09/05/2013 02:38 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2013

Do What You Think Is Right

Doing what you think is right does not necessarily mean doing the popular thing. In fact, it often means doing that which is unpopular. While no one wants to be attacked, that is the price you should be willing to pay.

Paradoxically, you should probably be happy if everyone, not just one constituency, is unhappy with you. To me, that always meant I had found the middle ground. And, for me, the middle ground was, more often than not, the right place to be.

When I had to sue the city after negotiations failed over the college's desire to expand, I knew I would be vilified in both the community and press. I wasn't wrong. Articles, editorials, and cartoons took me to task. The lawyer in me convinced me we would win (we did; three levels of judges unanimously agreed with our position); the president in me recognized I had no choice if I was to do my job properly because, being "landlocked," the college's options were to destroy valuable green space or slowly "die," or, alternatively, for me to take the criticism and sue the city for the right to expand.

No matter what you do, you will be criticized -- so do what you believe to be right. In my 24 presidential years, I made only one decision that was received well by all parties. When we acquired slum properties and polluted fields on the college's periphery and converted them to student housing and playing fields (the other side of campus from where the city and college locked legal horns), the decision was applauded by all. Why? Because we moved tenants at the college's expense to a location they chose, and we paid their rent for the first two months at the tenants' new location. And because we showed skeptics that gifts and additional revenue from students who would reside in the renovated homes, rather than live off campus, would make the investment revenue-neutral. However, one universally applauded decision in 24 years is not a very good percentage.

Even that applauded decision was not easily achieved. Convincing the board to go forward with the first half of the project took one year; the second half took one and one-half years more. At one point, a key trustee announced to his fellow board members he would never allow his children to live in the area of the planned project.

I smile when I think back on those discussions, and I smile even more broadly when I reflect on how those who opposed the investment now congratulate themselves on the investment they made. When I first heard those congratulatory comments, I realized the project was the success I had envisioned.

Persistence in doing what you think is right is key. So, too, is being willing to take the heat for what you believe is right, to resist the temptation to tell constituencies what you think they want to hear, and to convey a consistent message. Not only will you find looking in the mirror a great deal easier, but you also won't have to worry about remembering what you said to which group.

As I constantly told my staff, there were only two things that were wrong -- doing what was wrong and doing what gave the appearance of being wrong. For a president, there is little difference between the two. You should obviously never do anything wrong, in fact or appearance; you should always do what you think is right.