Happily Exhausted

(The following was originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, January 9, 2006)

At an Oglethorpe University alumni reception the other night (my second of four such gatherings in four cities in eight days), the gentleman who introduced me noted that he had graduated 50 years ago but it seemed like yesterday. I am not sure what demon took over my voice when I came to the podium, but I started my talk by telling everyone I began my presidency four months ago, but it seemed like 50 years.

I got a big laugh. I think they thought I was kidding. I have now passed my five-month anniversary and it still feels like 50 years; I guess that’s progress.

Just a couple of years ago, after spending more than a decade as vice president of administration at Swarthmore College, I decided that being president of a small liberal-arts college might be an interesting position to pursue.

I knew a fair number of college presidents casually and one very well, Alfred Bloom, my president at Swarthmore. I could not have admired Al more, as a person and a president. He was always (and I mean always) excited about the mission of the college, and he actually moved that venerable place toward a new vision, in large part his vision. He occasionally seemed tired and his schedule was hectic, but he genuinely seemed to love what he did every day, and every day he made a difference in people’s lives.

I entered my first search for a presidency on a whim, so much so that I figured I didn’t need to share the venture with my wife. I was stunned when I got an interview (and of course, so was she).

When I was offered the position a few months later, we weren’t convinced that the time or the place was right, so we let the opportunity pass. From what I can tell, that college found a great president and is doing swimmingly.

In fact, the handful of us who were finalists back then in one presidential search or another — all looking for the right place and the right time — seem to have landed fortuitously, and we meet a couple of times a year at one conference of presidents or another and share stories. I could write a book on the search process (and probably will when I retire) but now I’ve got my hands full.

I began work at Oglethorpe on June 23, 2005, although work really started for me the minute my appointment there was announced. I now belonged to a new community, and everything I did (or didn’t do) mattered in a way that it had never mattered before.

I could pretty much end this right here. In a nutshell, that’s the life of a president, or at least the presidency as I know it. And that’s why I love what I have been doing — because everything I do matters to someone.

And that’s also precisely why it’s impossible to have any sense beforehand of what it’s like to try to do this job. I can tell you (because I’m sure my board chair doesn’t read The Chronicle regularly) that I had no idea.

As president, every call you make matters, every note you write matters, every person you talk to matters, every meal you eat matters, every word you say matters. And every call you don’t make, every note you don’t write, . . . that all matters, too.

Every once in a while, I get exhausted from 14-hour days stacked up one after another and think to myself, What could it hurt to miss this next event, have someone go in my place, not make that trip to see a potential new friend of the college, leave the theater performance early?

So far, I have hauled myself up off the floor and gone to every thing I could, and every time, I return knowing I made the right call. In fact, without exception, I arrive home late at night totally energized by my interaction with a student, a faculty member, or a trustee I met.

I sort of wish one of those ventures would turn out to be a disaster, so I could justify the idea of going home at a decent hour. Maybe in another 50 years.

I guess being oblivious to the demands of the job was a good thing, as I never would have believed I could be this happy working this hard.

It probably helps that I have avoided trying to act “presidential” and concentrated on being myself. The job is simply so consuming that if you spent a lot of time trying to act in some unnatural way, I think you would collapse in a week or two. So, I’ll show up late at night at a residence hall, wearing blue jeans and an Oglethorpe T-shirt and carrying a dozen pizzas, just to talk to students.

One Saturday night, before my family moved to town, I ran into a university alumnus at a local Waffle House. I was wearing, of course, my OU soccer T-shirt and that started a conversation about what I did at the university. I had been on the job all of a week, so I’ll admit I didn’t know much yet, but it took me close to an hour to convince that young man I was the new president. I guess I might do a better job acting presidential at least some of the time.

Here’s my last two cents’ worth. I read an article in this newspaper tonight (that’s what prompted me to write this at 11 p.m.) about the demand for presidents with a ton of development experience. I was not a development guy, and despite spending a substantial amount of my time now doing fund raising — because we are a remarkable, poorly endowed, tuition-dependent liberal-arts college — I would never encourage a search committee to narrow the pool to experienced fund raisers.

In my experience (either 5 months or 50 years, whichever way you want to look at it), it’s all about passion, energy, and a vision. If the job is only a job in any small way, you’ll never keep up the pace. It’s simply ridiculous, and I love it.