Presidents Explore Courageous Leadership in Challenging Times during CIC’s First Virtual Presidents Institute

six speaker headshots
CIC's 2021 Presidents Institute featured numerous sessions on "Courageous, Resilient, and Inclusive" leadership.

Under the theme “Presidential Leadership: Courageous, Resilient, Inclusive,” CIC’s 51st annual Presidents Institute, the first to be held virtually, took place January 4–7, 2021. The program explored a wide range of topics, such as which leadership strategies are emerging as most effective in the current environment; how presidents can encourage more diverse and inclusive campuses; and how decision-making processes are adapting to make rapid and high-stakes decisions.

The program began and ended with reflections on the leadership of institutions in times of crisis and change—opening with a keynote dialogue between Danielle Allen of Harvard University and CIC President Richard Ekman on ethical considerations for presidential leadership in a fragile democracy. After three days of conversation, a plenary panel with presidents Roslyn Clark Artis of Benedict College (SC), J. Bradley Creed of Campbell University (NC), Joan M. Lescinski, CSJ of St. Ambrose University (IA), and Paul C. Pribbenow of Augsburg University (MN), addressed how courageous, resilient, and inclusive leadership will help institutions thrive in a post-coronavirus era. In a middle plenary session, Robert Zemsky of the University of Pennsylvania, co-author of The College Stress Test (2020), discussed “Presidential Leadership in a Time of Market Stress.”

In addition to a full array of concurrent sessions, the Institute offered several confidential sessions for currently serving college and university presidents. This special content included the forum “Reckoning with Race on Campus,” the session “Why the Pandemic Is an Opportunity to Strengthen Shared Governance,” a presidents’ “Open Mic,” and a session added to the program shortly after rioters attacked the U.S. Capitol building on January 6: “What Do Yesterday’s Events Mean for Your Campus?”

After participating in the session “What Do Yesterday’s Events Mean for Your Campus?” Lasell University (MA) President Michael Alexander said, “Thank you for setting up today’s extra session quickly. I think many people found it helpful. The session gave me a lot of good ideas about how to organize and facilitate a town meeting with my community this afternoon…. And congratulations on a successful conference under challenging conditions.”  

The Institute’s virtual nature not only helped the program pivot in response to current events but also enabled a large number of presidents to attend despite the pandemic and travel restrictions. This year, 354 presidents, 60 spouses and partners, and a grand total of 664 participants registered for the Institute. The virtual Institute also made it possible for presidents to connect across vast distances and multiple time zones. This year, participants registered from such locations as Bulgaria, Canada, France, Greece, and Mexico.

The Institute allowed for meaningful, practical, and collegial interaction during the plenary and concurrent sessions, small roundtable-style discussions, and private conversations. In fact, more than 2,500 private messages were exchanged on the Institute platform, indicating robust informal interaction among participants. An interactive Virtual Sponsor Hall gave presidents the opportunity to learn from and engage directly with existing and potential industry partners. The Institute also hosted “Inspirational Interludes” providing moments of reflection, renewal, and enjoyment. During these Interludes, presidential colleagues shared their talents in short, uplifting performances. Performances were given by Katherine Bergeron of Connecticut College (R&B version of “Alma Mater by the Sea”), Michael Brophy of Hilbert College (NY) (piano solo of Ernesto Lecuona’s “Yo Te Quiero Siempre”), Ronald Crutcher of the University of Richmond (VA) (“Three Pieces for Cello”), Robert Gervasi of Ohio Dominican University (“A Scene from An Iliad”), Dennis Holtschneider, CM, of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (“Scriabin Piano Prelude”), and Douglas Orr of Warren Wilson College (NC) (two folk songs—“The Wayfaring Stranger” and “Southwind”).

The Institute also featured the recognition of CIC’s 2021 annual awards recipients. Earl Lewis received the 2021 Allen P. Splete Award for Outstanding Service in recognition of his extraordinary efforts to address critical questions for American society, including the role of race in American history; diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education; and the essential value of scholarship in the humanities. Henry B. Tippie and Patricia Bush Tippie received the 2021 Award for Philanthropy (Individual), for their visionary leadership in philanthropic and volunteer support of higher education and especially their contributions to CIC members Allegheny and Coe Colleges. The Duke Endowment received the 2021 Award for Philanthropy (Organization), for its extraordinary focus on academic excellence, affordability, and community engagement and especially its recent gifts to CIC members Furman (SC) and Johnson C. Smith (NC) Universities. Susan McConnell, director of higher education, accepted the award on behalf of the endowment. (View the annual awards press release, including videos of awardees.)

Christine De Vinne, OSU, president of Ursuline College (OH), remarked, “I can’t thank you enough for having hosted this first CIC virtual Presidents Institute. Terrific results, which mean that I can only imagine how much behind-the-scenes work CIC did to make it look effortless. I found that I felt more focused at the sessions, even took notes more coherently and completely, and attended more sessions than I typically do at in-person institutes. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to come back together in 2022—I do! I want to see colleagues, stop by the vendor tables, and more—and I won’t hide the fact that I missed the refreshments.”

In conjunction with the Presidents Institute, CIC also offered the New Presidents Program for presidents in their first or second year and a parallel program for spouses and partners of new presidents, as well as the Presidential Spouses and Partners Program.

Video recordings, slides, and documents from a number of the plenary presentations and concurrent sessions are available on the Presidents Institute virtual platform. Registered participants will have access to these resources free of charge until December 15, 2021, and CIC member presidents who did not register for the Institute itself may now purchase access to Digital Resources via the CIC website.

Lewis and Ekman in side-by-side Zoom windows Earl Lewis (left) received the 2021 Allen P. Splete Award for Outstanding Service, which was presented by CIC President Richard Ekman (right). Lewis is Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies, and Public Policy and director of the Center for Social Solutions at University of Michigan and president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

three horizontal Zoom windows with four speakers
CIC honored Henry B. Tippie and Patricia Bush Tippie (left) with the 2021 Award for Philanthropy (Individual), and the Duke Endowment with the 2021 Award for Philanthropy (Organization). The awards were presented by John Marsden (right), president of Midway University (KY). Hilary Link, president of Allegheny College (PA), moderated a discussion with the Tippies and with Susan McConnell (center), director of the Duke Endowment’s Higher Education Program, who accepted the award on behalf of the endowment.


