The “Nearly Impossible” Job of College President

On the latest Higher Voltage, a look at why today’s leaders in higher ed must be always-on masters of strategic planning and communications.

By: Higher Voltage
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The role of college president has become a never-ending, thankless campaign – a far cry from the days when it was a gratifying capstone to an ascendant academic career. Challenged by social upheaval, student activism, enrollment crises, and a charged political environment, leaders in higher ed must be always-on masters of strategic planning and communications.

On this week’s Higher Voltage, Teresa Valerio Parrot and Erin Hennessy of TVP Communications say it’s a role many current presidents simply aren’t cut out for.

“We see presidents and leaders say to the students, ‘Well, you tell us what you want us to do?’ At which point I say, just hand in your business cards and go home,” Hennessy says.

But she says it with compassion and empathy, and she and Parrot discuss with host Kevin Tyler not just shortcomings and challenges, but how higher ed leaders and marcom experts can successfully handle emotionally charged issues, how they can unify divided campuses, how they can advocate for their institutions to state legislators, and much more.

It’s a wide-ranging, fascinating conversation – see the timestamps below for specific highlights.

Related: Higher Ed, When Everything is Political

  • The effect state legislations have on how higher ed institutions communicate on social issues (4:15)
  • How university administrators advocate for the interests of their student bodies (7:36)
  • What it looks like communicating with university leaders who are hesitant to speak out against state legislations (15:01)
  • How to unify a campus despite generational divides around societal and cultural issues (21:41)
  • University leaders participating in public advocacy of their institutions (34:13)
  • Preparing campus leadership to join in and encourage social cultural conversations within the community (35:32)
  • Successful ways administrators have handled sensitive and emotionally charged issues on college campuses (41:33)
  • Separation between the brand of a state and the brand of a university (51:50)

Read the full transcript:

Kevin Tyler:
Hello, and welcome to Higher Voltage, a podcast about higher education that explores what’s working, what’s not and what needs to change in higher ed marketing and administration. I’m your host Kevin Tyler. Campus brands belong to a variety of stakeholders; students, faculty and staff, of course, but also alumni, donors, the surrounding community, and many others. Today I’m joined by Teresa Valerio Parrot and Erin Hennessy of TVP Communications to discuss the role of campus leadership and communication in challenging times, and how presidents can better navigate the tricky landscape of campus discourse. If you could both just take a minute to introduce yourselves what you do, what kind of work you specialize in for our listeners. Erin, let’s start with you.

Erin Hennessy:
Sure. I’m vice-president at TVP Communications coming up on my eighth anniversary in the role and with our agency, I do a good deal of internal messaging, strategic communications planning, a lot of crisis communications and media relations training and along with Teresa lead our crisis communications work. My career has bounced back and forth from higher education, to state government, to federal government. So I’m excited to have this conversation today because I think it’s a topic that isn’t given enough attention either in statehouses or on our campuses to be frank.

Kevin Tyler:
Teresa.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I’m Teresa Valerio Parrot and I’m the founder of TVP Communications. This week actually, is our 10th anniversary. So super excited for that. Thank you for celebrating that with us. We, as Erin mentioned, do proactive and reactive communications and increasingly I would say Kevin, I think that the topics that we are being asked to address include policy issues that are outside of the institution’s control. My career focus when I first started in higher education was policy work.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
So my graduate degree, my master’s is in public administration and I worked on higher education policy at the institutional level for a number of years before moving into communications. I think it’s a natural path, as Erin mentioned, working on Capitol Hill and Communications, and now working in doing what we do that we often are in that world that is between how higher education operates and how the world exists. I think that’s really where policy comes into all of this.

Kevin Tyler:
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Kevin Tyler:
I think that the relationship between state legislation and higher ed cannot be overstated. I mean, there are obviously clear funding, cultural, et cetera consequences or benefits based on that relationship. I want to dive in our first question and I’m thinking about all of these states, especially recently, but over the past few years, a number of years we’ve seen like bathroom bills in North Carolina bans on vaccine mandates in Texas, allowing guns on campus in other states, threats of students voting. There’s just so many issues, cultural-societal issues that are in play at the legislative level.

Kevin Tyler:
Meanwhile, there are all these schools who are trying to recruit more diverse students and more female students in stem and all these other things. And what we know about Gen Z themselves and also what we know about diverse Gen Z audiences, it’s got to be so difficult for schools to communicate their stance or their philosophy in the context of the state legislation. Can you talk a little bit about what you see in the marketplace in this regard in state legislation and higher ed communications?

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
So I think that’s a question that I’ll answer more holistically and then I’ll talk about a little bit more personally as well. What I would say is I think it comes back to what we always give as our core audience approach. And that is what is it that are driving students choices. And for so many of our students, they may not be thinking about going outside of their state if it’s red, or if it’s blue, because they’re looking at cost and they’re looking at convenience and they’re looking to see what’s in their best interest financially and from an opportunity standpoint. So it really is a slice of our audience that we’re really talking about that has the luxury of looking across the country and saying, is this something that really impacts me and therefore I will choose a different path or I will make a choice based on what that opportunity means for me?

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
And really that means we’re talking about our full pay students that are really most impacted here. What I would say is on a personal front, I have a Gen Z student who is in college in Texas. She’s in Houston, Texas, and she’s at Rice and I’m super proud of her. I would say that she was looking at two things, what are the opportunities available to her? And the second was how could she make a difference? So her major is social policy and if you want to make a difference in the social policy world, right now, you go where some of these bills are being passed and where there is work to be done, because that’s where you see your fit and your opportunity.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I’m in a doctoral program in Texas as well coincidentally. I’m going to for my doctorate degree. What I would say is, it goes back to what was in the best interest of the student and it was the convenience and it was the offering and it was the timeline. So I think there are so many different ways that we need to slice and dice this and it really does depend on how we’re thinking about our students and their opportunities.

