08/25/2013 05:02 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2013

The President Has Left the Building

Last fall I actually took a vacation -- my first real vacation in eight years, I'm embarrassed to admit. My partner and I spent a month backpacking on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, all the way out to Finisterre. This was our first backpacking experience, so we spent a lot of time preparing for the trip. We bought the requisite ultralight backpacks and sleeping bags, broke in our fancy new hiking boots, and went on early-morning training hikes before heading to work every day for a couple of months.

The only thing that really made me nervous about going to Spain for a month was... being in Spain for a month. At a university with 20,000 students and a full slate of vice presidents and deans, there's always going to be someone to handle any situation that arises. But the University of Maine at Machias is a very small campus with fewer than 1,000 students, and the administration -- a word that always strikes me as humorously overblown for UMM -- consists of me, a dedicated but overworked provost, and an equally overworked CFO. How could they possibly get along without the president?

Well, they did. Everyone pitched in and business proceeded as usual. Nothing new, nothing groundbreaking, but everyone kept on keeping on. It was fine for a month. Absolutely no harm done. Code green.

Exactly six weeks after returning from Spain, on the night before Thanksgiving, I got a phone call from my physician. The results from my latest mammogram were in. Breast cancer. Two options: either a lumpectomy plus six to eight weeks of daily radiation in Bangor, which is a four-hour round-trip from my home; or a bilateral mastectomy followed by chemotherapy, with all the typical complications -- cumulative fatigue, hair loss, etc. Either way, I was clearly going to be putting an "Out of the Office" responder on my email account for quite a while... again.

A month after my mastectomy, I was able to return to work for a few hours a day. But it took three months to get back to full-time work and begin to feel more or less human again. We caught my cancer early, so I was able to avoid chemo and just go straight to Arimidex -- a hormone-therapy medication -- instead. The Arimidex side effects are manageable, if unpleasant, and I can't be declared "cancer-free" for another five years. But my prognosis is good and I consider myself very fortunate.

Meanwhile, what happened on campus? Business, more or less, as usual. As I slowly got back on my feet and started to look around, I realized that very little had changed. I even commented to a few folks that I was feeling somewhat superfluous, and that obviously things were going just fine without me.

The problem was that business as usual -- if allowed to continue too long -- is a death sentence for a small, struggling public college. My campus has no time for status quo. Everyone was doing their jobs and doing them very well, but without the president around, the absolutely critical, fully integrated progress toward a long-term, sustainable vision for the future doesn't necessarily happen.

What's the role of a president on a small campus? Spark plug. Coach. Cheerleader. Visionary who pushes and pushes and pushes the faculty and staff as fast and far as possible, just to the brink -- but not over the brink -- of their abilities and willingness and patience. On a very small campus, the president has to function like a switchboard operator who talks with everyone and knows a little bit about everything. It is amazing how quickly silos can develop, even on a very small campus, that hamper the lateral flow of communication that is so critically important. Sometimes the harder that folks are working on their own jobs, the less likely they are to raise their heads and look at the horizon -- or even at the person working in the office next door.

What's the role of a president on a large campus? Frankly, I hope I never find out. But on this very small campus, I'm starting to see more clearly what we have accomplished together over the past few years and how my own role has evolved in that process. And I'm gradually learning how I can do a better job of serving the students, faculty, and staff -- by keeping them talking with each other and helping them focus their efforts on the big picture.

No silos. No status quo. No way.