Presidencies of Firsts

Monday, May 30, 2022 - Two storied Jesuit institutions, the College of Holy Cross and Fordham Universities, have their first lay presidents. But Vincent Rougeau and Tania Tetlow are also both trained lawyers and each one respectively is the first Black president and first woman president to lead their institutions. Michael and Jeff welcome Vince and Tania to the podcast.

Listen Now!

Listen wherever you get your podcasts.

Contact Us

Questions, feedback, or interested in advertising on Future U? Click the link below to fill out our contact form.

Or

Join our Newsletter

Get notified when we release new episodes and access to special content.

Relevant Links:

The future(s) of public higher education: How state universities can survive­–and thrive–in a new era

Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life by Michael B. Horn and Bob Moesta

Hearts Touched with Fire: How Great Leaders are Made by David Gergen

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara Tuchman

Jeff Selingo:

On the last episode of Future U during our tour stop at UCLA, we heard about the growing list of challenges for the president at any college or university, even the wealthiest and most selective institutions.

Michael Horn:

And Jeff, it makes you wonder who really wants to be a college president these days and what are the skills that are needed to succeed in that job. Today on Future U, we'll talk to two college presidents who both arrived in the job and their institutions in history-breaking fashion.

Sponsor:

This episode of Future U is brought to you by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and by Salesforce.org. Subscribe to Future U wherever you get your podcasts and follow us on Twitter at the handle futureupodcast. And if you enjoyed the podcast, please leave us a five-star rating so others can discover the conversations we're having about higher education.

Michael Horn:

I'm Michael Horn.

Jeff Selingo:

And I'm Jeff Selingo. The pathway to the presidency is changing. As I laid out in a paper published with Deloitte in Georgia Tech's Center for 21st Century Universities a few years ago, and we'll add that paper to the show notes, more deans are moving into presidencies without ever passing through the provost office. We're also seeing a greater variety in terms of academic backgrounds and disciplines. The relatively new presidents in my backyard in Washington, D.C. at the University of Maryland, College Park and George Mason University in Virginia are engineers, for example.

Michael Horn:

And Jeff, we're also seeing a lot more lawyers in these top jobs. And that's the case with the two presidents we have as guests today. They're both lawyers by training and former law professors, but that's not the only thing that makes them somewhat unusual in these roles. They are also both the first lay presidents at their Jesuit institutions and, respectively, the first Black president and the first female president at those colleges.

Michael Horn:

Vince Rougeau is the new president of the College of Holy Cross in Massachusetts, and Tania Tetlow is president-elect of Fordham University in New York. Currently, she is president of Loyola University New Orleans, which is also a Jesuit institution. So Vince and Tania, welcome to Future U.

Tania Tetlow:

Thank you.

Vincent Rougeau:

Thank you.

Michael Horn:

So I want to get started with both of you with a question that we occasionally lead off with on Future U and that I think is very salient here, which is around your own career story. How did you get into higher ed from law school and then both end up becoming college presidents? So Vince, let's start with you first on that question.

Vincent Rougeau:

Well, it was not planned, I'll say that. I was in law school and decided to go and work for a big law firm in Washington, D.C. and I thought that was going to be my pathway, maybe the government, maybe something else. But after a couple of years in big law, I really felt I needed to think a little bit more deeply about what I was good at, what my real path should be in the profession. And with a lot of thinking and a little bit of angst and with some good friends and family to help me along, I took a dive into applying for teaching jobs and ended up as a professor at Loyola University Chicago. So that's where I started my academic career.

Vincent Rougeau:

And I suddenly realized I was in something that really suited me and I just stuck with it, and went on to be a faculty member at University of Notre Dame, where I did some administrative work at the law school there as well as being a professor, and I guess maybe that sparked an interest in administration. And so, after about 13 years at Notre Dame, I got the opportunity to go to Boston College as the dean of the law school there, and I did that for 10 years. And somewhere toward the end of those 10 years, something was sparked in me, again, maybe because people saw something that I might be able to contribute to in thinking about a presidency. And shortly after, I ended up becoming the president of the College of Holy Cross.