Erin Hennessy:
I think we also, and I’m sure we’ll dig into this, need to just make that distinction between public and private institutions and the flexibility that private institutions have to, I don’t want to say ignore, but to set aside some of the legislation and they are. Again, when you talk about privilege and I think that’s such an important point, Teresa, the private institutions within these states have the opportunity or the privilege to set aside some of the more problematic pieces of legislation to a greater or lesser extent. Obviously, at a public institution there’s going to be heightened sensitivity and obviously a larger obligation to follow the exact letter of the exact law, but oftentimes private institutions aren’t within that scope.

Kevin Tyler:
I think that’s an excellent distinction in the public and private. One of the things I often think about is the environments that these policies can create when they’re trying to attract basically new taxpayers. The idea of attracting someone from out of state to your institution, whether they’re public or private is hopefully at the place where you are located is attractive enough to that person that they stay and build a life and create a family, et cetera. These policies can sometimes make that somewhat difficult. I’m curious about what you’ve seen in your work around university administrators advocating for the interests of their campus populations when it comes to these kinds of policies.

Erin Hennessy:
I think that’s such an important point that we’re educating taxpayers and we always used to lean on the statistic about the vast majority and I forget what percentage it was. The vast majority of college graduates stay within a 50 mile radius of their institution once they graduate. Having been raised as a professional in New Jersey, which at the time was the greatest exporter of college students in the country, that was certainly something that was very, very present for us.

Erin Hennessy:
I think what we see, and I’ll be interested to hear your perspective Teresa, but what we see is often institutions leaning on the mission and saying to Teresa’s earlier point, we’re bringing students here to learn how to both live together and receive an academic education, but we’re also bringing them here to prepare future citizens. And so the students who do come to a state where there are challenging political positions being bandied about, we are educating our students how to fight those, how to push back on them, how to seek to influence the legislative process. It’s not for no reason that we do huge voter registration drives early in each academic year so that we can give our students the tools they need to be participants in our democracy on the state level, on the local level, on the national level.

Erin Hennessy:
I know that, that in itself can raise some hackles within state legislatures because there are assumptions made about how our students are voting, but I think we see folks very often pivot to mission and say, what we are here to do is train the next generation of participants in democracy. Part of that is voting, part of that is engaging in the legislative process wherever you live, whether it’s on your campus or at home and we really, I think need to continue to push that perhaps even more than we have to date.

Kevin Tyler:
I agree with you.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I’m going to piggyback on that because I feel as if over the last, I would say five years, we’ve seen an increase in the number of pieces that we’ve worked with presidents and senior leaders to write. We live in a blue space in a red state, or we live in a blue space in an increasingly red state. So it might be a purple state that is moving red or feels red, or is perceived as red. We’re writing and placing a number of those locally and nationally as well and it really is tied to where they recruit students and how they want to be thought of. I think that’s a real push and pull that our public and private institutions are seeing across a number of different communities.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I think that’s an important realization for us to have as well as is what is our perception, right? It goes back to brand. How are audiences perceiving us and then what is the reality behind that? Because in some of the states, to be honest, that blue dot is trying to say, we’re a little more purple than you think because they are recruiting students from across their state and they need to make sure that all students will feel that they are at home. Others were talking about concentric circles. So we may be a purple dot, but there’s a bluer dot around us or whatever how they’re looking at those colors, because they need to recruit faculty and staff to also live in these areas.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
And for some of these very, very blue dots, faculty and staff of color may not see themselves in that community. Ideologically, they may be blue, but looking around the community, they may not see their fit. So how are they starting to talk about the greater community so that people can find a space where they feel comfortable and they can thrive personally as well. That’s a significant shift that I’m seeing over the last number of years. I don’t know that we were as much talking about that maybe five, 10 years ago.

Erin Hennessy:
Yeah. Teresa, I think that’s so smart. I’m going to raise the curtain on some of the conversations you and I have late in the afternoon when we’re winding down from a tough day. I think we’re seeing an increase in presidents who are willing to stand up and say, “While this issue verges on political.” I’m willing to take a stand because it is in alignment with mission. It is in alignment with what we do as an academic institution. Importantly, it’s an alignment with how we position ourselves in the marketplace that we are saying, this is a place for activists. This is a place for students who are engaged in the big questions and the big issues. We still, I don’t think could feel the football team of these presidents who are willing to sidle up to that political line that presidents have avoided for so long, but there are more and more of them and they are, I think, increasingly drawing attention.

Erin Hennessy:
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a number of them are black presidents who are willing to say, “If I’m going to lead an institution that is either an HBCU or serves a large number of black and Hispanic and other minority students, I’m going to have to engage in some of these issues that perhaps some of my white colleagues aren’t comfortable stepping up to and engaging with.” I think that is an interesting shift. I think it’s one that deserves some more coverage and some more study and I’d love to read longer pieces about that shift, but I do think we’re seeing more comfort in that area. I think it’s important.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
And to that point you and I agree, and I’m glad that you’re sharing some of our end of the day task. Here’s one more that we also talk about because it ties directly into this. We are hearing fewer and fewer presidents using the term student activists like it’s a four-letter word. There was a point where every time we heard student activists, it was a negative. We still hear that, but we don’t hear that nearly to the degree that we used to. We’ve always encouraged presidents to honor that and to really celebrate it because it is a draw for your students. If you have student activists, I can guarantee that is infused in your brand. I can guarantee that’s infused in how people think of your institution.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I’m so pleased that it’s less frequent that we have to rally presidents to that point, that student activists are to be celebrated and let’s talk about what they’re bringing to our attention and what they’re telling us, rather than assuming that it’s an us versus them type of environment.