Danielle Allen Reflects on ‘Ethical Considerations for Presidential Leadership in a Fragile Democracy’

Ekman and Allen in side-by-side Zoom windows Keynote speaker Danielle Allen (right) of Harvard University and session moderator Richard Ekman of CIC 

Against the backdrop of challenging events and issues raised by the 2020 presidential election, the coronavirus pandemic, and systemic racism—and taking place just days before the Capitol riot and subsequent impeachment—the Institute’s keynote discussion examined “Ethical Considerations for Presidential Leadership in a Fragile Democracy.” Political theorist Danielle Allen explored a wide range of topics with session moderator and CIC President Richard Ekman—including threats to American democracy, political polarization, the ethics of leadership, higher education’s role in strengthening civic engagement and civil discourse, and the pandemic’s effects on both college campuses and their neighboring communities. In addition to a lively chat with participants during the session, an interactive Q&A period followed. Allen is James Bryant Conant University Professor and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. She co-chaired the American Academy of Arts & Sciences Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, which produced the 2020 report, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century. And her most recent book, which she co-edited, is Difference without Domination: Pursuing Justice in Diverse Democracies (2020). Since March 2020, Allen has led a collaboration of scientists and researchers from top institutions to develop a framework that guides policy makers and the public on the suppression of COVID-19.

The session opened with a discussion of dynamics in America that have led to polarization and the inability to deal with disagreement, and how those dynamics have been especially evident during recent U.S. presidential election cycles. Allen said that some of those issues have to do with U.S. political institutions, changes in the policy making landscape, and a media ecosystem in which “social media has knocked out the filters and mediators are out of the picture…allowing people who hold extreme views to find each other more easily, to coordinate, and to drive messages and misinformation.” She added that although recent election results imply the country is nearly split in terms of the presidency, ballot propositions “tell a different tale…. People from both parties are converging around some critical issue areas,” suggesting that there are more areas of core agreement than might be apparent.

Ekman asked Allen whether the high turnout in the 2020 election was itself a sign of a strong, if polarized, democracy.

“The turnout is super exciting. It’s the highest percentage of the electorate that has voted in 120 years,” Allen remarked, adding that because women and African Americans were excluded from the electorate 120 years ago, it is also the highest percentage of the American population that has ever voted. “That energy is valuable…. Finally we are all here, we’re all in the house together. That makes it very loud. It was quieter when some people were stuck outside. But now that everyone is inside together, we have to figure out how to take that energy and turn it into productive community building, helping us understand our connections and activating them in positive ways.”

“What do you think of college efforts at community engagement to serve as catalysts for discussing the issues of the day? Can colleges do a better job of ameliorating the situation we face now with a polarized electorate?” Ekman asked.

Allen replied, “Colleges have a lot they can contribute. [For example,] one of the things we’ve suffered from in the last couple decades in this country has been an increasing orientation to technocracy—the way of doing policy work where experts are at the helm. Experts are critical, but they should be trusted advisors to elected officials. It’s really important that they aren’t the only ones to set the agenda.” She emphasized that universities need to engage with communities so that the research questions pursued address what people are concerned about most. “If we can do that, then [we will be] at the starting gate for fulfilling our mission and responding to the needs of our society.”

Next, Ekman asked what colleges can do to teach students, faculty members, and community members better skills in mediation, negotiation, and disagreeing in a civil way.

In Allen’s view, colleges and universities can help in many ways, especially by teaching people to connect across difference. She shared that in her 2004 book, Talking to Strangers, she quipped that Americans lament the absence of civic education but essentially give one to their kids when saying “Don’t talk to strangers.” “That’s the entirety of civic education we’ve been teaching for decades.… So kids come to college and don’t know how to connect. It’s a learned skill to communicate across lines of difference…. We don’t learn how to listen or hear how people are trying to express themselves to us. All of these skills are fundamental to healthy social relations and a healthy democracy.” During the Q&A period, Allen recommended ice breakers and listening exercises that can help students and faculty members communicate and share viewpoints more effectively.

Ekman added that CIC has developed workshops designed to prepare faculty members to use techniques that promote civil discourse—such as logical argument, the use of evidence, and empathic listening—in courses taken by first-year students. (CIC’s first Deliberation & Debate: Advancing Civil Discourse through Courses for First-Year Students workshop will be held this summer.)

Ekman then asked whether colleges and universities have done enough to teach how government is supposed to work—for instance, so that people better understand their rights and responsibilities.

Allen replied, “It’s notable that over the last 50 years we have significantly increased investment in STEM education at all levels but decreased investment in civic education in K–12 and higher education…. The absence of a robust civic education makes it harder for people to learn how to have those conversations that are a necessary part of democracy.” She emphasized that students need a strong education in subjects such as history, philosophy, and political science, which have been in decline. “It’s the right moment to rebuild that. There’s a huge opportunity because K–12 civic learning is coalescing right now—they are on the cusp of adopting more ambitious goals and standards.… [And] it’s a real opportunity. There’s been so much growth and development in the fields of history and political science in the last few decades, we can approach our understanding of democracy and shared history in new ways.” Allen mentioned the example of the 2018 book These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore, “which does a masterful job of integrating experience of different parts of American population over time.”

Allen highlighted a key problem, however: “As states become more ambitious in terms of how they teach civics and social studies in K–12, they are discovering that the educator core doesn’t have enough prior background in these disciplines. There’s a real gap there. We need colleges and universities to fill that gap by returning to the point where they produce BAs who are ready to teach in these subject areas in K–12.”

In closing, Allen emphasized that our whole society should reinvest in the concept of the public good, and that colleges, as nonprofit service organizations chartered by the state, should especially exemplify a commitment to the public good. “I think the survival of colleges and universities depends on recovering that public good orientation and holding on to it even in times of crisis and stress [such as the pandemic].… It’s precisely because we aren’t seen as pursuing the public good that the public sends so much mistrust in our direction and in various ways ceases to be supportive of colleges and universities. "

She said that freedom of expression and the ability for people with ideologically conflicting viewpoints to share space and to be able to have productive conversations with one another are among the public goods for which colleges and universities should make the case. “[One of] the hardest thing[s] on a campus is that our sharpest debates often make participants feel existentially threatened…. Speaking frankly in a community of free and equal self-governing citizens isn’t just about saying whatever you want anytime you want. That may be your legal right, but there’s also a moral right and responsibility, which is about speaking frankly in ways that also prove your trustworthiness to others…that prove you have their good at heart…. So then the question on any given campus is how to articulate that double norm of speaking frankly in ways that prove your trustworthiness to others.”