Vincent Rougeau:

So in some ways, once you become an academic, it's a pathway within academia that's not unusual. Maybe the law professor to liberal arts college president is something more recently new. But it felt very, very natural through all those years and through that process.

Michael Horn:

Now, what about you, Tania? What about your path?

Tania Tetlow:

Well, I went to the same law school as Vince and ended up at a law firm as well, as people tend to do there, and had a similar reaction to big law firm life, which is that it was not for me. So I became a federal prosecutor, did public interest kind of law, and practiced for about 10 years, which is unusual for an academic, but I found myself pulled towards academia despite my intention. So I ended up teaching adjunct on the side, writing law review articles on the side, and this is not normal behavior for someone who's busily practicing law.

Tania Tetlow:

So finally gave in and joined the faculty at Tulane Law School. I've spent most of my career and life here in New Orleans. And I think that once you're a professor, if you show tendencies towards pragmatic problem-solving and common sense, you get asked pretty avidly to get involved in administration. So for me, that was becoming an associate provost for international affairs, which I had no particular international experience, but just, they saw me as someone who could help organize things.

Tania Tetlow:

And then I had an unusual stepping stone. The president of Tulane, himself a law professor and law dean who likes law professors, asked me to be his chief of staff, and that was my job right before becoming the president of Loyola University New Orleans, next door to Tulane. And it was this perfect shadow job where I learned so much from him, but also got the full range of the university in a way that's not typical, so facilities and athletics and the budget and all the various parts of it, and thinking about the presidency when it wasn't me, the brand of the president and what the job is supposed to be, which I found really helpful. So then I came to Loyola four years ago as the president and I'm about to transition to Fordham as their new president.

Jeff Selingo:

So what's notable is that while other Jesuit institutions have had lay leaders, Saint Louis University, Xavier, and of course Georgetown, or you, Tania, Loyola University New Orleans, in the history of higher education, it's a relatively recent trend. So I'd love to understand more of the context for each of your stories. What do you think has transpired at each of your institutions that maybe made it the right time to move to having a lay leader? So Tania, what about Fordham? What do you think made this time right?

Tania Tetlow:

Well, the answer's pretty similar across the board. There are just fewer Jesuits. The average age is north of 70 now, and they have so many institutions. They founded universities, high schools, parishes, other nonprofits that they are running out of people to run those institutions. So the Jesuits themselves have been pushing the universities to understand that they have to broaden the pool that they're looking in. Right now, you can recruit a Jesuit, but you're just taking him away from something else important that he's doing.

Tania Tetlow:

And so, that has been a process for each of these schools that is a source of great anxiety, for all the right reasons, of how do you preserve the institution's mission, brand, frankly, culture of the organization, and do it with a layperson where you're not fishing in a pond of people necessarily who are really rooted in the charism of the Jesuits. So finding someone who's going to be a great CEO, a visionary academic leader, but also understand who the Jesuits are and how to preserve that mission, that's really tricky stuff for our schools.

Jeff Selingo:

And how about at Holy Cross, Vince? What made the time right there?

Vincent Rougeau:

Well, I would echo a lot of the things that Tania said. I think, here in particular, there was a sense, I think, that as a liberal arts college run by the Jesuits, there was a really special role the Jesuits played in their presence on campus. Remember there are no other graduate schools or anything else going on here. It's all about undergraduate education. And they're living on the campus and they're really integrated in all kinds of ways into campus life.

Vincent Rougeau:

So I think it was a particularly difficult move to make culturally, although I think, in some ways, the Jesuits were much more prepared for it than some of the laypeople who were involved, because I think they've known for some time that this moment was coming. And I know in my own experience working and teaching in Jesuit institutions, there were lots of different programs I got involved in as a layperson, who was involved in various aspects of the life of the university, to give me a better understanding, a deeper understanding, of why the Jesuits do what they do.

Vincent Rougeau:

And I think through the course of being a dean at a Jesuit law school and being a faculty member at a Jesuit law school, I absorbed a lot of those lessons. I really engaged with the work that the Jesuits are doing in higher ed. And I think they see, they saw, that there were people that they could really get behind and recommend for some of these jobs, because I don't think either Tania or I got our jobs without some Jesuits in the background who said, "These people are going to be good at this and they can do the work," as we call it in Jesuit-speak of running these institutions, and we need to start letting that happen.