Kevin Tyler:
I could not agree with that point anymore. I love what you just said there. I think, I mean, when you think about where so many revolutions have taken place where we’re born or participated in, a lot of that is on college campuses. You think about all these places where there have been this activation of people and passion and rights, et cetera. When I think of college, I think of those kinds of things, as well as the academics. It’s all the other things. So how could we not talk about the last couple of years, especially in this conversation around the kinds of communications that were thrown into the world by college presidents, either in states that had red leanings deep or were deep red. Can you talk about what you saw and what your process is to like meet with a president who says, “I believe in these things, but we have an audience and we live in a state that might not receive what I want to say well.” Can you talk about what that looks like in your work?

Erin Hennessy:
So when you raised that, Kevin, I instantly thought about the weekend that the Muslim ban was put in place. We had waves of protests at airports across the country and lawyers flocking to international arrival terminals to assist people who were arriving in this country to utter chaos. And because of what we do and who I am, I sat and watched all of this unfold on Twitter. I watched this statement start to roll out from college presidents. And for a while there was retweeting a number of them. It was interesting to see who was first. I don’t remember off the top of my head exactly which institution, I think it was a large public R1 institution was one of the first to issue a statement from the president, not just the university of fill-in-the-blank is concerned and monitoring this, but an actual statement from a person.

Erin Hennessy:
The first couple were very interesting and very powerful and very impactful. And then you could just watch the whole dialogue, turn a corner when all of the performative bandwagon, “Oh, shit we better get one out too, because this institution down the road or this peer institution or this aspirational institution has won out.” Teresa and I spent a lot of time talking with institutions about when you’re going to issue a statement and when you’re not. Is this a world event that’s aligned with your mission, that’s going to impact a large swath of your students? Is this something that is directly germane to what you do as an institution? You could see very quickly, they shifted right to very canned language. We’re very concerned.

Erin Hennessy:
This is a serious matter and you could see the institutions that were tweeting from a place of this impact us and our students, our researchers today to the presidents that were probably being pressured by activist students on campus to say something. And it was a very stark distinction and that’s where we spend a lot of time having these conversations is what do you have to say that is going to move this forward? How does this impact the institution directly and can we speak to that in a statement, instead of saying, we’re very concerned. We have no tolerance for, we take this very seriously. Oftentimes, presidents will set that advice aside but I have to say something. I think that is when the presidential voice is undermined. It’s very clear, I think, to people who observed the industry closely, when that happened.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Erin usually brings people along through logic and I yell at people and here’s where I’m yelling at people. And that is the point that you are no longer authentic, at the point that this is performative, please don’t. Please don’t because you’re not helping the conversation. At the point that I take your statement and I put it into Google and everybody else’s statement comes up, then also, please don’t write. This has to be something that you believe in. This has to be something that you are advocating for. It has to be something that you’re willing to put out there, even though you’re a little bit scared. And if you’re waiting until it’s too safe of the moment, and the moment has passed, you actually do yourself more harm than being one who leads because this is the right thing to do and your campus community expects to hear you talking about it.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I also have and Erin has, we’ve had presidents in the past that I warn them about becoming town criers as well. You can’t be, Hey, there’s a red flag over here. Hey, did you see this? Hey, we’re really concerned about that. You have to pick and choose very carefully in today’s world what is it that you’re willing to take on because you’re doing something about it. It’s not just enough to say we’re worried and we take this seriously. And so what? If we don’t have that passion behind it, I always ask presidents either to dig a little deeper and Erin and I, co-wrote a piece about this recently.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Dig a little deeper, make sure you have something to say or really think about whether or not this is the right time, because as much as that’s an external public statement, it 100% is a gut check for your internal community about where you stand and what your leadership means. So we should not have any false illusions about what this could be from a good standpoint and what this might be if you are performative or this isn’t something that you’re actually willing to move forward.

Erin Hennessy:
Yup. I’d far rather see a president take the time to sit and check in with their director of international programs, to check in with faculty members, to check in with student leaders and say, “How is everybody doing and what do you need from the institution?” Then to see them sit down and come up with yet another 75 to 100 word statement that is just going to be contained in a Twitter wrap up in one of the trade publications on Monday morning. I think statement is fine, action is more important.

Kevin Tyler:
I admittedly am getting goosebumps from this conversation. And every time I record one of these episodes, someone says something and it’s like this isn’t revolutionary, but it sounds revolutionary for higher ed which I think will just continue to be the story, but I think about some of the comments and messages or statements I saw last year after George Floyd and the ones you could tell were just participating and the ones that were passionate. I think that that is a very, very easy thing to tell and with the generation that’s coming into college now, they are savvy, especially around messages. They can like fix us out in authenticity in a heartbeat.