Zemsky Addresses Market Stress and a ‘Product Problem’

Cooper and Zemsky in side-by-side Zoom windows Plenary speaker Robert Zemsky (right) of the University of Pennsylvania and session moderator Mary-Beth Cooper of Springfield College (MA)

In 2020, Robert Zemsky, University of Pennsylvania professor of higher education and chair of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education, published The College Stress Test: Tracking Institutional Futures across a Crowded Market (with co-authors Susan Shaman and Susan Campbell Baldridge). In a plenary discussion moderated by Mary-Beth Cooper, president of Springfield College (MA), Zemsky reflected on the origins of the project, how it has been received, and the implications of the pandemic for the issues addressed in the book.

Zemsky opened by noting, tongue in cheek, that he had considered calling the book “Is It Closing Time?” until he was persuaded by his publisher that no college presidents would want to walk across campus with a book of that title under their arm. So he used “Is It Closing Time?” as the title of the prologue. His answer to that question is that no, for the great majority of private colleges and universities it is not closing time.

Further, he added, he never intended that the book would predict which institutions would close and which would not. Rather, his goal was to provide a way for institutions to “look at themselves” in a particular framework—the framework of market stress.

While many measures of institutional sustainability focus on financial well-being, Zemsky noted, few had paid attention to broad market dynamics. His research identified three key variables that serve as essential indicators of market stress for private institutions. The first is the size of the first-year class; the second is the retention rate between the first and second years, and the third is price defined not as sticker price but as the amount students actually pay. Downward trends in one or more of these indicators, over time, indicate market stress and suggest the degree to which an institution is at risk in the marketplace.

Zemsky’s research also looked at the distribution of risk across market segments. His findings echoed those of other researchers in showing that four institutional characteristics tend to be associated with increased risk. Institutions that are non-selective, smaller, rural, and located in the upper Midwest or South are most likely to experience significant market stress.

Noting that his research was conducted and the book published before the pandemic, Zemsky said that the pandemic will accelerate and emphasize existing trends. As he put it, the “pandemic will make things clearer but not different…. The big are going to get bigger, the rich are going to get richer, and the pandemic is going to make the weak weaker.”

In response to a question from the session chat, Zemsky addressed the question of discount rates and tuition resets. The problem, he noted, is that “most institutions have no way of explaining what their price really is.” While a tuition reset can seem to address that problem, dissertation research by his graduate students showed that resets tend to produce a two-year bump, but they do not lead to longer-term gains for the institution unless accompanied by other institutional actions such as curricular changes. What is needed, he argued, is a “rational way of awarding aid that is not a marketing tool.”

Another questioner asked whether the addition of graduate and professional programs tended to reduce market stress. Zemsky noted that the data in his book use U.S. Department of Education Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data and reflect only undergraduate enrollment. He went on to note that professional programs tend to take a different and more effective approach to reducing the size of the faculty than do programs in the arts and sciences. Rather than asking what faculty “slots” they can fill, for example, professional schools and programs tend to ask what “skills” their faculty needs to include. He suggested this is a practice that more departments and programs might benefit from adopting.

Mary-Beth Cooper posed another question, a version of which had been posed by several participants in the session chat. Are the non-degree certificates, credentials, or programs that are increasingly popular, as well as the trend toward “stacking” multiple majors and minors in student programs, an effective response to market stress? Zemsky argued that in fact, it is essential to learning to make intellectual commitments that lead to extended pursuit and even immersion. No one can “study everything simultaneously,” he said, advocating for greater focus in the curriculum.

Acknowledging that the statement might be controversial, he asserted that whether they like to admit it or not, “colleges and universities need to understand that they have a product problem.” Citing retention data that shows nearly half of all colleges lose a quarter or more of their first-year class, he noted that in no other industry would it be considered acceptable to see a quarter of the customers throw a product away. Reconceiving the curriculum as, for example, a three-year, 90-credit undergraduate degree might address the “product problem.” In his view, such a degree would reduce emphasis on the major and increase emphasis on skills: “What does an educated person need to be able to do rather than to know?” would be the fundamental question. Such a degree program would increase both completion rates and the coherence of the undergraduate experience. Further, students could still spend four years on campus, completing the undergraduate degree in the third year and adding a master’s or professional degree in the fourth. Zemsky suggested that this kind of creative thinking is essential to solving the “product problem.”

Finally, in response to a question about selectivity and the implications of the move away from requiring standardized test scores, Zemsky noted that a shift is underway from viewing selectivity as competition to defining it as preparation: The purpose of the admissions process is to determine whether a student is capable and prepared to succeed in the academic program. Institutions that move away from test scores should be thinking actively about how they can effectively assess preparation to assure student success.

Several Institute sessions focused on topics such as financial sustainability and institutional strategies to recover from various market stresses—such as demographic changes that will affect enrollment, as discussed by Nathan Grawe, Ada M. Harrison Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Social Sciences at Carleton College, in the session “How Agile Colleges Are Navigating Demographic Changes.” A snapshot of several sessions that discussed ways campus leaders can improve the health of their institutions follows.

Presidents Confirm: Data Analytics Is Your Friend

Three speakers in side-by-side Zoom windows (From left to right) Moderator Meghan Turjanica of Jenzabar and panelists Paul McNulty of Grove City College (PA) and Donna Carroll of Dominican University (IL)

Presidents need not be intimidated by data analytics. This was a central point emphasized in the Presidents Institute session “Using Data to Leverage Financial and Reputational Health during COVID-19.” The session was led by Donna Carroll, president of Dominican University (IL), and Paul McNulty, president of Grove City College (PA), and moderated by Meghan Turjanica, analytics advisor at Jenzabar. Turjanica established the context for the discussion by enumerating the ways in which presidents can make use of the large amounts of data they have available to them. “You have lots of data, and that unleashes lots of opportunities,” she noted, including improved fiscal planning, increased enrollment and retention, better services for students, optimal program performance, and greater administrative efficiency. “These are achievable opportunities: quick, efficient wins,” she said.

Turjanica asked each of the presidents to describe the analytics context at their institutions and to explain how they had used data to pivot during the pandemic. Carroll began by saying, “I am not a data geek. I use data to make a compelling argument.” She described Dominican University’s students as mostly commuters and from vulnerable populations. The university is highly tuition-driven and needs to constantly seek ways to serve its students and keep its finances on an even keel. Dominican uses a variety of analytical tools to achieve these critical goals.

To execute a new strategic plan, the university developed a dynamic, measurable dashboard that moved the administration “from a static to a more interactive, real-time, well-curated system for using our data,” Carroll explained. She showed how enrollment dashboards “enable us to ask significant questions about disaggregation that help us plan more specifically and successfully both as a whole and within each college. We can’t be vague about our enrollment forecasts. Ten students in a program make a huge difference at a small college. The approach has been really helpful in this volatile time, because there is no predictability.”

