Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated tweeted the quote and followed up with “One of my grandpas was a shrimp boat captain for 40 years. The other was a roofer. I’ll just leave it there.”
Thus began a bad week for Mr. Emmert as the quote made the rounds of most news media and became fodder for dozens of opinion pieces.
Millions of people do harder work every day, and most them are sadly under-rewarded for it. Being a university president isn’t the hardest job I have had. Serving as a custodian in a hospital (including drain-cleaning and biohazard collection) and clearing brush come to mind as being harder work. Both were important, and I had the rare luxury of knowing that neither was a lifetime assignment.
Being a university president isn’t even the mostly intellectually taxing job I have had. Conducting an opera or an oratorio (hearing the mental sound of all the components of the written page just before they happen, signaling what the players and singers need to see to make it happen while concurrently listening in the present and making adjustments) is the highest mental peak I have climbed, and I am sure there are many even more intellectually arduous jobs, but few as satisfying and frustrating at the same time.
What I think Dr. Emmert (who was president of the University of Washington and chancellor of LSU) meant, and probably wished he had said, is that the role of university president is one of the most complex jobs. This is one of the features that makes it so interesting and rewarding.
No two days are alike. Each day is dominated by breaking stories much like the editorial desk of a metropolitan newspaper, except most of these stories are serial novels taking turns in the spotlight.
The focus of our work is and always should be the development of our students in and out of the classroom and laboratory, which we do in part by supporting what Thomas Jefferson called an “academical village.”
Mr. Jefferson was referring to the Rotunda and Pavilions that form the architectural core of UVA, but the campuses of residential universities like Susquehanna are communities in every sense. Presidents become the keepers of campus sagas. We are charged with the amorphous duty of curating, cultivating, and sustaining our campus stories to shape culture and affinity, but we also have defined logistical responsibilities.
In addition to offering over 100 majors and minors from over 25 academic departments. Susquehanna sponsors a wide range of research and creative work by faculty and students. We maintain labs, studios, field stations, and we have a great bespoke academic library to support all of these programs. We have a career development office and an academic support operation.
We run a small city. Our campus has just over 90 buildings. We house over 2,000 students each semester. Dining Services prepares a little more than one million meals each year (really). We run a theatre and a regionally significant art gallery. We produce scores of concerts and theatrical productions. We offer 23 intercollegiate athletic teams that compete publicly, as do a number of our nationally ranked club teams. We have the most powerful campus radio station in Pennsylvania. We develop and maintain all of that programming and infrastructure.
The largest component of our budget is financial aid. After scholarships and grants are applied, on average, our students pay a fraction of our tuition. Therefore, we also offer engagement opportunities and communication with about 20,000 alumni, and we run a grants office and a highly professionalized fundraising operation to make it financially possible for our students to benefit from an SU education. We also run a philanthropic foundation in the form of our endowment.
No president has expertise across this range of endeavors, but we are responsible for them. Being literate enough and balancing the many incumbent priorities in such a multifaceted organization is where the complexity lies. This is why teamwork is so important. It is a hallmark skill developed as part of a liberal arts education, and it is in full display on our campuses. Expertise matters, and we are fortunate to have many talented colleagues with diverse gifts and experiences to collectively guide our institutions.
Being a university president isn’t the hardest job, but it may be the most interesting, and it is definitely the most rewarding.