As many other leaders also feel, no job description could list every job I might have on any given day. As a college president, I play the role of scheduling juggler, donor developer, faculty soother, student advisor, professional counsellor, hard-nosed negotiator, and — on my better days — conflict resolver. There often are not enough hours in the day for travelling, family life, and what is listed in my actual job description.
But truth be told, I love this job and relish the variety that comes with the role. In my first five years as a college president, I’ve had the opportunity to keep a hand in nearly every aspect of the school’s operation — and even rarely the most central, primary function of the institution itself: teaching. Leaders need to help inspire those around them, and being in classroom not only allows me to do that, but I can more aptly understand what is on our student’s minds.
The great thing about being a college president is that I get to connect with a much wider network of students than I did as a professor. At the same time, the depth of relationships that emerges from interacting with a group of young people for a whole semester simply can’t be matched. The chance to work with students is what drew me to higher education in the first place. So this semester, I returned for the second time during my presidency to the classroom to teach one of my favourite classes, one that I hope will be of real help to students: “Leading for the Common Good”.
In this sociology class, we look at the social dynamics of leadership. As a social scientist, I invite students to explore institutional leadership from multiple angles: the political tradeoffs, the organisational mechanics required to get things done, the inertia of institutions, as well as the dark side of leadership — the excesses and failures that often accompany power. But, on balance, the course focuses on the promise and prospects that can occur when there is an alignment of a leader’s passion, an organisation’s capability, and followers’ shared commitment.
My favourite aspect of this particular topic is that it intrigues students of all kinds. In many cases, this is the first and only sociology class my students ever take. This is a topic that’s endlessly relevant, especially since Americans have just chosen their next president. I’ve read many papers discussing what kind of leader president-elect Donald Trump will be. Our culture will always be interested in how leaders steward their power, and to what ends, so this is a course for all students and for all times.
I’ve been teaching iterations of this course for over a decade. As a preceptor (a graduate student teacher) at Princeton University, I taught the class under the legendary sociologist Suzanne Keller. There it was called “Elites, Leadership and Society”. When I transitioned to Rice University, I piloted a similar course under the topic “Social Dynamics of Leadership.” At Gordon, with “Leading for the Common Good”, I can help students explore power and elites in society while also unpacking the moral dimension of leadership, which is increasingly of interest to young people. And while I am teaching the class, they are teaching me more about the organisation that I work for and lead.
I decided to try to teach every other year or so at Gordon for several reasons. To be sure, I have really missed interacting with students in a formal academic context. But the primary reason I decided to reinstitute this class is that I want to awaken within my students a desire to take their rightful place as stewards of public responsibility. To attend an institution like Gordon — or any American liberal arts college, for that matter — is to have the opportunity to experience what less than one per cent of the world’s population can aspire to: a holistic, residential undergraduate education with access to some of the best and brightest minds in all fields of learning.
With that privilege comes real responsibility. I want our students to recognise and accept that duty, and it has been a pleasure this fall to walk alongside them as they reckon with both the perils and the possibilities of power.