Vincent Rougeau:

And it's just happened very quickly, I think. So many Jesuit institutions have shifted to lay leadership in a pretty short period of time that it seems like a jarring change in some ways, but it's really a change that's been prepared for, for many, many years.

Michael Horn:

And Tania, I want to flip the script a bit because I saw you nodding your head there and chuckling a little bit as Vince was talking about the role of Jesuits in his selection. But you're now, of course, also a member of the board at Holy Cross coming in alongside Vince. And I'm curious, what's the advice that you're providing to institutions, Jesuit institutions in particular, as they're making these decisions and moving to lay leaders?

Tania Tetlow:

It's hard because there's no bubble form test that we can take to really describe if we get it. There are various methods of formal training, but it's not that the university boards are picking amongst trained theologians when they hire laypeople as president. So it really comes down to the kinds of backgrounds you've had if you've been at Jesuit institutions before, as many of us have for our careers.

Tania Tetlow:

There are people who are really... done the work of formation of seeking out the kind of training that the Jesuit institutions have collectively offered to really invest in up-and-coming leadership, or in my case, the very random background of, my father was a Jesuit for 17 years but then left to get married and have a family. So I got trained in Jesuit education from birth. I had no other formal training, but I was sung to sleep with a Gregorian chant. There was a lot of theology talk at the dinner table. My mom's a theologian. If they didn't want to be understood by the kids, they spoke in Ancient Greek.

Tania Tetlow:

So there is a world in my hiring where the Jesuits could say, "We literally have known her since the day she was born." One of them picked me up from the hospital, and, "We vouch for her." And actually, the president of St. Joe's, who's about to take over at Loyola Chicago, his father was also a Jesuit, so it's not as unusual as you might think. But it is a very tricky process in the way that picking the right leader always is on so many scores, but it just adds that extra layer of complexity.

Jeff Selingo:

I just want to stay on this for one more beat because I find that the skills of what leaders in higher education need today have shifted a lot and, indeed, they're even shifting now in this post-pandemic world. I hope we can say that word, post-pandemic. So I'm curious, what are the schools of experience you each have had or the things that you bring that make you right for these jobs right now? And I'm particularly interested in your law backgrounds, because even though we are seeing more lawyers hired as college presidents, it's really not as common as some of the major disciplines in the humanities and sciences, for example.

Jeff Selingo:

So Vince, what do you think, from your background, brings to the forefront right now the job that you're trying to do as president?

Vincent Rougeau:

Well, speaking in the broadest terms, I think, and connecting it to what lawyers might bring to these roles, these are extraordinarily complex institutions and they're becoming more complex all the time, and they're becoming complex from many different angles. I mean, you have internal complexity of faculty, students, staff, alumni, communities in which we are located. But you have external complexity. You have the media, you have Congress, you have local and state governments. All of these interests are involved in how we run our institutions.

Vincent Rougeau:

And one thing you learn in law school and one thing you do as a lawyer, regardless of what aspect of law you're in, is lawyers are trained to take bundles of very complex information, distill it, simplify it for particular purposes, and to know that sometimes, information can be viewed from very different perspectives and still be true. So that's, I think, a really important skill when you're trying to deal with complex groups of people who are trained for very specific things often, or who are coming to your institution for very specific reasons.

Vincent Rougeau:

So the old model of, say, a faculty member in one of the humanities departments, who's run the department, been around for a while, everyone likes, moves up through the ranks, very distinguished in his or her field, and becomes the president, even when that happens, that person has been going through this change in terms of the complexity of how the university functions, and has had to be in roles that gives him or her a sense that this isn't just about being first amongst equals or being the senior person on the team. I mean, this really requires expertise in a couple of different areas, and if you don't have it, you have to bring it in, and managing groups of people. Managing the faculty, managing the staff, or managing the people who do that.

Vincent Rougeau:

So I think, increasingly, people are recognizing that this is going to take people who have more than simply the skill of being great at being a professor or as a chair of a department. We need a lot more training or you need to bring a lot more to the table to really be successful in the role. And as we know, lots of presidents aren't successful in these roles for all kinds of reasons. It's a really difficult job, so we need a lot of support and a lot of guidance and a lot of learning to do it well.

