-appointed presidential houses are tricky to babyproof. Imagine putting a plastic baby gate at the top of the grand staircase of the White House.

Mr. Rochon had a campus woodworker build gates that match the staircase in his house. Still, his home has the typical toy clutter that comes with toddlers, as does Ms. Ambar's.

"We tried to say, This is a public space, but a family lives here," she says. "We didn't want to make it invisible."

At official Cedar Crest functions, she reminds guests that there are child locks on the toilets.


1. 11179102 - July 26, 2010 at 09:13 am

While I'm sure every school enters these situations with a sense that "this is our own Caoline and John-John" Kennedyesque situation, this all strikes me as something to consider and address directly in terms of shared expectations for the presidential family and the administrative staff. All toddlers have occasional meltdowns, but most do not at official gatherings and meetings. What about the unofficial "childcare" expectations for administrative staff, and no ability to tell either the child or parent "no"? Couple that with the unwritten double-standard that faculty and staff wrestle with appropriate childcare and work issues while the president and spouse simply hand their child off and, well, this is risky territory for everyone.

This isn't just about presidents. Anytime a person in authority brings his or her family into business situations, expectations need to be clear as to what is expected of administrative staff - with appropriate acknowledgement and reward for work done well.

2. butteredtoastcat - July 26, 2010 at 11:58 pm

If you've got little kids at home, you are too damned young to be a college president. Keep these people at a lower level, let them raise their kids, and leave high-level stressful jobs to people with much older children.

3. mbelvadi - July 29, 2010 at 06:37 am

It's one thing to be sleep deprived at a ceremonial event like commencement, but do we really want someone who is sleep deprived presiding over budget planning meetings and the like?

And to #2, unfortunately some men in their 60s seem to think it's a good idea to start new families nowadays. Your comment may apply to the women but not to men who have much younger breeding partners, which makes it rather problematic from an equity perspective.

4. bobfutrelle - July 29, 2010 at 07:32 am

A lot of Nobel Prize research is done by (brilliant) young scientists. I'm sure that a decent fraction of them had kids at home.

Children are part of a rich supportive life, so their parents can be happy, hardworking, and productive people.

Young college presidents can breath life into older institutions, connecting to the world as it is today. I suspect that a number of 60 year old administrators are rather clueless about the current world.

- Bob F. - Boston

5. peggy13 - July 29, 2010 at 09:41 am

I find it interesting that higher education, which promotes diversity more than any other industry, can still be so discriminating against certain groups. Just because your not over 60 doesn't mean you don't have good ideas or experiences. What happened to considering the individual?

And why should it matter if presidential candidates have young children? Aren't we as higher education administrators, faculty, and staff supposed to be good role models for our students? Students who are considering having a family as one of their life options should be able to see people at all levels of an institution trying to balance responsibilities. I think it is fantastic that we are getting younger college presidents and that they have young children in tow. I am especially thrilled that this story covered a female president with young triplets. And good for her that she negotiated a staff member to help her at events. That isn't any different from negotiating other perks. She is doing what is best for her home life, which is greatly impacted due to her job. If we expect college Presidents to give every minute of every day to their jobs, I think the least we could do is give something back to their families.

6. cmcclain - July 29, 2010 at 10:30 am

@butteredtoastcat - July 26, 2010 at 11:58 pm

If you've got little kids at home, you are too damned young to be a college president. Keep these people at a lower level, let them raise their kids, and leave high-level stressful jobs to people with much older children.

I'd wager that the stress for new tenure-track faculty is on par with that of administration.

7. moravian - July 29, 2010 at 06:14 pm

I am a bit stunned at some of these comments. There are several relatively new college/university presidents in our area that have children and they are serving as wonderful role models for faculty with children, and mor importantly for students - to see options in their future careers and a work-family balance. The larger community embraces these presidential families with open arms as it makes the college president seem "more real" to them.

But then again, I have been told not to think about administrative positions -- at any level -- until my kids are in college (at least). I have talked to many male acquaintances in administration who are my age or younger (with children) and asked if they were ever given such "advice". Of course, the answer is no.

8. pokerphd - July 29, 2010 at 10:07 pm

On our most recent presidential finalist excursion to XXX College, my spouse and I were equally tired, interrogated and courted by then end of day 2. On the flight out she said, "I'm no longer sure who they are hiring--you or me?" Indeed, she had been practically swarmed by school principals, headmasters, and college staff regarding our children's (6 & 10) educational interests and needs. We felt as if our kids were a positive consideration, complementing our dual academic roles and responsibilities.

9. 22255770 - July 30, 2010 at 06:58 pm

"Too damned young?" "Breeding partners?" And this passes for conversation among educated, thoughtful people? Wow.

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