Kevin Tyler:
And so I think about like, because of higher ed brand belongs to so many different people and that the incoming classes of freshmen or first years are so markedly different than the aging alumns, who when you go to a college, the image of that college stick, that’s how it is. It stays in your brain like that and you’re bristle at any evolution that the institution might make, because this is not the way I had it here, but as the world changes, so does people’s responses, leaders responses to what’s happening in the world. I’m curious about your perspectives around how you thread the needle between a 70=year old alum and an 18-year old freshmen who have very different expectations around the communication around societal and cultural issues.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I think we’re seeing those generational divides pretty significantly, and I would add another middle. I think that’s our faculty and staff who are very vocal on social media, have great relationships with our students and it feels to me some of their concerns overlap and some of them don’t. I think we need to be listening very carefully to what they’re saying as well. I think one of the things that is important is that it’s never safe to be a leader. That’s part of why you’re hired. There are moments that require leadership and you’re going to tick people off. It’s going to happen and it’s not as easy as a calculation of what’s the safest group to tick off and what costs us the least amount of money.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Going back to what Erin said, it’s tied to mission, it’s tied to ethos, it’s tied to where your leadership is taking that institution. Because if you take the safe road on some of these topics, I would start to question if I were a student, are they taking the safe road on the value of the education for that institution and how they’re approaching innovation and education and all of the different topics that we know are popping on campuses. Everybody wants to say that they’re leading right now. If you’re going to say that you’re leading in these areas, you have to take on the spectrum and pick your battles. You can’t take on everything, or you’re going to spread yourself too thinly, but be smart about all of this.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
You’re not going to please everybody. And one of those other duties as assigned is that you don’t get to be liked. That’s just how it is. People go into presidencies thinking, I’m going to be the one who’s liked. I’m going to be the president who everybody thinks back up and you just view so warmly. You may or may not be, but instead you should be doing what the moment expects of you, short and long-term what does your institution need? And that’s entirely different than how do I maintain being liked?

Erin Hennessy:
Yeah. I mean, here’s another Teresa and Erin 4:30 PM conversation. There are so many presidents who are in the position right now that I don’t believe are suited to this moment. I feel for presidents who are early in their tenures, who have worked throughout an entire career to rise through the ranks of academic leadership, who have gotten to this moment, to this position, they have applied, they have gone into this. To Teresa’s point, they think they’re going to be the one that has the building named for them because they’re so beloved and everyone is going to talk-

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
There’s always a speaker series.

Erin Hennessy:
… yeah, of course. They get here and it’s an absolute soul deadening siege to run these institutions, particularly in the last five years. I would go back to the recession of ’08 and say from ’08, ’09 on, there’s not enough money in the world to get me to be a college president. But certainly in the last 10 years, this job has become nearly impossible and there are people who are in the pipeline who have been working towards this end goal, who all along have been saying, this is going to be at the culmination of all of this work. They get to the job and what the job requires now is not what they were trained to do. It’s got to be personally very difficult to grapple with that internally for yourself. But I think we need to start having that conversation more publicly because these institutions are fragile, particularly the small liberal arts, small religious affiliated.

Erin Hennessy:
They are fragile and they cannot withstand six or eight years of a president saying, am I? Should I? Can I? Do I want to? And I think it’s so hard for these folks that have excelled throughout their careers to get to a point where they can say, “I’m not good at this. I don’t have the skillset for what this moment requires and the best thing for the institution long-term is for me to step out.” And that’s got to be incredibly difficult, but I think we’re at a point where these jobs are just too high stakes for folks to muddle through.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Well, and Erin, to that point, I think one thing that I would add is that I recently was chatting with a reporter and the conversation was about openings in higher education. The comment I received back was I was the first person to mention that these are thankless jobs because they are thankless jobs. You have to make sure that you’re finding validation outside of the job, not in the job. I thought that was fascinating that how was it? I was the first person to raise it. Everybody else was talking about what great opportunities are coming back and what a great capstone on a career and all of these different platitudes that may have been the case, but haven’t been for awhile.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I think we need to realistically set expectations. They are great jobs. Don’t get me wrong. You can make a hell of a difference. There are so many things that are beneficial, but at the end of the day, you may not be liked. How do we balance that you’re not going to possibly get the building and the speaker series named after you at the end, they may have made a significant difference for that institution long-term.

Erin Hennessy:
The other thing that we need to have a conversation about, and I say this with all due respect to my colleagues, my former colleagues in the association world, we need to have a hard conversation about how we’re training presidents, because it is no longer the same world we’re launching presidents into. I know that the organizations and institutions that do this training are of course seeing all of the things we’re seeing. We need to iterate that training faster. There are presidents who have gone through these programs, have gone out into the world and are doing truly remarkable work. They are the model for the next generation of presidential leadership and we’re fortunate to work with a number of them. I want to take them, clone them and send them out to talk about what you actually need to run an institution.

Erin Hennessy:
Yes, we need to talk about legal issues and athletics and recruitment and enrollment, but it’s bigger than that. I think we missed the thing that pulls it all together in what we’re currently doing to train academic leadership. I think we aren’t having that hard conversation of this is what the job is like, are you actually suited to do it? I get, you want to do it. I get you think you’re suited to do it, but how do we get down to brass tacks and say either, yes, you have what it takes for this current environment or you don’t. I don’t know how to move that into the training realm, but we need to do it quickly because I think we are seeing a real crisis in the continued development of the pipeline of the leadership that we need.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I’m going to piggyback on that, Erin, because Erin knows this is my hot topic now and that’s governance, right? So we also need to be training those boards because the president can’t succeed unless they know that they have the backing of their board to do so. So we need the boards to be trained as well. And the does to bring us back to our conversation on our topic. Boards are the spectrum of society. You’re there for a number of reasons, whether it’s who you know, what you know or how much money you have. Having said that, they do run the political spectrum. So as we talk about this as well, there is this public policy conundrum that some of our presidents into that they’re doing what is in the interest of their institution they believe, and they may or may not have their board’s support in doing so. So there’s this companion training that I think that we need to be thinking about, as well as asking some really fundamental questions about who can and should be on our boards longer-term.