Michael Horn:

Tania, that's the variation I'd love to ask you on the same question, which is about your own preparation to be president now that you already have one role in your CV as you enter the second one. As you reflect, what do you think are the critical one to two experiences prior to the presidency that every incoming president should have right now regardless of institution? How would you generalize, given the current climate, about what experiences are really critical to enabling more successful presidencies?

Tania Tetlow:

I mean, it's a function of what Vince said about complexity that it would be really hard for me to narrow that down, and it's very hard for anyone to have all of the experiences. I think it is that mix, that being a lawyer is good preparation for, of analytic skills and communication skills, and hopefully also vision, creativity, willingness to think outside the box. And there are so many people better at each of those things than me, but it's the mix, the ability to toggle back and forth between them, that's really critical.

Tania Tetlow:

And so, I think, right now, what used to be more external roles where you governed over modest amounts of change at universities have become places where you really have to think strategically, less so sometimes at the most elite schools, but for all the rest, so that pattern recognition, that analysis. And then you're navigating communications where you're having to persuade people of change, which is always hard to do. People don't like change. I love change. Most people think I'm insane.

Tania Tetlow:

And to navigate it in this treacherous tightrope right now of our politics, where we're cleaving into tribes and drowning in polemic. And your ability to say the wrong thing is just epic because young people keep adding new terms so that you can fail. And so, all of that just gets really hard. And then you really have to... This is a moment where we have to reimagine the model in many ways, so also figuring out where the future is, where we're heading. So it's hard to know what particular set of experience prepare you for that.

Tania Tetlow:

I have found being a lawyer helps me in all of those ways that Vince said. And then, like Vince, I've written about issues of race and focused on that. I also have a background in violence against women. Those two issues have proved really helpful in a presidency because sadly, they remain so very relevant, but the nuance it takes to get those things right, to make a real meaningful difference, and also not to blow up your career by saying the wrong thing.

Jeff Selingo:

Yes. Having an academic discipline expertise like that seems to be pretty useful right now. So I want to widen the lens a little bit for both of you as we start to wrap up here. At a time when every higher education institution is trying to differentiate themselves, given the larger forces bearing down on higher education right now, I really want to think about this idea of the Jesuit institution as the differentiator it has always been, especially given changes in religion, in the church, specifically in the US.

Jeff Selingo:

So what is the 21st century Jesuit college or university in your mind, whether that is Holy Cross or Fordham or more largely thinking about the Jesuit institution at the college or university level? What is it, and is it still that differentiator that it had been for decades and centuries? Vince, let me get your thoughts on that first and then we'll ask Tania the same question.

Vincent Rougeau:

Well, I definitely think it is still a differentiator and I do think that it's something that we have to think very carefully about as Jesuit institutions on how we engage that difference in the kinds of social turmoil that Tania just described. What I would point to in particular is, well, this one. Before, we could rely pretty heavily on the fact that lots of people knew who the Jesuits were, what the Jesuits did, and their reputation for excellence in teaching and scholarship.

Vincent Rougeau:

And given the social changes you were just mentioning with more and more people not involved in organized religion, with even people who might not only call themselves Catholics, still not being able to really understand who the Jesuits are, what the Jesuits do, to the extent that might have been the case 20, 30 years ago. We have to be on our game about talking about who we are and what we do.

Vincent Rougeau:

And for me, that involves really reaching out to describe what it means to be part of a mission-based educational experience and what that mission is and where it came from and how we live it out, because I do think there's a real hunger in this society, really around the world, for being part of institutions and experiences that are based on some sets of values and meaning. You may not always agree with every aspect of it, but to be able to understand that I am at an institution that values these things and puts these types of values first and is trying to do this for me as a student here, is really deeply inspiring and deeply meaningful for people and it can be life-changing, and you don't necessarily have to belong. You don't have to be a Catholic to get something really exciting and profound from that.

Vincent Rougeau:

And so, part of our work is, answering those who are Catholic and giving them what they need as being part of this Catholic institution, in the Jesuit institution, but also recognizing that the Jesuits have always put themselves out into the world to embrace the world and to speak to the world and to be in the conversation. And so, that's where I think we have real opportunity as this country has become so diverse and so contentious, to bring people into meaning across difference because of a shared experience, a shared love of an institution, and a sense that they are cared for and valued as the people that they are.

