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Chris Maples

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Acting Presidential

Posted: 01/30/2013 4:08 pm

What a wild ride thus far! I started my presidency at Oregon Institute of Technology (Oregon Tech) in October 2008. Oregon Tech is one of seven universities in what currently is the Oregon University System (OUS). I note "currently" because changes in the governance structure of the OUS certainly are in the offing, which likely means that the current OUS will not be either the same or possibly even extant by the end of 2013.

As the president of a state university since 2008, my entire presidency to date has entailed management of declining state support (and the State of Oregon had one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation). Within Oregon, the main campus of Oregon Tech is in Klamath Falls: a rural area with unemployment rates that were in the mid-teens for most of the past five years.

Oregon Tech has done quite well in recent years in many of the measures of reputation that are published regularly by U.S. News, Forbes, Bloomberg Business, and others. Irrespective of how you feel personally about these published evaluations, it is interesting to see what criteria are used in constructing the rankings and assessing whether or not some or all of the criteria are ones that are of particular importance to you.

So, I applied for the job of president at Oregon Tech because of the undergraduate focus and public, presumably egalitarian nature of the university, both of which are near and dear to me. One of the most entertaining aspects of the entire application process was receiving phone calls and emails from some of my friends, some of whom were on my reference list and some of whom were not, asking me what I was doing and why they were being asked if I could "act presidential." All of them found the question both odd and entertaining, and those who know me best were pushed to the precipice of hilarity.

But the question, "Can he act presidential?" is not quite as simple as it would seem on the surface. Over the years I have interacted with lots of other presidents, no two of whom act the same. But in every case, the successful presidents that I know are the faces, personalities, and, eventually, the hearts of their universities. And to the extent that no two universities are exactly the same, no two presidents act presidential in exactly the same way. Simply put, some presidents will fit well in some universities and fit poorly in others. And in an overly simplistic way, presidents who fit well with a university "act presidential" and those who do not fit well do not "act presidential."

Self awareness is a key quality in allowing a president to understand if he or she fits well with his or her university and, therefore, is "acting presidential" or not. I am fortunate enough to be at a university that focuses on undergraduate students, is teaching oriented, and has probably more than its expected share of quirky students, staff, and faculty. Given that, my own quirkiness is not only tolerated, but actually embraced by many (but by no means all) students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of Oregon Tech. I wander through our campuses, I talk with anyone and everyone, I yell at sporting events and attend as many as possible, I have a Twitter account, and I have a Facebook account that currently has my image wearing a knitted owl-head cap (Oregon Tech's teams are known as the Hustlin' Owls).

So, can I act presidential? To permute a well-known saying, I can act presidential for some of Oregon Tech all of the time, and I can act presidential for all of Oregon Tech some of the time, but I cannot act presidential for all of Oregon Tech all of the time.

The key, as I see it, to leading is to be predictable (even if it is predictably unpredictable, sometimes), even-keeled, unflappable, honorable, enthusiastic, vociferous, and pick your battles well (which does not mean you have to pick all the battles that you know you will win -- the occasional loss is worth the effort on other fronts). In the aperiodic blogs to come, I will tackle what I have come to appreciate are the rewards, excitements, depressions, wins, and, yes, losses, that go with any leadership position, especially on in public higher education. I very much look forward to hearing from you with your own experiences, and critiques of mine, in this and future blogs.

 
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