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Responding to the Graying Presidency

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A recent Chronicle of Higher Education cover story detailed the "graying presidency" and the inherent challenges are facing in grooming the next generation of university chief executives. Having become a president eleven years ago at age 36, I recognize the incredibly small group of us under the age of 50 who currently hold our positions as presidents. I am also aware, then, that the responsibility to help address this leadership sea change on campuses throughout America falls largely to us.

I offer the following as just one way that we have endeavored at Southern Utah University to identify, mentor, and motivate future administrators to take up the torch of university presidencies in the coming years. I would also assert that there is no better job in America than to be in academic leadership on a university or college campus. To be sure, there are many challenges and recent news reports have focused on the intrinsic land mines facing presidents (e.g., the Universities of Oregon and Virginia), but I would not trade jobs with anyone.

There are other very notable programs in place. I have worked with American Council on Education (ACE) fellows and recognize the superb work they do in training faculty members in a host of higher education issues.

From my own leadership experience, however, a great deal of my management style was learned under the tutelage of Bernie Machen, currently the president of the University of Florida. Bernie took a chance on me in creating a position at the University of Utah within his cabinet in 1999 termed "special assistant to the president." This position later expanded into "secretary to the university" and entailed extensive work with the U's governing bodies such as the trustees and the Utah State Board of Regents.

I determined that if I were ever in a similar chief executive position, I would do for aspiring administrators what Bernie did for me as a 34 year-old who was not quite sure which path to take within the academy. He gave me a tremendous amount of latitude to be aggressive and to make good decisions based on my own judgment -- as well to make mistakes and to learn a great deal from those missteps.

Based on this experience with Bernie, we have crafted a President's Council Graduate Fellowship program at SUU. It is a full-time salaried position with benefits. My hope is that this fellowship -- a one-year intensive experience designed to expose the participant to the whole spectrum of issues facing a chief executive -- will inspire young people intending to make a career in higher education to learn all they can about what being a president actually entails. Bernie Machen did that for me and my goal is to do it for others.

Our first "graduate" of the fellowship is a young man named Chase Palmer, currently pursuing a doctorate at Columbia University. I told Chase the first day on his job that my goal was to immerse him in everything members of my cabinet might face. As such, the fellow spends time working in academic affairs, student services, finance and facilities, athletics, and institutional advancement. Chase attended every meeting and participated in every discussion and decision we reached as a President's Council. He attended legislative and regent hearings, wrote speeches and letters, helped craft budgets, hosted dignitaries on campus, and shouldered a host of other relevant responsibilities.

This year's fellow has been Jon McNaughtan, a former student body president at SUU and recent education master's graduate of Stanford. Like Chase Palmer before him, Jon will be pursuing a doctorate in the fall -- on a full-ride scholarship at the University of Michigan. Given that both Chase and Jon are not that far removed from their own undergraduate experiences, their perspective on the president's council is a vital reminder to all of us of the primary reason we are all working in higher education: our students. Next year's fellow just arrived back on campus after completing his law degree at the University of Kentucky. Matt Roan is a former SUU football player who -- along with his wife and SUU alumna, Mallory -- represent the very best our university has to offer.

Our efforts on our campus are certainly not a panacea for this very daunting problem facing higher education. But it is an attempt to think globally about a serious challenge while acting locally to help produce a remedy. If the potential and career trajectories of Chase, Jon, and now Matt are any indication of what talent might emerge from the next generation, I firmly believe higher education institutions are in excellent hands.