During the pandemic, data analytics allowed the university to examine its impact on students “with an equity lens,” Carroll pointed out. “They help us catch high-risk populations and meet their needs.” The university used a self-generated COVID-19 density map to track locations from which the students were commuting. This allowed them to test more effectively and to give the community confidence that the university was managing the risk of infection.

Carroll summed up by saying that “data quality and control are essential. We need to be flexible due to the constant changes we face. The ability to disaggregate our data has been critical for us and allowed us to actually improve our retention rate during the pandemic.”

According to McNulty, Grove City College contrasts significantly with Dominican University. Grove is almost entirely residential and has a distinctive financial model that uses no tuition discounting, depends entirely on self-funded financial aid, and completely eschews any form of federal assistance. Because of these constraints, “we have to keep focused on our data,” McNulty said. He called the college’s approach to business intelligence “academic economics”: “We are trying to use our data in a more strategic way to help us deal with a shifting landscape.” He added, “One of our capabilities is to look at our academic programs and determine the extent to which they are cost-effective for the institution.”

During the coronavirus crisis, the college has faced added pressure to stay within budgets due to the extra costs of pandemic-related initiatives, such as the use of additional space to allow physical distancing and the board decision to increase financial aid for families facing economic hardship. “We’ve been able to pay close attention to where we are,” McNulty pointed out. “Without our data analytics tools we would have been flying much more blind.” He showed how the development office had been able to use data to “find where we should put our efforts,” yielding their best ever annual fund results.

Turjanica asked both presidents to share their next steps in using data analytics. McNulty responded by saying that Grove City intends to incorporate analytics further into its new strategic planning process. “We will equip the strategic planning committee more than ever with data to make important decisions about institutional priorities.” Carroll expects to continue to make data more user-friendly. Dominican will look to integrate all data systems more efficiently using Cognos Analytics as the visualization tool. “Our intent is to make the process as simple as possible so that any user can pull results.”

The panel then fielded questions that ranged from technical details about vendors to policy issues involving faculty responses to the increased reliance on data in decision making. The takeaways for participants were significant. There are ways to make data easily approachable and understandable for presidents who aren’t necessarily data and detail oriented. Becoming conversant with relevant data can assist presidents in building the confidence of their boards at a time of great uncertainty when the familiar predictors are no longer valid. And data analytics can empower presidents by helping them achieve easy wins, answering immediate questions raised by the pandemic, and allowing them to focus on longer-term issues of mission and culture.

Presenters Highlight Advantages of Mergers and Collaborations

three speakers in side-by-side Zoom windows
(From left to right) Panelists Susan Stuebner of Colby-Sawyer College (NH), Richard Beyer of AGB Consulting, and Daniel Elsener of Marian University (IN)

“The real test of leadership is to [be able to] assess the future of an institution, and to plan for mission and sustainability growth, when you are not in crisis,” said Susan D. Stuebner, president of Colby-Sawyer College (NH), in the session “Lessons Learned from Mergers and Collaborations.”

Looking back at his 20 years at the helm of Marian University (IN), which when he started had “one foot in the financial grave and the other on a banana peel,” Daniel J. Elsener was reminded of what his board chair told him in 2001: “It’s easier to do big and bold things because small ones take a lot of energy and tend to wear organizations and their supporters out.” Marian pivoted after “we acknowledged early on that we are not going to make it alone”; the university initially focused on creating partnerships on the teaching side for nurses and subsequently on taking over an entire campus by establishing Ancilla College of Marian University [a partnership with Ancilla College (IN) that will begin operations in July 2021]. Currently, several other strategic partnerships are in the works. That trajectory was only possible because these initiatives were board-driven, and trustees were supported and encouraged to think not only about survival in the moment but also about preparation for the future. Elsener further emphasized that “You want entrepreneurship. But the language of mergers and acquisitions does not work in higher ed; in fact, it is an impediment.” Instead, presidents need to use the language of the academy consistently: “talk about mission collaboration, and work on mission alignment and relationships…. It’s the expanded and enlivened mission that excites the campus constituents.” Elsener added that whatever campus leaders do, “You can’t lose the small college culture and commitment to students, and you have to serve your community. Benefit from scale, but don’t grow by losing who you are.”

Richard A. Beyer, senior fellow at AGB Consulting, remarked, “You have to keep asking every day: Can we become better at fulfilling our mission and securing the future of the institution?” Beyer, however, also established that long before the current pandemic, higher education had entered an era of accelerated market consolidation in the form of institutional closures, mergers, affiliations, and the creation of private systems driven by economic pressures. For example, about 1,200 institutions are currently at considerable financial risk, 500 of these with a U.S. Department of Education Financial Composite Ratio of 1.5 or lower and another 700 with ratios of 1.9 and dropping. Therefore, he stipulated, “it is incredibly important for an institution to realize whether they are positioned on the buy or sell side of the equation” when contemplating the possibility of merger or collaboration. So how should presidents assess how to “ride the positive trends of the macro waves” and which of the “ten ways a transaction can be put together” would be best for their institution?
Stuebner also had to spend her first years in office getting the institution’s financial house in order after several years in which it had habitually used restricted funds to balance the budget. She illustrated Elsener’s encouragement to “find the joint mission and value sweet spot and make that the focus of the project,” by describing the smaller scale but equally effective Colby-Sawyer mantra of “build on strength.” She initially invited EY-Pantheon consultants to put the board into a position to assess whether the strategic growth plan “is viable and enough.” She noted that those conversations had to happen “in a quiet way to avoid shockwaves.” Stuebner advised, “Start with a small board committee, assure confidentiality and privacy, and be honest with each other.” The pivot toward health sciences was accomplished by partnering with Dartmouth-Hitchcock, a major six-hospital trauma and health center system, to offer new programs and tracks and expand existing ones. The collaboration required an upfront investment of $3.25 million over four years, but it has already provided an additional $700,000 in new revenue after only one year. For Colby-Sawyer this represents an significant shift in financial trajectory. Stuebner highlighted, as had Elsener, that relationships and trust were essential to bringing the project to fruition. The Dartmouth-Hitchcock executive vice president is a Colby-Sawyer graduate, served as dean of the school of nursing, and is a classmate of the chair of the board; all fortunate circumstances that established a strong basis for partnership.
Beyer reinforced that to move forward means overcoming a natural deep hesitation: The “fear of loss of institutional identity and mission and loss of jobs is too often regarded as only slightly better than closure.” But there is severe risk associated with focusing on “fighting for another year while in reality running out the clock.” He noted that “too many sell-side institutions are over confident about their future even when cognizant of the many negative signals.” At the same time, potential buy-side institutions often miss out because they are not ready to jump on opportunities. This often occurs when board members do not think that becoming knowledgeable on strategic initiative opportunities is “the kind of work they signed up to do.” Ultimately, “on both sides, buy and sell, you need to have a value proposition. And you need to get your institutions ready to be an attractive partner in either case.” He added that campus leaders and all other campus constituencies need to adopt “a willingness to meet the market where it wants to go, as opposed to insisting to only deliver what the college always has delivered.”