Erin Hennessy:
What you’re saying is something I think about a lot and that is it does kind of feel like higher ed leadership presidencies specifically as like a campaign that never ends, like a political campaign that never ever ends. There’s no finish line until you leave that job. And so what that then creates, unless at least in my opinion, I used to work in politics in Ohio, is this idea that as long as you keep everyone happy, you are being successful. That doesn’t work in higher ed because again of the variety of audiences. And so the expectations are going to be so different and it’s just not possible to do it. What you’re saying is something that I’ve been thinking about a whole lot when it comes to higher ed leadership, and that is about communicating your values and not your ego.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Yes. Trademark. We just trademark. That’s ours. The three of us. I have nothing to do with it, but I’m going to go ahead and say yes.

Erin Hennessy:
And it needs to go all the way back to the beginning of the search process. And that goes back to trust this point about governance. Boards, their most important work is around selecting presidents for their institutions. And if what they are looking for, what the institution needs, what the board is looking for and what the president brings to the table don’t align, that’s where you start to get into trouble and that starts from day one. We’ve done a ton of work around introducing new presidents to their institutions. What we really push the institution to do is not come up with a narrative or the story around this announcement, but to go back to where is the institution now? What does it need? How did the board translate that into a set of experiences and skills? Why is it this person and what are we going to position them to do long-term moving forward.

Erin Hennessy:
I think you’re absolutely right, Kevin. I think it is possible for a short period of time to keep everybody happy. But if you’ve ever spent time with small children, you liken it to being on the bomb squad. And if you keep everybody happy for some period of time, you can do it, but at some point you have to pay the price. There are going to be consequences that is going to come home to you and the ice cream you gave the kid to keep them happy, it’s going to result in a sugar crash and at some point you are going to have to clean up those messes.

Erin Hennessy:
That’s a lot of metaphors that I just packed into that. Enjoy every one of them, but you’re absolutely right. You can only dance that fast for so long and eventually you’re going to collapse from exhaustion and they’re going to be real consequences to that. And it’s unfortunate that the institution then gets caught in the crossfire. Holy shit. That is like 17 different mixed metaphors. That is potentially a personal record, but sorry about that.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I’m going to piggyback on something and this just exemplifies that again, Erin’s the nice one and I’m the yeller. So the board is responsible for the hiring of the president and I would say they’re also responsible for the firing of the president. It’s part of it. We use that term hiring and firing as if it’s one word. I think there’s a reason for that, but what I also would say, and I think this is important to me, whether this is tied to policy or this is tied to just how we treat each other. I think there are a number of boards that transition out to presidents in very unfortunate ways. And what they forget is that everybody else who searches that position, everybody who considers it is going to look to see how the president was treated and what their transition out looked like.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
It is exactly where this conversation starts and stops for a number of people. There have been some amazing institutions that have had some really big fires of transition, and they cannot recruit the caliber of individual that they need and that goes back to how the board handled the second half of that responsibility. So I think there’s a real key there that we need to be thinking about how we announce and roll out that president so that we put them on the track for success. We also need to think about what graciousness looks like on the other end of that, because it’s not about that person. It’s about the long-term health of the institution. That’s often what we have to remind people of is that you’re transitioning a person, let’s do that as graceful as possible because we’re trying to retain reputation for your institution long-term.

Kevin Tyler:
Ooh, preaching. I love it. It’s so true though. I do have a question for you about like how often you see or work with college presidents or other leadership level, cabinet level folks at institutions who actively participate in the institutions advocacy. Do you help write testimony for state house hearings? Does that ever happen? Do you see that often if ever?

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
We don’t only because we step aside when it comes… I think there are a number of legislative experts that we would defer to, and there is a art to that language in how it is that you structure it and what it is that you say, who it is that you reference and how it is that you pull that conversation along. So we try to stay on the calm side nationally and in higher ed trains. We have in the past done in essence kind of speaker training for those who are giving testimony to Congress. And that’s really to make sure that we’re thinking through some of their speech patterns and the way in which they present themselves, which is different. They’ll come to us having worked with their experts to get their scripts and what their key points are in advance. We might tweak around the edges but much more it’s about the delivery of it if we’re talking about something that’s specific to legislation like that.

Kevin Tyler:
Okay. How do you prepare leaders for more like social cultural conversations on campus or around campus? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Erin Hennessy:
We have actually started doing some training with advancement and admissions/enrollment staff around difficult conversations. And it in a lot of cases gets back to the point you made earlier, Kevin, about that divide between older somewhat more conservative alumni, and younger, more progressive, more activist, more engaged prospective students. We have worked there to try and help folks develop the skillset around listening, understanding what someone is coming to the conversation looking for. Is it just, I want to vent because this place is not the place that I knew and loved, and this experience doesn’t resonate with my experience, or is it someone who’s looking for information? Are they someone we can tap to activate their networks?

Erin Hennessy:
If we provide them with the information and give them the talking points or the responses they’re looking for, will they then go share that information with their network and therefore become evangelist for us. So we really do some work around those conversations. When it comes to the bigger social, cultural issues that everybody is struggling with these days, we do advise presidents and senior leadership on how to have those conversations, how to come to them as Teresa said earlier, authentically and openly. Again, it’s the same kind of training and approach.

