Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission Seminar Focuses on Community, Courage, and Alignment

Group photo of participants
Participants in CIC’s 2019–2020 Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program gathered for a winter seminar in Atlanta, Georgia, February 24–25, 2020.

“The journey together is essential,” said Elizabeth Okuma, vice president and dean of students at Hiram College (OH) and a participant in CIC’s 2019–2020 Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission program. Okuma’s remark highlighted the program’s supportive community forged through candid discussions over the course of a year as well as through the inclusion of spouses as full participants, a distinctive component of this professional development program for prospective presidents.

The Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission winter seminar took place February 24–25, 2020, at the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta, Georgia. The seminar continued the discernment process that the participants—20 senior college and university administrators, most joined by spouses or partners—began last summer (see the fall 2019 Independent). The program is designed to lead to more effective presidencies by helping prospective presidents and their partners clarify their individual sense of vocation, understood as meaning and purpose in life or calling to one’s work, and weigh it in the context of the institutional mission.

Readings provided the starting points for both large and small group discussions throughout the seminar. For example, an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter kindled conversation about personal vocation and mission fit. “My takeaway concerns alignment,” reflected Dewain Lee, vice president for student life and dean of students at Hanover College (IN). “If I were called to serve in a college presidency, it would be at an institution where there is strong integration, or alignment, between my personal goals of increasing student and community exposure to diverse people and experiences and the mission of the institution. I know this is where I could make the greatest impact and, consequently, would be the happiest.” Participants read poetry by Louise Erdrich, Langston Hughes, and Rainer Maria Rilke. They also read Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking Is Not the Answer by Jim Collins and discussed questions about citizenship, community, and work as vocation.

Experienced college and university presidents and presidential spouses or partners served as program facilitators, guiding seminar discussions and serving as mentors to program participants throughout the year. They included Steven and Jane Bahls, president and presidential spouse, respectively, of Augustana College (IL); Donna Carroll, president of Dominican University (IL); Christopher and Constance Holoman, president and presidential spouse, respectively, of Centenary College of Louisana; and Rosemary Ohles, former presidential spouse of Nebraska Wesleyan University. Frederik Ohles, president emeritus of Nebraska Wesleyan University and CIC senior advisor, has led the program since 2016. Laurie M. Joyner, president of Saint Xavier University (IL), was a guest speaker; she and her husband, Jay F. Joyner III, participated in a program for experienced presidents and their spouses and partners in 2013–2014.

Sean Ryan, senior vice president at Bellarmine University (KY) who participated in the program with his wife Holly Ryan, reflected that the program supported him in three distinct yet related ways: “This program has given me the gift of deeper communication, including with my wife. It has given me the gift of discernment to help me analyze my strengths and the way they could support an institution. And it has given me the gift of courage. The courage—when appropriate—to leave what is comfortable, including the institution I love and the community I adore, to serve in a presidency.”

Generous funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. has supported the program since its inception in 2005 and will continue to do so for two more program years. CIC recently selected 20 participants, many of whom will be joined by spouses or partners, for the next program offering. The program was scheduled to begin with an opening seminar in July 2020. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, CIC has postponed the program by one year. The summer seminar will now be held in summer 2021, and the winter seminar will take place in February 2022.

From 2005 to 2020, 201 senior administrators, many with their spouses or partners, have completed the program for prospective presidents. Of these, 64 (or 32 percent) have been appointed as presidents. Senior administrators who currently serve CIC member institutions, are contemplating a college presidency, and want to read, think, and collectively explore meaning and purpose in life as those values are applied to the presidency in independent higher education are encouraged to consider this professional development opportunity. View more information about the program.