All three presenters underscored that there is every reason to be bullish about CIC institutions. If institutions are willing to take the necessary actions, they can reach prosperity.

Open Forum Participants Contemplate Higher Ed’s ‘New Normal’

During the COVID-19 pandemic, presidents have faced the difficult task of leading their institutions through unprecedented and ongoing volatility, while the added unpredictability of post-COVID life looms over independent higher education and all other sectors of the economy. For their 2020 report The New Normal: Higher Education in a Post-COVID-19 World, TIAA and EY-Parthenon reached out to presidents of four-year higher education institutions ranging from small private liberal arts colleges to large flagship public universities to gauge their views on the state of higher education and offer guidance in light of an institution’s specific human, financial, physical, and reputational capital resources. Several of the presidents interviewed were CIC members, and two were panelists of the Institute’s concluding Open Forum on “The New Normal? Independent Higher Education in a Post-COVID-19 World.” Christina Cutlip, senior managing director and head of client engagement and national advocacy at TIAA, served as moderator of the forum, which critically examined these sources of capital on college campuses and encouraged participants to reflect on how they might shift moving forward.

Cutlip asked the panelists, starting with David Anderson, president of St. Olaf College (MN), how their institutions have been thinking about their sources of capital during the pandemic and whether they have been surprised by any strengths they may have found along the way. Focusing a portion of his answer on human capital, he noted the creative approach he took when assigning the duty of testing oversight on campus. Noting the military background of his chief financial officer, Anderson capitalized on the detail-oriented and efficiency-focused nature of his experience and described the sterling job he did “basically [becoming] an expert overnight” in an area completely unrelated to his typical job function.  

Answering the same question, John Marsden, president of Midway University (KY), described his experience aligning his institution’s mission statement with current institutional programmatic offerings and priorities in order to strengthen and highlight reputational capital Midway developed naturally over time. Marsden noted, “most of our majors were career-focused anyway,” so it made good sense to have a reflective mission statement to help members of the community better understand what makes Midway unique. He also noted the weight his own reputational capital played in the process and his presidency overall. As a younger president unfamiliar with the area at first, he noted that it took time to build trust and a positive reputation within the community to a point where decisions coming from his office, such as what to prioritize in the mission statement, held genuine influence and were not met with undue scrutiny.

Also in response to Cutlip, Elizabeth Davis, president of Furman University (SC), shared her experience of protecting her institution’s financial capital early in the pandemic. In order to protect the institution’s financial sustainability, she made the difficult decision to make cuts in the athletics department to preserve investments more closely tied to the mission of the institution. She noted that the decision, while uncomfortable at the time, was necessary despite the serious pushback it received from community members, admitting, “I had to stay off of social media for a while.”  

Cutlip led the panelists and participants through a closing question-and-answer session that generated deep conversation on the role institutional and associational collaboration will play in the future of independent higher education. There was broad consensus that associations such as CIC, as well as those based on factors such as proximity, will be critical assets to institutions as they continue to reimagine themselves and the way their capital can be put to best use. This will be especially key as institutions begin to make long-term decisions regarding, for example, which functions of an institution can be pooled or shared among a few campuses and how space dedicated for residence halls and dining can be utilized creatively.

While there was broad acknowledgement that the future of higher education remains largely unknown, creative uses of capital and opportunities for continued engagement and collaboration will allow independent higher education to serve students and broad communities moving forward.

Panelists Share Lessons of Difficult Year in ‘Courageous, Resilient, Inclusive Leadership’

four speakers in Zoom windows (Clockwise) Plenary session moderator Paul C. Pribbenow of Augsburg University (MN) and panelists Roslyn Clark Artis of Benedict College (SC), J. Bradley Creed of Campbell University (NC), and Joan M. Lescinski, CSJ of St. Ambrose University (IA) 

Courageous, resilient, and inclusive presidential leadership—the theme of the 2021 Presidents Institute—was the focus of a major plenary panel discussion. CIC presidents Roslyn Clark Artis of Benedict College (SC), J. Bradley Creed of Campbell University (NC), Joan M. Lescinski, CSJ of St. Ambrose University (IA), and moderator Paul C. Pribbenow of Augsburg University (MN) reflected on the many lessons learned over their years in the presidency as well as the difficult events of the past year. The panelists described their successes, their challenges, and what they learned leading their campuses through both a pandemic and racial unrest.

When institutions were first grappling with the pandemic in spring 2020, Artis candidly said that she thought she knew and understood the challenges faced by her students, but that COVID showed she didn’t know them as well as she thought. When the campus shut down, administrators helped students get home by making travel arrangements for them and providing cash subsidies for their trips. “We congratulated ourselves on a job well done with a quick evacuation of our students,” Artis noted. Later, as Benedict College leaders reviewed social media posts, they were chagrined to find negative student comments about their efforts: for example, “I was forced on a plane but had never flown before.” Artis said, “We recognized that we didn’t stop to ask whether students were comfortable to fly…. It takes courage to recognize when you are wrong, when you missed something…. We learned painful lessons, but we are now more resilient, committed, and knowledgeable about the students we serve.”

“None of us were prepared for what we were facing,” agreed Creed. “The essential quality of leadership is courage, and in the role of college president, we need a lot of courage … [particularly] during this season of political unrest and a global pandemic.” But where do presidents find courage “when the well runs dry? Where do you draw from [to] get your courage?” It helps to have a sense of humor and to celebrate daily victories, he said, noting that he found courage through faith, friends, and his spouse. He encouraged his colleagues to ask vocational questions such as “Who am I? Why am I doing this? And what do I do with what I’ve been given?”

Being grateful, even in the midst of all the misery 2020 brought, was crucial for Lescinski. She remarked, “Going into this crisis, I knew I could count on smart people in the institution …who were willing to be courageous and make tough decisions to ensure that our students continued in their academic progress…. Happily, because of reaching out by faculty and staff, we were able to allow students to finish on time or continue progress toward their degrees.” She also learned that it is impossible to overcommunicate. “The more communication the better; saying the important messages again and again through many different media—we all learned how to do this and will carry that into the future.”  

