Oberlin Blogs

On the President

November 17, 2016

Zach Moo Young ’17

I've heard it can be cathartic to write, so I was thinking about writing on this year's presidential election. At this point, I now think it will be more valuable to write on another important presidency, the presidency of Oberlin College. A few nights ago, I invited myself to a "Special Student Session" for the Presidential Search Committee. Apparently, this is where the Board of Trustees receives student input. After some introductions, the session began with individual students offering up their ideas of what would make a good Oberlin College president.

One by one, students offered up things like: "They should be empathetic" or "I think our president has to be someone who has an understanding of climate change." I found myself wondering a question I have wondered for a long time. What can the president actually do? And what does the Board of Trustees have to do with anything? I decided to use my turn to ask the consultants from the search firm (who were there to receive student input) those questions. Being that I may have been the only one who wasn't actually invited to the session, I thought maybe it was just me who didn't have this understanding, and that everyone else had already been informed. Afterwards, the consultants said that probably 99 percent of students don't know the roles of the president, so here I am attempting to make this known.

While I am not completely satisfied with the answer my question received (I am still left wondering what the power dynamics are like between the president and the Board of Trustees), what follows is the answer I received as best as I could summarize.

The president is like the conductor of the trustees and has five primary roles:

They are like a parliamentary spokesperson. They listen and absorb all of the different voices and try to make sense of them.
They are the visible face of the institution. In this sense, they should embody Oberlin College.
They need to be on top of what is around the corner in higher education. Where is higher education headed and what are the trends? With that, they need to be able to deploy strategies in anticipation of trends.
They should be a "skilled tactician." They should know the tools they have available to them, which levers to pull, and when to use them.
They should be a manager of people, resources, and ideas. This includes, but is not limited to: fundraising, leading a team, and motivating a team.

With these five primary roles in mind, I have come to the conclusion that the most important quality a college president should have is the ability to build great relationships--someone who has the skills and personality necessary to have strong relationships with a wide range of people. Are they well-liked? Respected? Do they have relationships in areas that they may not be experts in? How do they respond to conflict? Can they help conflicting parties empathize with one another? Do they inspire people to act? These are the kinds of questions I think should be considered in a college presidential search.

I was also left imagining who would be elected President of the United States if a search firm were involved in the process. We can think of search firms as like a relationship matchmaking service. This means they work best when both parties accurately represent themselves and articulate what it is they expect out of the relationship. I highly doubt we would have ended up with this president-elect if a search firm had been involved. While that might not be possible, I think there are two things from the college president search process that we can effectively apply to the process of selecting the President of the United States.

1) Constituents should know precisely the roles and powers of the President. Some of the things that the president-elect Donald Trump said in his campaign may not actually be legal or as easy as he said it would be. For example, when he said "I will build a great wall--and nobody builds walls better than me. Believe me--and I'll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words." It must be true that enough people really believe that as the President of the United States he can do that without having to go through the checks and balances built into our government. They may end up disappointed.

2) Both sides (the constituents and the candidates) should be very honest and open about what it is they each expect. To return to the relationship metaphor, if each side were accurate and honest about what it is they expect, there would be more satisfaction. Politicians are notorious for breaking promises, yet throughout each election, people really believe what they say, and end up disappointed to find that their candidate didn't stay true to the platform they ran on. What would this country look like if politicians were honest about the realities? The constraints, the political opposition they will face in passing legislation, the length of time policy-making takes.

Distrust in the U.S. government is at an all-time low. That has been one explanation for the rise of Donald Trump, who is seemingly a political outsider. If government officials were honest about the realities of politics, and the constituents understood the terms our government officials have to play by as well as the realities of their roles, this country would not have elected Donald Trump.

Moving forward, people involved in the political system should keep this relationship metaphor in mind. They work best when both sides come into it with a clear and honest understanding of what each side can reasonably expect.

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