Jeff Selingo:

So, Tania, how about, as you're thinking about Fordham, especially? I know Fordham has seen huge increases, for example, in applications, and I always wonder, is that just because it's in New York or is it because of its Jesuit mission? How are you thinking about this as a differentiator? And more so, what is that 21st century Jesuit institution and what should it be?

Tania Tetlow:

Well, we always rely on the credibility we get from 500 years of academic excellence, right? I mean, the Jesuits helped create higher education as we know it and helped design universities as such. But to build on what Vince said, when you look at Gen Z, there's a hunger, not just to be virtuous, not just to volunteer, but to really change systems, to fix a world that we have left for them that is intensely broken. And they're cynical, but they're also passionate about wanting to question assumptions and to fix things, and that actually is very Jesuit. They don't know that. We need to explain that to them and persuade that for them.

Tania Tetlow:

But the Jesuits have gotten into good trouble for centuries by being willing to do that and to ask the hard questions, to be brave, to have moral reasoning that isn't just about being personally virtuous, but to really make a difference in the world. That's who we are in our DNA. So I think it's our job to do a better job of catching on to that zeitgeist this generation is hungering for that. And it is a different way of doing things. Everyone says this stuff, but it comes with the credibility of centuries of practice and tradition and core principles for us.

Jeff Selingo:

Vince, Tania, thank you so much for joining us on Future U. It was a great conversation. And we'll be right back after this break.

Sponsor:

Support for this podcast is provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is committed to preserving and expanding educational opportunity for today's students, now more than ever. Learn more at postsecondary.gatesfoundation.org. This episode is also supported by Salesforce.org. Salesforce.org is proud to partner with institutions like yours to build a better future for all. We believe creating a technology-enabled, personalized, and continuous experience throughout the learner life cycle is so critical to driving student and institution success from anywhere. Learn more at salesforce.org/highered.

Michael Horn:

Welcome back to Future U. And Jeff, that was an enlightening and entertaining conversation, and it sparked a few questions for me that I'd love your take on. First, I think you have a deeper understanding than do I of Jesuit colleges, so I'm curious. Vince and Tania gave their take about how Jesuit colleges are still a difference maker, albeit one that maybe has to be more clearly explained and marketed in a world in which young people want to be connected to causes bigger than themselves.

Michael Horn:

But they also both referenced how higher ed institutions outside of the most selective and well-endowed really do need to figure out what higher ed will look like in the future. So I'm just curious, your take. How do you think Jesuit colleges need to adapt for the future, and what do you think should be the, quote, "Jesuit college"?

Jeff Selingo:

Michael, I have to laugh at how I might have an understanding of Jesuit colleges. I'll be honest here with you and our listeners. I'm kind of a wayward Catholic these days. My sister went to a Jesuit college, as did my nephew, and I've spoken to many boards at many Jesuit colleges, so maybe that qualifies me here.

Michael Horn:

Well, maybe more so than the resident Jew on this side of the mic, Jeff. So go for it.

Jeff Selingo:

Okay. So I'm going to go for it. So I think one of the things that has impressed me about Jesuit colleges, besides I think their regular appearance by so many of them in the NCAA March basketball tournament, is their focus on student development. When we think about the studies that Gallup has conducted about the experiences that matter in college, those so-called Big Six experiences, especially those about relationship-rich experiences, for example, finding a mentor, as well as all the academic research we know on high-impact practices that improve engagement and retention, this is where I think Jesuit colleges do particularly well.

Jeff Selingo:

Right now, if I were running a college, to me, the specific trumps the general, meaning that except for the wealthiest and very elite, colleges can't do it all. So what's your unique selling proposition for prospective students and their families right now? What undervalued resource do you have that you can lean into right now as an institution?

Jeff Selingo:

Michael, we often talk about Paul LeBlanc on Future U. And as we know, when he got to Southern New Hampshire, it had this sleepy little online division, but he saw that it had potential, so that's what he leaned into. As you know, I'm an alum on the board at Ithaca College, which was founded as a music conservatory in the 1890s. It still has a music school as one of its five schools. And this summer, that music school is going to be expanded to the School of Music, Theater, and Dance.