Erin Hennessy:
What is this person looking for? How can you respond to them appropriately? How can you continue the conversation? How can you come to it with humility and openness and not shift to a defensive posture and how do you remove yourself from your role as the leader of this institution? We work with presidents to say, well, these students come in, they’re so angry and they yell and they yell at me and to Teresa’s earlier point, that’s the job. As president, you are the physical manifestation of this institution for their four years and potentially longer. You are going to catch all of the heat. The question becomes, what are you going to do with it?

Erin Hennessy:
Are you going to use it in a productive way to move the institution and the culture and community within it forward, or you’re going to respond from a defensive position and say, these students should be more respectful and go on about your day and head off to the faculty meeting. That’s where that leadership pivot comes in, I think. That’s the difference between the president who’s ready to meet the moment and the president who is not.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I also think that there are so many moments that a president should lead in their other ways where you need to think about, do we need to partner with others? So I have one president in particular that I always ask, are you the right person and is this the right time? And thinking through what that means especially when he wants to change the world. He thinks this is the moment. Is this the moment and let’s talk about that. And we have put together some buckets for him to think about, is this what I lead? Is this what we in higher education lead? So Pell is a great example for that right now. This doubling of the Pell it’s too much for any one institution to take on, right? It has to be the collective push. We need to be thinking about what this looks like and how we can actually move the needle.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Will we? I don’t know. That’s up for discussion, but that’s one of those topics that this is an equity conversation that we’re having tied to Pell. How do we make that case as succinctly as possible and with the greatest impact and positioning? So Am I the right person? Are we the right people? And then there are some topics going all the way back to the beginning of our conversation that might be too big and too much of a hot topic for an institution, or even a group of presidents to take on. That’s why you have associations. That’s why you have third parties who support you. And sometimes you participate in those behind the scenes, or you have advocates come out in your support. There are different ways to be thinking about this and a president doesn’t have to take on all of that.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
It’s better understanding where do I use my political capital and where do I use the reputation in the heft of the institution as part of this conversation? Because you can’t separate that out. We have some presidents who say, but I’m saying this as a private citizen. President, that doesn’t exist. The moment you sign that contract, you are one and the same until you separate from that institution. And even still, you will be seen as a part of that institution. So you don’t get that opportunity anymore and you have to think about what the impact is for the institution, with or without your participation.

Kevin Tyler:
Erin, I’m going to go back to the point you made just recently about the relationship between the president and the institution and the way that they handle things. That brings to mind when the University of Missouri was having hunger strikes and the football team walkout, et cetera. There is a report done just after that. I can’t remember who did it, but they talked about how the typical response from higher ed leadership to sensitive situations on campuses and they categorize it as emotional issues, like things around race, that’s an emotionally charged kind of issue. And the response is so typically to create a task force and having a logical response to an emotional situation is really…

Kevin Tyler:
They’re not going to speak to each other well, because there are two very different things happening. And so this idea about like a rubric or some templated response to things like racism, sexual assault, all these other really terrible things that can happen on a college campus are met with a binder or some other work plan or whatever. It just doesn’t feel like the right kind of response. And so can you talk a little bit about some of what you see that’s more maybe forward thinking in terms of responses to these kinds of situations from a communications point of view?

Erin Hennessy:
Yeah. It’s such a good question, Kevin and I again, feel for the college president who finds themselves in the middle of one of these very emotionally charged institutions. We talk all the time about people who try and apply a rational lens to an irrational situation. When you come in and say, well, here’s the workflow and here’s the template and here’s the constituencies that need to be represented on the task force, and here’s the external expert. We’re going to bring in to do a review that we may or may not publicly release. It is not surprising to Teresa and I, anytime we see that response that this issue is going to continue to roil your institution for as long as you continue to try and jam this emotional response into a very administrative box.

Erin Hennessy:
The presidents that we see really succeeding in managing these kinds of issues on campus are doing a couple of things. One they’re making room for that emotion. They are sitting in that uncomfortable conversation. They are sitting in that town hall meeting or that town hall Zoom more recently and we’re not saying get up there and wear a hair shirt and be beaten about the head and shoulders, but what we are saying is you need to make room for this emotion.

Erin Hennessy:
This is an emotional response and until we get through some of that initial emotion, it’s going to be really hard to figure out what to do, to figure out what is going to feel responsive to those students or faculty or staff or whomever you’re dealing with. We need to make room and we need to sit in those hard conversations for a bit. And then what we advise is you may or may not need a task force, but what you do need to think about is how you can be moving the needle on what needs to be done on campus in three big buckets, your short, your medium and your long-term.

Erin Hennessy:
Our students are going to come to us. We went through that period of time where we saw a lot of lists of demands and a lot of them lightly included a demand that the faculty be diversified, that we need to see more black and brown people at the front of classrooms, 100% agreed. We all know in academia, A number one, the hiring process doesn’t work like that and B number two, we haven’t yet created the pipeline that makes moving that needle very easy. That’s going to be a medium or a long-term goal. Our students don’t always get that, but if we can pair that with the medium and short-term goals, that hopefully does enough to demonstrate good faith and commitment to our students so that they have the ability to wait a bit longer for the bigger stuff down the road, because we have shown them upfront.

Erin Hennessy:
We’re going to do the small stuff, we’re going to build, and we’re going to continue to move the needle on this and we see great success. The other thing that we encourage folks to do once they set up that kind of three bucket approach is to be transparent. Let’s put together a website where we are itemizing these goals, short, medium, and long-term. Here’s who’s responsible for them. Here’s when you can expect updates. Here are the updates, because we thought a run of institutions that said, here are our goals and here’s what we’re going to do. And then the students went home for summer break and everybody went, “Oh, thank God we weathered.” That and never came back to that to-do list.

