Expectations for a new Institute president

Photo by Casey Gomez

Following the series of ethics scandals that occurred over the summer of last year, President G.P. “Bud” Peterson made some sweeping changes to the structure of reporting within the institute. This decision, along with the ethics violations, raised some concerns among those associated with Tech about how much power the president should have. While those talks have died down, focus has returned to the office of the president as Peterson announced he would be stepping down this summer. In the wake of that announcement I set about trying to figure out what it is I wanted in our next president of Tech. 

First, I had to figure out what it was the president actually does. I’ve long held the belief that many people were putting blame on Peterson that he didn’t deserve. While the president is the face of the Institute they can’t focus on everything, and blaming a president for nitty-gritty details has always rubbed me the wrong way. 

In the grand scheme of things, the president of any college, university or institution does a lot, but most colleges aren’t exactly transparent about what a president does. Besides grandiose statements of a five-year vision or a random empty thought about furthering diversity and progress, there isn’t really much available. President Peterson’s website has a set of Institute values but those hardly describe what he himself does. 

Across all of the random editorials and community college websites I’ve come across while looking for an answer, it’s really boiled down to a few specific things that all college and university presidents do: they lead, they plan for the future and they fundraise. Essentially the president acts as a CEO of sorts. Their board of trustees is the Board of Regents — at least in our case — and they control and hire a set of other c-suite level positions to further the goals of the college or university they head. What all of this means is that the president does a lot of outward facing work for their university. While university presidents are encouraged and often do talk to students and faculty their real focus is going to be making sure the grand machine of the institution keeps chugging forward. The president isn’t exempt from taking the blame for internal turmoil, but focus should first fall onto the people they’ve hired when it comes to pointing fingers.

The president should eventually be held responsible for all actions should their subordinates fail to fix the problem but shouldn’t be the first to take blame. 

Moving forward, this means people will most likely need to curb their expectations of what a new president can do. However, there are things that a president should do, especially in their first year at Tech. 

A task force set up by the Aspen Institute on the Future of College Presidency released their findings and recommendations for both universities and their presidents. Most importantly, the task force made a list of recommendations for things a president should do in their first year. 

First on the list is to make an effort to get to know students and staff. This is probably the one that a lot of vocal minorities want the most. They want a president that can talk to them and understand their issues and the struggles they face on a daily basis. The biggest thing the new president needs to talk to students about is their mental health needs. While work is already being done on improving the system at Tech there is still gaps in the system. The current administration seems to be set in their ways of doing things, but a new president could talk to students to figure out what they truly need.

Other important goals listed by the focus group include tracking student data, learning about the university’s decision making process and making time to take vacation. All of these are important but I think the biggest takeaway for new presidents is the fact that they need to listen to what the students have to say in their first year. Using the voices of students to shape a solid five-year plan will help involve the students in a meaningful way and help incoming leadership get acquainted with the wants and needs of the school. 

While it isn’t a very large ask, I think it’s the most students should ask for. A president appearing to show genuine concern for their school’s students can go a long way towards building the trust that a school administration needs if they hope to have a healthy relationship with their student body. 

There are specific things I want, like someone from outside the Institute, but those may be personal. I think as a whole most people want a president who listens to the students more, but they also need to understand that the president is beholden to a lot of pressure from all sides, including the Board of Regents to which the president answers. 

The students are one of those sides as well, and we may see ourselves as the most important piece, but at the end of the day policy decisions over the past few years have shown that we may not be. Students can demand all they want for a president to listen to them, but they need to realize that their needs may be  shirked to preserve the image of the Institute.