Jeff Selingo:

Now I'm not speaking as a board member here. These are my words. But the reason for that expansion, I think, is because the Theater program in many ways was a hidden gem at Ithaca, or you could look to at Denison University in Ohio, which is clearly known as a liberal arts college, but like many other liberal arts colleges, they've added data analytics and global health as majors.

Jeff Selingo:

So at Jesuit colleges, I think their focus on whole-person development, especially around their commitment to community and that development of the whole person, is pretty key right now, especially given what we heard recently from NPR education correspondent and author Anya Kamenetz. Right? She was talking a lot about the need for community right now. We're in graduation season, of course, when students leave college. And we know that years later, what they're going to be talking about is relationships, whether those are faculty, staff, coaches, peers. Those relationships that made a difference in their life. Meeting people in college, developing those deep relationships is so critical to success both in college and after college. We have volumes of academic research on that.

Jeff Selingo:

Yet colleges, for the most part, leave that development of those relationships up to chance. Now, at selective colleges, of course you have students coming in the door who know this or have the social capital at home, where families impress that on their kids. Go to college and meet people. But for the vast majority of colleges, too many students are really spectators to the experience. And I think Jesuit colleges aren't perfect here, but it's one aspect of their experience that I'd lean on if I were president of one. How can we systemize that relationship building between students and advisors and faculty and so forth?

Jeff Selingo:

Michael, I think it's really a job to be done in many ways. And so, I'm curious, when you think about the ideas in your most recent book, Choosing College, how might the Jesuit mission fit in with the framework of that job to be done? For example, Jesuit colleges used to recruit heavily among Catholic high schools, but just because a student goes to a Catholic high school, doesn't mean that's the job they want a college to do. How can Jesuit colleges or, for that matter, any college think of their market, especially coming out of the pandemic? After all, you have said the models in your book, Choosing College, weren't static.

Michael Horn:

Yeah. No, it's a good point, Jeff, and it's a good question. Candidly, I'd love to do the interviews for some students making the decision to choose a Jesuit college or a series of them and see what we learned. My instinct is that those colleges, particularly for those 18-year-olds, it's not about helping them step it up or extend themselves or get away or do what's expected of them, that they are probably best positioned to be competing for those students that are, frankly, Jeff, often looking to get into the best college for its own sake.

Michael Horn:

But here, I think this is where they can distinguish themselves, is make that, quote, unquote, "best" defined really not so much in terms of religious terms, but much more in terms of the purpose and impact and connection that you can make on the broader world, and that so many young people right now, Jeff, I think are dying to do with their day-to-day studies, really see, how does it make the world a better place? How do we have that intentional purpose? And I think relationships are clearly a big part of doing that.

Michael Horn:

And so, I think that orientation that Jesuit colleges naturally have toward serving the outside world and having something that is bigger than self can be an enormous asset against that, and you can almost imagine branding it in the same way ASU really created the rankings around most innovative institutions. You can imagine a college ranking around service to the external world and really leaning into that and not making it, again, the religion is sort of the how in that sense, but the why as this larger impact. And so, I think that's tremendous potential for them, if I would.

Michael Horn:

It sparks something that I want to transition to, Jeff, though, which is another topic we spend a lot of time on, which is, we're talking about the branding and positioning in these institutions. To do that, you obviously need to have great leadership. And leadership of colleges and universities and path to leadership is a topic we've focused on more and more at Future U. And I want to stay on that strand, but not so much around the initial questions we ask them around the transition to lay leadership at their institutions, but more, Jeff, the broader, more generalized question about what it takes to successfully lead a college or university right now. And I want to focus on two aspects of their answers and get your take.

Michael Horn:

So first, they both extolled the merits of having a law background and coming into the job. Some of the things they highlighted were the complexity of these institutions, both externally and internally. And I'm going to quote Vince here. He said, quote, "One thing you learn in law school and one thing you do as a lawyer, regardless of what aspect of law you're in, is lawyers are trained to take bundles of very complex information, distill it, and simplify it for particular purposes. And sometimes, that information can be viewed from very different perspectives and still be true."

