Leadership & Governance

More College Chiefs Bounce Babies on Their Knees

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."
July 25, 2010

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.