Being inclusive was a key strategy to weather the crises at St. Ambrose. “We called together work teams, kept the board informed, and created videos and social media posts that went to all groups (students, neighbors, parents, other college and university presidents, government and community officials). We realized that we need to be touching base with all these groups—it was a constant learning process.” Resiliency also was critical for Lescinski. She realized that the pandemic and racial unrest took a huge psychological toll on everyone. Administrators “had to attend to a rising level of fear and panic that grew as the semester went on. We needed to keep messaging to help people feel safe, included, and calm.” Leaders, she emphasized, must give accurate information, never promise more than can be delivered, never duck the hard questions, acknowledge with empathy the fear people feel—and “listen, listen, listen.” Until the vaccine is widely distributed, “we need to be cheerleaders for calm on our campuses.”

Artis said that “intentional empathy”—providing social and emotional responses to faculty and staff members and trying to spread out some of the work—is key. “People are tired, so we have to stop and ask, ‘Are you okay? How can I help you?’…. We need to listen, feel, hear, and empathize because people who know they’re appreciated will go the extra lap.” Lescinski added that acknowledging and rewarding extra efforts make a big difference. And Pribbenow agreed that “small gestures are important—give people a break, think about compensation differently, and pay them for extra work.”

Dealing with concerns of parents and community members was often a challenge. Artis emphasized that frequent communications with anxious parents was crucial. “We hosted many Zoom meetings for parents where we tried to find common ground. First, we had to help them understand that safety was our top priority. Once we were able to establish that common ground, parents deescalated quickly.” Taking actions on behalf of the community can help ease concerns. For example, during Black Lives Matter protests near campus, St. Ambrose opened up the campus and provided security so that community members could safely park there. “This was a simple example of the university being of service in the wider community,” said Lescinski. Creed reiterated that regular informational communication with community members as well as parents and other stakeholders is crucial.

Artis noted that demonstrating leadership and having courageous conversations is a president’s priority during difficult times. “This moment calls for us to stand tall…. We have to address divisiveness and not be silent. We need to facilitate difficult conversations. Many feel isolated and believe their opinions don’t matter. We have the responsibility to create environments where multiple viewpoints can be heard…. If we can’t do that in college, where on earth can you have those conversations?... We taught students about tolerance, decorum, and compassion for others.”

Regarding boards and trustees, Pribbenow said it is important for presidents to help their boards understand why presidents should be moral leaders. “We have brave conversations with students, but boards need those kinds of conversations too.” Stepping out on significant issues can be risky, but taking the time to think through the issues and questions, and crafting a one-page document of key points helps others open up in difficult conversations, he said. Lescinski agreed that presidents should be willing to use the pulpit of the presidency when clearly demanded, but she cautioned that close communication with the trustees about the moral stance to be taken is necessary. “Share your letter to the editor or speech with trustees beforehand” so they are not blindsided. Creed added that revisiting the institution’s mission statement “will help when you make a stand or lead on a difficult issue.” Trustees are, he said, in touch with the missions of their institutions and would support building the institution to “live fully in its mission.”

In closing, the panelists observed that the trio of leadership qualities—courage, resilience, and inclusivity—can be at odds with one another at times. To manage those conflicting pressures, they said it was important to establish and gain consensus on priorities, use institutional data to help others better understand the investments and decisions made, redouble communication efforts, work more closely with the senior leadership team, and keep trustees well-informed. The bottom line, concluded Artis, is that “our mission hasn’t changed [as a result of the pandemic], but how we get from point A to point B has changed. We have needed to be more innovative and creative yet still follow our strategic plan. This moment of crisis still requires us to achieve our goals, just in different ways.”

Several other Presidents Institute sessions addressed lessons learned while managing the pandemic; racial justice protests; or diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts—and many presenters emphasized the value of inclusive leadership. These topics were explored during concurrent sessions, roundtable discussions, the presidential spouses and partners program, and confidential sessions for currently serving college and university presidents—including the forum “Reckoning with Race on Campus,” led by Earl Lewis, Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies, and Public Policy, and Director, Center for Social Solutions at the University of Michigan and recipient of CIC’s 2021 Allen P. Splete Award for Outstanding Service. The presidents-only forum also featured Mary Schmidt Campbell of Spelman College (GA), Michael Maxey of Roanoke College (VA), and Elizabeth Stroble of Webster University (MO).

Leaders Reflect on Managing the Pandemic while Planning for the Future

four speakers in Zoom windows (Counterclockwise) Panelists Clarence Wyatt of Monmouth College (IL), Kevin Ross of Lynn University (FL), Andrea Chapdelaine of Hood College (MD), and session facilitator Samantha Sabalis of CIC

How does it feel to lead an independent college or university through the pandemic? According to participants in a session on “Insights from Managing the Pandemic to Guide Future Directions,” it’s stressful, chaotic…and at times boring. Or surreal, isolating, and encouraging. Or even like juggling a tomato, a chainsaw, and a feather.

In this interactive session, college presidents from Hood College (MD), Lynn University (FL), and Monmouth College (IL) gave candid presentations about their experiences leading institutions through the rapid pivot to remote instruction in March 2020 and returning to predominantly in-person teaching in the fall. They also encouraged their fellow presidents in the audience to share their own successes and challenges of leading during the pandemic.

Andrea Chapdelaine, president of Hood College, opened the discussion by congratulating all the presidents at the Institute, noting that, “as a sector, institutions represented by CIC have shined in keeping our campuses often safer than the surrounding communities, meeting our students’ and employees’ needs, and sustaining our institutions for the future.” Her remarks focused on the key importance of communication during this tumultuous time. As president, she had to set the right tone of courage and tempered optimism for the community. She drew on the history and mission of Hood College to guide her message, highlighting the challenges that the college had already overcome, including the 1918 influenza pandemic. Chapdelaine widened the reach of college messages, extending communications beyond the college community to include such constituents as the county health department, the mayor, and the local newspaper. She also was careful to include many opportunities to listen to community concerns and questions through town halls and regular board meetings.

While Chapdelaine looked to Hood College’s past for inspiration on leading through the year, Kevin Ross, president of Lynn University, focused on the future, namely how the “forced innovations” of this year could be used to reimagine future operations on his campus. Inspired by Dominican University of California President Mary Marcy’s recent article in Inside Higher Ed, “Moving from the Tactical to the Strategic,” he asked: “Should we permanently adopt some of the ad hoc measures we’ve taken on out of necessity?” The example he gave from Lynn was the shift to a block schedule, in which students take courses in four intensive, month-long blocks instead of one four-month semester. During the pandemic, this shift was made to allow for a mix of remote, hybrid, and in-person courses, but due to its success, Lynn is considering making it a permanent change. Reflecting on the trials of the last year, Ross also focused on the endurance and adaptability of CIC member institutions.

