Spotlight on Institutional Leadership

A college or university can only be as strong as the person who leads it. Dr. Marylouise Fennell, RSM, knows this quite well, having spent more than 35 years in higher education administration—as a dean, former president of Carlow University in Pittsburgh and as a higher education executive search consultant at Hyatt Fennell Executive Search in Conway, PA.

Dr. Fennell also serves as senior counsel to the Council of Independent Colleges and presently sits on four college boards.

Q. What are some of the different challenges facing a modern college president that may not have been issues even as recently as 10-20 years ago?

A. The presidency in general has changed. There were times in the past that a president would go on vacation once school started. This doesn’t happen now. The start of the school year is simply another set of tasks that run alongside the important public relations and fundraising elements of the job and also keeping your constituency happy.

The job has changed in that it is now a 24/7 endeavor, but a certain core set of responsibilities remain the same—things like showing up to games, events and other extra-curricular activities.

Q. How have the digital world and social media changed the presidency?

A.  Being a college president in the digital world is a different ballgame. With older students coming back to school and mixing in with a current generation of younger students, you have to think about them having different levels of experience with technology (digital natives vs. non digital natives). From there, you have to consider how to reach the students and best get your message across.

Aside from communicating, a president must consider the fact that the students they serve are being educated for careers in the digital world which may not even exist yet. Things like working with the cloud and writing code continue to evolve and there will be more changes in the future. How do you prepare them?

Q. Is it getting rarer to see the same president stay at a college or university for a long time?

A. Yes, it is getting rarer. Burnout coupled with fundraising responsibilities and other pressures can lead presidents to seek new challenges after a while, be it at another university or in another part of higher ed.  A good rule I have always lived by: take 1 hour a day, 1 day a week and 1 weekend a month for yourself and your family. It can become easy to get caught up in work and responsibility, but you must have an escape. This makes you a better president and of more value to those you serve.