Michael Horn:

And this is what he said. He said, he thinks that's a really important skill when you're trying to deal with complex groups of people who are trained for very specific things often coming to your institution for their own jobs to be done or specific reasons, right? And then this was Tania's take, Jeff. She said she was trained to get things done and that being a lawyer is good preparation for analytic skills and communication skills, and hopefully also vision, creativity, willingness to think outside the box, and really mixing these skillsets in the right ways.

Michael Horn:

And I guess I'm curious, your take on those things, Jeff, because I bet that at least some people listening to the first half of this episode, that surprised them, because they were probably thinking, why should lawyers run these institutions? Lawyers are also overly trained to be concerned with risk mitigation and legalese and things of that nature. But I just want to add one more thing before I let you respond, because the other thing that I think may have surprised people was when Tania said... And I'm going to quote it here because I thought it was elegantly said. She said, quote, "To navigate these things in this treacherous tightrope right now of our politics where we're cleaving into tribes and drowning in polemic. And your ability to say the wrong thing is just epic because young people keep adding new terms so that you can fail. And so, all of that just gets really hard." That was the end of the quote.

Michael Horn:

And I think some people might also be surprised, not that a president might feel this way, Jeff, but that they would verbalize it so openly and clearly. And so, I'm curious of your take as a student of leaders in higher education, both your thoughts in the lawyer training and background and your thoughts on navigating the climate on campus in these times and the importance of saying the right thing.

Jeff Selingo:

Well, Michael, I recall about a decade-plus ago when I was editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education that this was a trend that we were starting to spot then about lawyers being presidents. But even now, years later, it really seems more unusual than typical among university leaders. The other day, I was talking to a trustee at an elite liberal arts college that just locked up its president for a lengthy contract, and I asked why, why did they lock him in for such a lengthy contract? And he said that this president is a high-functioning executive, a good mix, as he said, of EQ and IQ. And perhaps that balance is what a well-trained lawyer, who is especially a good public presence, brings to a college presidency.

Jeff Selingo:

It's interesting. Every year in the Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership, which is the program at Arizona State and Georgetown that I helped start, the fellows in the group who are all senior executives at higher ed institutions, not presidents, but senior executives, they talk about the skillsets needed in a top leader. And they do this exercise where they put these skillsets on a sticky note, and then they put them on a board under the headings either IQ or EQ. And every year, the same thing happens. The EQ side is filled with Post-it notes. The IQ side, not so much.

Jeff Selingo:

As I look ahead to the next five to seven years in higher ed, which is really the average tenure now of a college presidency, here's what I'd be looking for in my next president, whether they're a lawyer or not. One is chief storyteller. As we heard in this interview, so much of this job is balancing constituencies and saying the right thing, the ability to communicate clearly. And I think we all probably make fun of lawyerly writing, but perhaps after my own profession in journalism, lawyers might be the best writers out there, and for some segment of them, the best orators as well. And key to storytelling is getting the words right and then delivering them with conviction.

Jeff Selingo:

Second is, in terms of skills for presidents, are a chief resource allocator, making decisions between what to do and what not to do, hearing the arguments, looking at the data, hearing different sides, and then making the case to the board or to the campus community, to donors. Again, something that a lawyer probably could do very, very well. And then the third is really the chief operating officer, being detail-oriented, having integrity, being adaptable, organized, focused on what's next. And again, I think probably a good foundational skillset that we see in lawyers. But Michael, I think the problem is that most lawyers and leaders, in general, in higher ed are not trained to become college presidents.

Jeff Selingo:

It was interesting. A few weeks ago, I was at the Milken Global Institute in Los Angeles, and the outgoing president of Howard University, Wayne Frederick, said, "College presidents who come up through the academic ranks are simply unprepared or underprepared for tackling issues of the modern university presidency, particularly when it comes to finances." He said that, "More needs to be done to better prepare them."

Jeff Selingo:

Now, Michael, you were at HBS. You've spent time in the world of ed tech. You've also spent time in the startup world. I know higher ed doesn't like to take lessons from the corporate world, but are there any that higher ed can follow or maybe that they should avoid about how companies or how other sectors prepare their leaders?

