Senior College Administrators Reflect on Vocation and Mission during Winter Seminar

Frederik Ohles presents while standing to a group of seated participants
Frederik Ohles (standing), president of Nebraska Wesleyan University and CIC senior advisor, asked Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission participants what each will do to bring further clarity to their own vocations.

CIC’s 2018–2019 Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program for prospective presidents held a winter seminar, February 25–26, 2019, at the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta, Georgia. The event continued the discernment process that the participants—20 senior college and university administrators, many joined by spouses and partners—began last summer (see the fall 2018 Independent). The yearlong program is designed to help prospective presidents and their partners clarify their individual sense of vocation, or the purpose of their life and work, and weigh it in the context of the missions of institutions they might lead in the future, with the goal of creating more effective college presidencies.

In both large and small group discussions over the two- day seminar, participants used background readings as the starting point for discussions. Texts participants read included Jim Collins’s Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking Is Not the Answer, excerpts from Hannah Coulter written by Wendell Berry, and poetry by Louise Erdrich, Robert Hayden, and Langston Hughes. Participants considered questions such as “What attributes do you prize in an institution of higher education? What do you expect a college or university to prize in you?” in discussions about their service and career plans.

Robert M. Franklin, president emeritus of Morehouse College (GA) and James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor of Moral Leadership at Emory University, served as guest scholar- in-residence. During a dinner talk on the key joys and significant limitations of the college presidency, Franklin acknowledged that the role of a college president is a hard one. He added that although the ecology of higher education will continue to evolve, perhaps making the role even more challenging, there remains significant room for great fulfillment in the presidency. He spoke of the joys of setting institutional vision, selecting a team, fostering community, and mentoring students. Franklin also encouraged participants to be pillars of “stability in motion,” which he defined as the ability to live with ambiguity and to thrive with uncertainty.

Experienced college and university presidents and presidential spouses served as program facilitators, guiding the seminar discussions and serving as yearlong mentors to program participants between seminars. Facilitators included Joel and Trudy Cunningham, vice chancellor emeritus and former presidential spouse, respectively, of Sewanee: The University of the South (TN); Donna Carroll, president of Dominican University (IL); Rosemary Ohles, presidential spouse of Nebraska Wesleyan University; and Tim and Mary Ellen Summerlin, retired president and presidential spouse, respectively, of Schreiner University (TX). Frederik Ohles, president of Nebraska Wesleyan University and CIC senior advisor, has led the program since 2016.

Rod Reed and his wife, Michelle, participated in the program. At the summer seminar, Reed was serving as the dean of Christian formation at John Brown University (AR). In between the summer and winter seminars, he accepted the positon of chancellor of Indiana Wesleyan University. Reflecting on his experience, Reed said “Participating in the Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program this year has had an incredible impact on my personal and professional preparation for institutional leadership. The combination of mentoring and peer relationships for both my wife and me helped us gain confidence and clarity for the role that I’ve recently assumed.”

A generous grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. has funded the program since its inception in 2005 and will continue to do so for three more program years. CIC recently selected 20 participants, many who will be joined by spouses or partners, for the 2019–2020 program cohort. The summer seminar will be held in Woodstock, Vermont, July 14–17, 2019; the winter seminar will take place in Atlanta, Georgia, February 24–25, 2020.

From 2005 to 2019, 181 senior administrators, many with their spouses or partners, have completed the program for prospective presidents. Of these, 60 participants—or 33 percent—have been appointed as presidents. Senior administrators who currently serve CIC member institutions and who are contemplating a college presidency are encouraged to consider this professional development opportunity in the future. CIC plans to invite nominations for the next cohort this fall. View more information about the program.