09/03/2013 08:58 am ET Updated Nov 03, 2013

The President Will See You Now -- Or Anytime, Really

I was in my office yesterday afternoon, talking with a colleague about... oh, something terribly important. The outer office door, which opens directly onto the first-floor hallway, was open. I don't have an assistant these days -- more on that later -- so I usually leave my inner office door open and just try to keep an eye on folks wandering in from the hallway.

Anyway, Fred the FedEx delivery guy -- who is affectionately referred to locally as FredEx -- walks straight in with a package for me. Hands it right to me, smiling and helpful. Right into my private office, without knocking, like it's his own living room. I absolutely love the idea that I work on a campus where stuff like that happens. Sometimes, if he's running behind schedule, Fred will leave packages for my partner with me on campus, rather than taking them the extra two miles to our home where Laurel maintains an office. Never mind that I've never actually been introduced to him, or that I have no idea HOW he knows that I live in that house with her. I'm just happy to help him get home to supper on time.

Back to yesterday afternoon... A few minutes later I realize that a young man, looking painfully shy and troubled, has entered my outer office. I call him in and ask if he's okay. No, he didn't get to eat lunch, he tells me. Why not, I inquire. Because his name isn't on the list for preseason meals, he answers. (Apparently he's on the cross-country team, and classes don't begin until next week.) How long have you been back on campus, I ask. Two days, he responds. Turns out he's been eating cereal in his room for two days because he couldn't get past the gatekeeper at the dining hall. And he was too shy to speak up until, apparently, he got REALLY hungry.

My first instinct was to hand him 10 bucks, my car keys, and the directions to the local McDonald's. Fortunately I realized that a far better solution was to GET HIS NAME ON THE DANG LIST! Which I did. And he's eating just fine now, thank you very much. Of course I lament the fact that this quiet young man had to survive on only Cheerios for a couple of days. But I'll admit that I love the fact that he -- eventually -- realized that he could just go and talk with the president about his problem, and she'd take care of it. That's the kind of president that I want to be, and the kind of campus where I want to work.

So yeah, I've been working without an assistant to the president for a couple of months. On a larger campus, of course, this would never happen. The president's assistant would have their own assistant, who would have an assistant, and so on and so forth. But I'm "batching it" temporarily, which is actually quite an eye-opening experience. I've been the president for almost nine years, and I think of myself as relatively independent and self-sufficient. I mostly manage my own calendar, answer my own e-mail, and yes, make my own coffee. But I couldn't change the toner cartridge in the office copier if my life depended on it, and I'm wondering what I'm going to do when it eventually runs out of paper. And after I've signed those invoices and travel authorizations that mysteriously show up in my inbox in the mailroom -- which I have managed to locate, I'm proud to say -- what am I supposed to do with them? Somehow I'm pretty sure that these are not challenges typically faced by the presidents of larger colleges and universities.

Life on a very small campus, I've often said, is akin to living in Mayberry. If I don't show up for a home soccer game or I go an entire week without eating dinner in Kilburn Commons, students notice -- as they should. As I walk my dog around Machias in the evening, community members yell greetings to me out of their car windows. People know which restaurants I frequent, that I attend the local United Church of Christ church and how often, and how long it's been since I darkened the door at the Murdock Fitness Center. I'm in a highly visible job at a tiny college in a small, rural community, and sometimes I lament the fact that I can't be anonymous or invisible unless I literally leave town. But then I think about FredEx and that hungry student, and I know that I wouldn't trade this job -- or college, or town -- for anything in the world. Life is good.