Michael Horn:

Yeah. Jeff, it's a good question, and I guess I'll go back to a guest we had last season, David Gergen, who, as you know, ran for many years the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School at Harvard University. And he has a new book out, so this is why it's on my mind, called Hearts Touched with Fire: How Great Leaders are Made. And the reason I'm going to that is because your question is how companies prepare their leaders. And there's a big debate out there, right? Are leaders born or are they made? And David clearly comes down on the made side of it.

Michael Horn:

But in the book, he also quotes Barbara Tuchman, who wrote in The March to Folly that she reached this conclusion that cultures that have tried to educate for government and leadership ultimately generally fail, and she cites China and Turkey and Prussia and Great Britain. And quote, David wrote, "All have tried to prepare leaders for good government. All wound up badly." And her conclusion was, quote, "It may be that in the search for wiser government, we should look for the test of character first, and the test should be moral courage."

Michael Horn:

I thought it was just an interesting quote to pull out, Jeff, because I think number one is being really simpatico and having a clear sense of your North Star and how that falls onto the college or university's purpose and having clarity around that. And I guess it goes into the second thing, which is, I clearly think you need a well-rounded foundation and familiarity in the different disciplines of management, and companies are good at creating leadership programs that expose their highfliers, their perspectives, to different parts of the business.

Michael Horn:

But you also need comfort with surrounding yourself with those who are better than you are at those various disciplines required, and you know how to manage them. You don't actually need to outduel them in terms of the specifics, but being able to make those resource allocation decisions, as you said. And then just another thought on this is that my criticism sometimes of this question of how to prepare leaders is that we often teach it as a one-size-fits-all. One person will talk about, "Gee, what we really want is a command and control or a muscular style of leadership," and another will talk about compassionate leadership and being consensus-driven or grassroots. Right?

Michael Horn:

And my sense from some work that was done a number of years ago in a framework called the Tools of Cooperation, which I'm writing about for an upcoming white paper about how it applies to higher ed leaders, and Paul LeBlanc is among them that I cite, is that some of these different tools of leadership work some of the time, but none of the tools work all the time, and you really need to read the context of the institution you're operating in, and the level of agreement in terms of goals and how the world works of your various stakeholders, and then use the right tools at the right time to create the movement towards something.

Michael Horn:

And then just one last thought, which I think... It was interesting. In your question to Vince and Tania, you said, "What are the schools of experience you've had that have prepared you for these roles?" And I think, historically, companies used to often select leaders based on track record. Do they have a series of successes that everything they've touched has been sort of the Midas touch? Right?

Michael Horn:

But Morgan McCall, who used to be a professor emeritus at USC, he did some research basically saying that more important were their schools of experience, the same phrase you used, that basically you have... And you have to match the right schools of experiences for the right circumstances. And what he meant by that is, each time you've been in a leadership or management experience, either as a dean, as a president of another college, as a head of a department, think of that essentially as a school and that you acquire certain skills and knowledge in the course of leading in that school, if you will.

Michael Horn:

And if you want to see, "Will this person serve this institution well as a leader?" we first need to really be clear about what do we want this organization to be able to do, what are its circumstances, and then match the schools of experiences up with it. So, really quickly, someone who is good at running an established department. They've had that track record of success, but they might not be good at starting a new one from scratch. That doesn't mean they had to have actually run a new one, but they've had to have experience in a startup environment on a college campus.

Michael Horn:

And that's what I think we need to be looking more for, is this circumstantial fit that frankly, I think, companies fail on a lot of times as well, but it's a really important pattern recognition, Jeff, I think that serves institutions well. And I think, frankly, you heard it in Vince and Tania's answers about why now is the right time for lay leadership, how the Jesuits saw it coming, and they knew what they wanted to prepare their institutions for in the next chapter.

Michael Horn:

And so, maybe I'll leave it there, Jeff, as we wrap up on Future U. But next time, we will be coming to you from the campus of Georgia Tech University and a conversation with the presidents of Georgia Tech and Emory, so we're doing another episode with two presidents. But this will be part of our Future U Campus Tour brought to you by Salesforce.org. So until then, thanks for joining us on Future U.

Wherever You Listen to Podcasts