Of course, leadership on a college campus does not only fall on the president, and Clarence Wyatt, president of Monmouth College, emphasized the importance of nurturing “hidden leaders” among the college staff. He praised his senior staff team, sharing how they performed extremely well, expertly taking on new roles and bolstering one another when they struggled. Drawing on his training as a 20th-century diplomatic historian, Wyatt took inspiration from President John F. Kennedy’s management of the Cuban Missile Crisis, balancing listening to many staff members’ ideas with bringing issues to a resolution. He highlighted the importance of shared governance, focusing on its definition as shared responsibility and its goal of serving the college’s students in the present and the future.

Combining deep reflection, practical advice, and a touch of humor, the three presidents gave session participants a snapshot of what leadership was like on their campuses this year and encouraged them to share their own challenges and successes. Above all, there was a note of optimism about the future—as Ross said as he wrapped up his presentation, “We’re all still here.”

A separate presidents-only session addressed “Why the Pandemic Is an Opportunity to Strengthen Shared Governance.” The session was led by Steven C. Bahls, president of Augustana College (IL) and author of Shared Governance in Times of Change: A Practical Guide for Universities and Colleges, and moderated by the co-directors of CIC’s Presidents Governance Academy, Thomas L. Hellie, president emeritus of Linfield University (OR), and Michele D. Perkins, president of New England College (NH).

Session Highlights Presidents’ Role in Diversifying Academic Leadership

four speakers in Zoom windows (Clockwise) Panelists Mary Dana Hinton of Hollins University (VA), Marjorie Hass of Rhodes College (TN), and Damián Fernández of Eckerd College (FL) and session moderator Jay Lemons of Academic Search

Another concurrent session focused on the college president’s role in diversifying academic leadership, not just on their own campuses but across the independent sector. Moderator Jay Lemons, president of Academic Search and president emeritus of Susquehanna University (PA), began the session by invoking U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s vision of racial justice as a challenge to participants: “I hope that each of you … will come to your own resolve about how you can make your own contributions to make this society more just, more diverse, and more inclusive.”

The trio of panelists began by describing, with passion and candor, their own journeys to the presidency as “pioneers”: Marjorie Hass (Rhodes College, TN) as the first Jewish and woman president at two southern colleges; Mary Dana Hinton (Hollins University, VA), who followed an unconventional path to become the first African American president at two women’s colleges; and Damián Fernández (Eckerd College, FL), a first-generation immigrant from Cuba and first-generation college graduate who served in public and private institutions before becoming president. Fernández noted that his journey was aided by mentors who saw “talent and determination and possibility [in me].… So that is germane for the conversation today: the role that we play in others’ lives and the role others play in our lives.”

Moving from stories to data, participants were reminded about the sharp gaps between the number of women students and women presidents at CIC member institutions (61 percent versus 30 percent, respectively) and the number of minority students and minority presidents (42 percent versus 11 percent). “The gap between who we serve and who is leading is significant,” Hinton noted, “and I just don’t think we can ignore it and still do the work that we are called to do as leaders.” “We have to talk about racism and its legacy on our campuses,” she added, “[but people] want to be seen in their full complexity and beauty, and that includes talking about race as well as all of the other dimensions of diversity.”

The session then moved from demographic realities and the call for greater justice to the practical question of specific things a president can do to promote diverse academic leadership. According to Fernández, leaders always need “clear [and public] metrics of success that we hold ourselves accountable to.” Hass focused on mentoring—and not just mentoring junior colleagues who look like the president: “I mentor men of color when I can, … with humility, because I recognize that as a white woman there are limits to what I can offer; but I also feel that if I don’t jump in, there aren’t enough mentors.”

All of the panelists agreed that college presidents should start where they have the most direct influence: the diversity of their own senior teams and staffs. “Diverse teams model the kind of society and nation that we are and that our students are going to confront,” said Fernández, so presidents should be “in the business of talent development, recruiting, mentoring—and beyond mentoring, … [sponsoring] the career pathways of our colleagues.” Hinton noted that “it’s really important to engage people at all levels of your institution when thinking about the pipeline. If you’re just looking at your cabinet, you’re probably not going to shift the pipeline.” And Hass added that staff members who are tasked with campus diversity efforts—typically, people of color—must have “the title, the authority, and the budget to do their jobs effectively.” This reinforces the value that an institution and its president place on diversity.

The session concluded with a discussion about resistance to diversity efforts. Unfortunately, said Hass, there is still “overt resistance, actual racism, … [but] it’s the covert resistance that I think is often more challenging,” especially when it takes the form of colleagues, community members, or even trustees who challenge the credibility of diverse staff members at every level. As the president, you “have to make conscious efforts to provide support for their authority, power, and leadership.” Fernández advised, “do not overestimate resistance,” but “be diplomatic and relentless” in facing it down—and institutionalize the process by “making sure that everyone has a diversity/equity/inclusion goal in their work plan.” In the end, said Hinton, supporting diverse academic leadership comes down to fostering a culture of diversity on every campus: “It’s not my place to tell anyone how to feel about personal issues, but as the president it is absolutely my place, my responsibility, to acknowledge the type of culture we’re going to have on our campus.”

In a related presidents-only session, CIC presidents Ronald Crutcher of the University of Richmond (VA), Devorah Lieberman of the University of La Verne (CA), and Wendy E. Raymond of Haverford College (PA) led colleagues in a discussion about “Presidential Approaches to Promoting Diversity and Inclusion. The panelists explored how campus leaders can help educate and empower their students, faculty members, and governing boards as well as help their institutions develop more equitable and inclusive policies and practices.

Campus Leaders Share Plans to Boost Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Efforts

Independent colleges and universities across the United States have promoted campus conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) with renewed emphasis since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020. How can college leaders engage student protesters and respond to community members’ desire for more action toward racial justice on the part of the institution? As part of the Institute’s Program for Presidential Spouses and Partners, a team of staff members from Carroll University (WI) presented their model for enhancing cultural agility, increasing accountability, and expanding inclusion in light of recent racial injustices. Carroll developed a process that involved the entire campus to create a strategic diversity plan. This Institute presentation outlined their approach, highlighted ways they have engaged leading experts in the process, and explained ongoing efforts to implement their diversity plan.

