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College presidents move past the Dean Wormer era

An article in today's paper, co-written with my colleague Jenna Johnson, makes the case that today's college students want their president to be their friend.

Colleges of the "Animal House" era were top-down organizations, led by Dean Wormers in grave suits. Students of the Vietnam era mistrusted authority figures and would sooner occupy the president's office than stop by to chat.

The current crop of students, by contrast, tend to see the president as a fellow traveler on their educational journey. They expect the president not only to hear their complaints, but also to share their collegiate experience, even perhaps to serve them a hot dog at a campus barbecue.

Students expect more of presidents at a time when presidents have never been busier. Commitments to fundraising, alumni relations and international education act as a "centrifugal force," tugging presidents away from campus, said Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education.

Some presidents have won the hearts and minds of their students with the simplest of social gestures. American University President Neil Kerwin faces the president of student government in an annual free-throw contest on the basketball court. College of William and Mary President Taylor Reveley reads "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" to students while dressed as Saint Nick at a yearly Yule Log ceremony.

Presidents ignore students at their peril. Benno Schmidt, president of Yale University from 1986 to 1992, attempted to commute to campus from New York and found himself the subject of a mocking "Where's Benno?" campaign. Knapp, at GWU, drew pillory from students before rearranging his schedule to attend student inauguration events this summer.

"Students, among other things, publish a newspaper and have an ability to make their sentiments known," said Stephen Trachtenberg, Knapp's predecessor as GWU president. "I always believe that a university president starts running for office after he or she is appointed to the job. It's sort of like being a congressman."

Trachtenberg was a larger-than-life figure at GWU, unusually outspoken for a college president and a frequent correspondent to the Hatchet student newspaper.

"He wouldn't just pat students on the head and tell them what they wanted to hear. He'd argue with them, too," Hartle said. "He was amazing at it."

Knapp has been working hard to make inroads with GWU students. Maybe they haven't quite worked Trachtenberg out of their system. The coming academic year will be the first with no undergraduate students from the 19-year Trachtenberg era.

"For the first few years, you're always going to be the new president," said Lawrence Bacow, president of Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Bacow, the Tufts president since 2001, has become known as one of the most visible of college presidents.

An e-mail from the president might seem less probable at the 10,000-student Tufts than at the 3,000-student Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where President Michael Roth blogs and occasionally performs on the piano.

Last spring, after the slaying of student Johanna Justin-Jinich at an off-campus cafe, Roth delivered food to students trapped in their dorms on lockdown. Later, a teary-eyed parent told him, "You put your life on the line for my kid."

For more on the story, see Jenna's post on Campus Overload.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  July 12, 2010; 6:37 PM ET
Categories:  Administration , Students  | Tags: College presidents, GWU snowball fight, college administration, college presidents mixing with students, college presidents visibility  
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Posted by: bs2004 | July 13, 2010 4:49 PM | Report abuse

Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.

Posted by: hisroc | July 13, 2010 6:18 PM | Report abuse

Makes sense since these same students of the generation were raised as "friends" with their parents, coaches and the like.

Posted by: kedavis | July 13, 2010 6:20 PM | Report abuse

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