Erin Hennessy:
So your students come back, they feel that their good faith in the institution, the administration has been squandered and they’re going to be twice as vocal and twice as aggressive when they come back and they’re right to be. So that’s the approach that we counsel folks to take and to be willing to be out in those spaces where you’re going to be told that you’re long, and you’re going to be told that you aren’t moving fast enough. And in a lot of cases, the students are right. We aren’t moving fast enough.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I think Erin, the important part of that, that we always stress as well, is that your students are saying, this is how we feel today. This is what we’re experiencing from the institution today. And we respond with that’s great. Our task force will get back to you in 18 months to two years. So you’re telling those students, for 18 months to two years, we are going to just let you continue to feel and experience the institution that way. That it’s okay that you are having this experience that is less than ideal. We are fine with that because we need to allow our processes to go ahead and check boxes and that isn’t acceptable.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Students don’t think it’s acceptable, as a parent, I wouldn’t think it was acceptable. We need to be thinking about how it is that we’re saying that. So to Erin’s point, it has to be, this is how you’re going to feel change today. This is how you are going to see change and experience change moving forward. We have to be able to make that very relatable to how they’re going to be looking for what progress and movement looks and feels like. That’s really where the authenticity comes back into this. This is where the language and the follow through is so critically important. And this is where the hard work happens. This is what we really want for people to be talking about. So again, don’t tell us, this is what we plan to do. Tell us what you’re doing.

Erin Hennessy:
We see leadership assume a far more in depth and arcane knowledge of academic administration and faculty administration. We assume everybody’s reading the faculty handbook. Oh no, it’s just people like us. But we expect students to understand the hiring process for faculty and we expect students to understand the budgeting and the tuition setting process and revenues.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Where curriculum comes from because we always hear, but we all know curriculum is the responsibility of the faculty. Correct. But we don’t all know that.

Erin Hennessy:
Yeah. And in the worst case outcomes, we see presidents and leaders say to the students, well you tell us what you want us to do? At which point I say, just hand in your business cards and go home, because that is (a) problematic and (b) pretty offensive to say to students, you’re unhappy. You’re telling us, you are feeling X, Y, and Z and we are going to tell you, you have to fix the problem. You tell us how to fix the problem. And so it’s so frequent. We see these things go off the rails and it’s really rare that we see a president who is willing to just wade right into it and say, “You’re right. We blew this.

Erin Hennessy:
We need to be better. Tell me how this feels to you. To Teresa’s point, tell me how you’re experiencing the institution. Tell me where you feel we’re coming up short. I’m going to go do the work with my team in reasonable amount of time, come up with a roadmap forward. I’m going to bring that back to you so we can vet it together. We’re going to agree on some goals and it’s my job to make sure that this institution is responsive to that list of things we need to do. It’s rare to see everybody hit those marks. Some folks are really trying, but we need to be better in that space.

Kevin Tyler:
I just want to say I think that this part of this conversation, your point around making space and being more urgent in the response from a leader. There’s a great book by a man named Bryan Stevenson called Just Mercy. In that he talks about getting proximate and the idea that I understand the value and the function of having a bunch of layer of people between a president and students. I understand how that works. However, there are times when that space needs to shrink because in order to truly understand the weight of pain and joy for that matter. You have to get as close to it as possible to understand what the motivation is behind it or the energy that is behind it, or what created it.

Kevin Tyler:
If presidents aren’t willing to go into the space, step into the square and say, tell me what you’re feeling, there is no real way to truly understand, sympathize whatever it is, what is happening for the people who are on their campus, who are in their care. And so I love this idea of being more urgent and having these three buckets. This is how you’re going to feel today. Here’s what’s next and here’s how you’ll experience it for people who come after you, because otherwise people have an unfinished situation once they graduate. They’re still thinking about the way that they felt when they left your campus or lived on your campus and we don’t want that to happen because there’s a whole alumni operation that has to kick in after they leave and we had to fix those. So I just want to say that. It is an interesting…

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I want to piggyback on that though, Kevin, because quite often we experience a number of administrators who are trying to create protections around a president. They’re trying to make sure that they’re not putting them into difficult situations or uncomfortable situations. That they’re making sure that the brand of the president stays presidential. We talk about that all the time. How do you stay presidential? That’s a little bit different in this case, because to your point, you have to be able to interact with others and feel it.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
And quite often that’s where we see colleagues across the country and in a number of different positions say, “Oh, let’s not have the president go to that. Ooh, let’s send student affairs instead. Ooh, well, why don’t we make sure that we like limit that to 10 minutes and no more. And you can’t have the building of a relationship based on what we’re not going to dos and the time limits. And that’s where I think we also have to be thinking about what is a safe amount of vulnerability and what can we gain from that vulnerability in that moment?

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Because I do think we do have a responsibility to make sure that we are thinking about what the reflection on the institution will be and we don’t want to put our presidents in positions where there is longer-term harm to the institution, but there is a middle ground there that quite often, we never even try to embrace or encourage because of the what ifs. And that’s where I think this is a much different time and place and presidency to you go all the way back to Erin’s points than we had previously.

Kevin Tyler:
This is so great. I’m having so much fun. I have one more question. I want to be super respectful of your time, but I do have a question about that kind of loops back around to the way we opened this conversation and that is, is it possible for the brand of a state to be separated from the brand of a university? Just in your own opinions, it doesn’t have to be based in fact. Like just, what do you think?