Vanessa Perez Topczewski, Carroll University’s associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion, began the presentation with an acknowledgement that the university sits on land historically inhabited by several indigenous groups, including people from the Menominee and Potawatomi tribes, and noted the university’s responsibility to steward the land. Carroll University is home to two Native American effigy mounds that date back to the eighth century, AD. By situating her remarks in the long sweep of history, Topczewski noted the importance of context for current events and underscored the enduring nature of the university’s educational mission. She highlighted definitions that have been critical to continuing campus conversations, including definitions of cultural agility, intersectionality, and decolonization.

Cindy Gnadinger, president of Carroll University, appointed the Task Force on Institutional Inclusion consisting of faculty members, staff, students, and administrators in 2019. The group’s charge from the president includes assessing campus climate and making recommendations for improving DEI efforts through new initiatives and practices. Joshua Mitchell, Carroll’s director of institutional research, explained that the assessment strategy draws from academic literature and best practices in higher education: The plan uses both internal and external expertise to generate information to be evaluated by the task force. The use of existing data is complemented with focus groups and interviews to ensure that voices from all parts of campus are heard.

In order to meet long-term DEI goals, the task force developed “recommendation themes” derived in the strategic planning process. These themes provide categories for actions to be undertaken during implementation:

  • Foster a sense of belonging and community through respect, appreciation, and equity;
  • Enhance training, learning, and development around diversity, equity, and inclusion;
  • Develop campus capacity to engage in controversy with civility;
  • Attract and retain diverse faculty, staff, and students;
  • Increase campus accessibility for faculty, staff, students, and visitors; and
  • Develop and implement consistent policies and transparent practices.

Amber May, Carroll’s director of multicultural affairs, explained the university’s push to expand diversity education to campus constituencies. During the fall 2019 semester, an element of the strategic plan called “cultural agility learning, training, and development” began. May said that this educational work was designed for all members of the campus community and would be embedded in student activities and all orientation programs, including those for faculty and staff members. Pointing out that independent institutions often have the opportunity to be nimble, May noted that they also can have a bigger overall impact and integrate inclusive practices more easily across campus.

Carroll’s inaugural DEI Summit, held virtually during the fall 2020 semester, included national diversity expert Damian Williams along with local specialists on a range of topics focused on inclusion, with Lillian Paine from Milwaukee’s department of health speaking on “Putting Racial Equity on the Public Health Agenda.” The conversations begun last fall will continue through this spring. Topczewski noted that these efforts will always be an ongoing process because the work is never “done.” She urged participants to think about aspects of the presentation they could bring to their campuses.

Counselor Advises on How to Foster Resilient Relationships in Uncertain Times

Chronic work-related stress can take a toll on personal relationships, and the pandemic has created even greater tension in marriages and families. Under the special pressures of the moment, how can independent college presidents and their spouses or partners set achievable relationship goals, manage conflict, and improve communication?

“Fostering Resilient Relationships in Uncertain Times,” the welcome address for the Presidential Spouses and Partners Program at the 2021 Presidents Institute, explored this important topic. Marriage counselor and communication scholar Kim Swales shared recent research about marriage and family communication, along with insights from her more than 20 years of experience working as a therapist. Her recommendations included specific strategies for effective interpersonal communication and practical tools for creating a healthy home life.

Presidential couples who have been married or partnered for 20 to 30 years are in the most challenging stage of marriage, according to longitudinal studies about intimate relationships. Swales described the typical timeline for couples’ joint happiness and explained why marital satisfaction tends to bottom out around 25 years after the initial commitment to each other. Exceptionally high career stressors and family responsibilities that accompany this stage of life (such as the challenges of parenting children in the teens and twenties and caring for aging parents) mean that previously healthy relationships face an interval rife with threats to the couples’ willingness to stay together.

Swales listed many ways in which, due to their positions, presidential couples face additional challenges beyond what most married couples endure. Interpersonal relationships are on full display, and many college presidents and their spouses or partners live in a “fishbowl” on campus—with every move scrutinized by a community viewing the members of the first family as role models for their institutions. “Lack of privacy makes it extremely difficult to navigate these challenges that are common to all relationships,” Swales remarked. She added that presidential spouses are often subjected to unclear expectations from various constituencies, including alumni, faculty and staff members, and board members. As a result, finding one’s footing and establishing an identity on campus as a new presidential spouse or partner can be especially tricky. Keeping the marital relationship healthy internally and addressing these burdens as a family unit, rather than as individuals, will help the couple thrive as a team.

Given the stressors that independent colleges and universities face, how can presidential relationships weather the storm? Citing Jesuit scholar James Martin, Swales urged participants to “forever seek the good in the other.” By presupposing worthy intentions in our partner’s behavior, Swales observed, “you are always giving your partner the benefit of the doubt.” Particularly in stressful or uncertain times, actions that might seem contrary to the good of the couple may just be a misunderstanding. Within the context of busy lives, minor miscommunication can snowball into major conflict, she noted.

With the caveat that some partner behaviors, such as substance abuse or domestic violence, may be impossible to overcome, Swales shared advice and practical tips for boosting relationship health. She said that research shows a person may incorrectly predict what their partner is thinking up to 50 percent of the time. With that in mind, asking a spouse what they are thinking, rather than assuming something negative, is a productive way to prevent miscommunication. Swales also encouraged participants to make time for their partners daily, and to take a “screen fast”: Avoid social media and email in the evening to create valuable time for the relationship.

Another piece of advice Swales imparted to participants was the idea of keeping a relationship “gratitude journal” as a couple. This journal should be a physical notebook or pad of paper maintained somewhere in the couple’s living space. It should be consistently available in a convenient location. “Write a few things in the journal daily that you appreciate about your partner,” Swales told participants. “Sometimes you might have to dig deep to come up with specific things you are grateful for,” but the investment in better communication will pay off, Swales noted. Reorienting personal narratives toward gratitude will improve relationship resilience in the face of external stressors, reduce conflict, and foster a happier home life.

Jack Surridge, presidential spouse, North Park University (IL), commented, “I found the Presidential Spouses and Partners sessions very helpful, particularly the session on marriage at this challenging point in time. The stress of this year is beyond anything that any of us had contemplated in our wildest imaginings, and we have come up with our own sets of coping skills under intense pressure. We need to focus on recognizing stressors, reducing stress, dealing with the symptoms that are inevitable from sustained high stress, and learning new self-care strategies…. We need every tool in the box. There seems to be very little margin for error for those we love. Sharing coping tools and strategies as much and as rapidly as possible is critical.”
CIC’s Presidential Spouses and Partners Program is the longest-running and highest-attended annual offering in the nation to provide support and networking for the partners of college and university presidents.