The student, an undergraduate, had a problem. She was getting ready to enroll in GW’s upcoming semester, but had no place to live for a couple of days before the semester actually began.
So my wife and I invited her to stay with our family, and over dinner on the first evening of her visit she said to me, Excuse me for asking, but what exactly does a university president do?
My initial reaction, as I hardly need to tell you, was one of hurt. Wasn’t it obvious that I was performing my duties in what amounted to a six-day week and a sixteen-hour day, and dealing with countless emergencies in the process – a few of which could actually threaten the future of the University?
Then, I tried saying to myself: maybe it’s not so obvious from an `outside’ point of view how a university president like you actually spends average time on an average day.
So I got ready to write my article for The Hatchet, and I started out by making a list:
Duties of GW’s President:
oBalance and harmonize the various turfs represented by GW’s Vice-Presidents. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But sometimes it requires a lot of political skill and even more political determination.
oWorry about money. It’s exhilarating to be in charge of a school that’s on an upward climb at the pace of GW. But as you might expect if you’re a university located in Foggy Bottom, brilliant and innovative ideas often cost a lot as they turn into classrooms, laboratories and studios – all staffed by faculty members whose salaries are competitive with those being offered by other top schools.
Parents and families don’t like to hear that their son or daughter is going to a school run by the banks to which it owes a fortune.
oKeep a sharp eye on the media, and on how they are reporting on and/or affecting GW faculty, students and alumni. The fashionable reaction is, Oh! You mean that today’s university president is nothing but a public relations person. This response, I must confess, always makes my blood run very cold. And if I said what was really in my heart, it would run as follows, That’s just and insufferably snobbish and conceited way of saying that this University is in a continuous state of public exposure.
Somebody has to keep a vigilant eye on a reality that huge, especially when it is a reality that decides this University’s present and future.
oNever miss an opportunity to project the University’s image, so laden with academic virtue, in ways that confirm that image’s essential accuracy. Somebody has to coordinate the look and feel of an academic institution that mails out literally millions of pieces of paper each year. And somebody has to serve as the ultimate spokesperson for GW when the media call – which they increasingly do.
oFeel comfortable in conversation with everyone from the President of the United States to foreign heads of state. When a school is engaged in a boom as vigorous as the one that now typifies GW, national and international involvements swiftly multiply. In recent years, I have found myself in intense personal conversation with the chief officials of New Zealand, Morocco, Israel, Costa Rica, Egypt and other nations. All were people who thought of GW as an intellectual and pedagogical powerhouse. So I had to look and sound like a university president whose daily climb into the cabin of his powerhouse was something he took for granted!
oKeep in touch, at a plausible, personal level, with all of the constituencies represented by the University. The young woman of my first paragraph, who needed temporary housing, was someone I ran into on a food line at our J Street cafeteria. Across the desk from me I see faculty members on countless occasions. Informal personal conversations number hundreds in an average year. Staff I bump into wherever I go on this campus, either personally or telephonically.
So I’m actually a sad musician of sorts, racing around one of the biggest concerts on our planet, urging the trumpets to play a little louder or the second violinist to stop sneering at the first. The result is a symphony notable for its harmonics rather than for grunts, groans, screams of pain, and missed opportunities. GW is the kind of a place that feels proudest when it delivers exactly the services it markets to the public – above all, the capacity to earn one’s living, after graduation, in ways that fill the soul while they also fill the wallet and the stomach.
GW’s success is synonymous with the success of its students and its faculty. And that, in turn, is just one of the reasons that a university president like me runs so energetically from place to place and subject to subject, trying to make things even better!
-The writer is president and professor of public administration.
This article appeared in the July 10, 2000 issue of the Hatchet.