Erin Hennessy:
That’s such an interesting question. I think maybe.

Kevin Tyler:
Here you go. Trying to please everybody.

Erin Hennessy:
Right. Is this for Twitter right there.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I’m going to go out strong. I’m going to say yes. I think it’s because we see some institutions that are just doing, so here’s my pollyanna coming out. We see some institutions that are just doing such amazing work and it is recognized and it is appreciated. And students understand what is in sometimes what isn’t isn’t in the control of the institution and they’re looking to that institution for its opportunities. I think this is where we get back to the very beginning of the conversation and that is students have to understand to separate those two brands. What am I going to get from this experience, from this education, from this opportunity, and that doesn’t have to be one and the same as the state.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
It is a four year experience and so you can choose at the end of that four years, if you want to stay in that state or you want to go elsewhere. And this doesn’t have to be one and the same. This is where we really see some of the students who are creatively thinking about where they are and what the opportunities are and what to learn from this moment, separating that out for us in a lot of ways that we can learn from. So I don’t think it has to be one and the same. I don’t think it is one and the same. I think we work with so many institutions that you could put them in any state and their brand is so strong. It’s not tied to location, it’s tied to mission.

Erin Hennessy:
I’m going to be-

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I like that.

Erin Hennessy:
… my deeply cynical self and say, I think that separation is far easier and potentially only possible for an elite brand, for an elite institution.

Kevin Tyler:
I don’t know. Maybe. I hear what you’re saying, Erin. When I was looking at colleges, it was like right around the time of Matthew Shepard and was I looking at colleges in Wyoming? No, I wasn’t, because I don’t know. I’d never been…

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
Would you have been looking at colleges in Wyoming before that?

Kevin Tyler:
I was looking all over the place. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I know I wanted to be safe. And it’s just one of those things that I was stuck in my head and right or wrong. I know that the entire state of Wyoming is not the people who killed Matthew Shepard, but the idea stuck in my head enough, I was like, “Hmm, that state is not going to be for me.” And I’m wondering about what people see in the news about a place when it comes to these legislative efforts and moves Joe Arpaio and Eric, all these things. If a young woman is sexually assaulted on campus and she ends up getting pregnant and she’s in a state where she can’t make a decision for her own, what does that mean? It’s just a question I ask clients sometimes when it’s appropriate and something I think about often when it comes to policy versus higher ed.

Erin Hennessy:
Yeah. I mean to take it a little bit broader, so my first job out of college, I was an admissions officer for my alma mater and one of my travel territories was Long Island. I would go to these college gyms and set up my card table next to Drexel and Duke and all of these other institutions who were alphabetically proximate, and people would come up and see the standard pretty picture of the fall foliage and the young carefree delightfully diverse undergraduates wandering across campus and they would say, “Oh, this is pretty, where is this?” And I would say, “New Jersey.” And the first response from a large swath of students was always, “I would never go to New Jersey.”

Erin Hennessy:
But you know, who didn’t have that conversation as the rep Princeton. Princeton’s brand is outsized when compared to the brand of the state of New Jersey. My small liberal arts institution didn’t have the luxury of having a brand strong enough to overcome the perceptions of the state. I think you’re absolutely right when you talk about policy and legislation, but I also think these young people who are looking at institutions, a lot of them are activists, are more engaged than certainly I ever was in high school, but I have to believe that this is only one in a mix of factors, but for the very rare student, it isn’t cracking the top five of factors, I would guess.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
I agree.

Erin Hennessy:
That’s the position I come at it from having attempted to show for an institution that was not Princeton in a state that definitely was New Jersey.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
And so this is where I think we may have disagreed on what we did disagree on the original point, but I’m going to agree with you now and say, I don’t think it’s the top five, because again, I think it’s opportunity and more importantly, it’s cost. So I am that everybody’s friend who has coffee with everybody’s college or high school junior and senior, and give them thoughts on colleges. And so say, oh, I would never go to college in X, Y, or Z state and as we kind of unpack it, it’s because they’re still thinking in state. They’re still thinking 50 miles from home. So I really just limited it to a state in our conversation that they had been considering at the start of that conversation. Number one is going to be cost. So I think that even as we have these conversations, it is a luxury for students to be able to put that on their list period and it’s an even bigger luxury for them to have it in a place that influences their final decision.

Kevin Tyler:
Erin Hennessy and Teresa Valerio Parrot, thank you so much you for joining me today. This is a great conversation. I learned a lot from both of you. I enjoyed chatting with you. I think there’s a lot more to be said, written and recorded in this space and I’m looking forward to seeing how higher ed leadership can evolve to meet the moment as you both so eloquently stated earlier in our conversation.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:
These are issues that we care passionately about, and these are the conversations that we are having all of the time about what we hope to see in an industry that we very much love and that I am comfortable saying changed both of our lives as students. And so we’re delighted that you’re hosting these conversations, Kevin, and I wasn’t joking earlier when I said, we’ll come back whenever you want because there’s so much to talk about here, about where we’re meeting the moment and where we aren’t.

Kevin Tyler:
That’s it for this week’s episode of Higher Voltage. We’ll be back soon with a new episode. Until then, you can find us on Twitter @volthighered. And you can find me Kevin Tyler on Twitter @Kevinctyler2.

Higher Voltage

Higher Voltage

Higher Voltage is the podcast of Volt, a publication that covers all aspects of higher ed marketing.

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