It is raining and I am stuck at home on this Saturday morning waiting for UPS to deliver my new Visa card sent to replace the one Amazon informed me has been stolen and used to purchase unspecified items sent to unknown addresses. This, following the discovery that I gifted my Kindle Paperwhite by leaving it on my nightstand at the Westin in Washington, DC, site of the latest Institute for New Presidents seminar, has left me appreciative of the miracle of UPS and USPS and FedEx to still transport physical goods in the age of digital delivery.

The time immediately before conferences and seminars in general leaves me feeling vaguely morose. I vividly recall sitting in a cramped fluorescently-lit dorm room in St. Charles, Illinois, site of the former Arthur Andersen Societé Cooperative worldwide training facility, on a Sunday evening before a week’s worth of classes, depressed. I have not been able to diagnose this depression, repeated on the eve of many conferences and classes in cities across the country. It is probably a mixture of separation anxiety, stress from travel, and the fear of the unknown. Once the meetings start, the anxiety lifts, and my mood is determined more by the quality of the conference than by the unsettling anticipation of it.

The Institute left me in a happy state, in spite of the travel challenges compounded by lost and stolen items and identities. The American Council of Education is sponsoring the inaugural class of what ought to be a regular event for new college and university presidents. I participated with about twenty of my colleagues from around the country in the second of three seminars. My colleague from Kennedy-King College has joined me in the seminars.

The last two days were educational, inspirational, and comforting. While I think often and hard about being Harold Washington’s (and now Wright’s) president, I think less often about being a President. The seminar provided an opportunity to meet with peers. The comfort comes from learning that many of the challenges are shared by others in similar situations. We are not so unique, and in turn, not so lonely. We are building a community of like-minded leaders, committed to preserving what is best in our respective institutions while managing the multitude of forces that crash against them. I appreciated the meals and coffee breaks, where colleagues shared stories of triumphs and challenges.

The inspiration came from two current presidents. Freeman Hrabowski, III, President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who led an active-learning session on what it means to be a president. While committed to STEM education for minority students, he spoke passionately about his mother’s own discovery that the power of reading opens up new worlds, including the worlds of math and science, and how her own awakening of the differences between her own neighborhood and the homes of the rich white people she served lay in part in the engagement with books.  When I grow up, I want to be Freeman Hrabowski. Or Mo Qayoumi, the president of San Jose State University. Both men exhibited a joy in their role that I hope to emulate. They shared great stories of leadership, driven by visions of what they wanted their institutions to achieve. I left their sessions with a deeper understanding of what it means to be a great president. The icing on the inspirational cake was provided by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, President Emeritus of George Washington University, who over twenty years transformed that institution, following a successful eight-year run at the University of Hartford.

Sprinkled throughout the seminar were educational sessions on the law of higher education, fundraising, group problem-solving, ethics, and the impact of the 2012 election. The seminar was an excellent lead-in to a couple of weeks off for me, my first extended vacation since taking the job. I look forward to returning in the New Year refreshed and renewed, ready for Wright and HWC. UPS has arrived, along with my new credit card. Back to Amazon for some book shopping.

Happy Holidays to all.

Published by Don Laackman

Leader with non-profit, higher education, and private-sector consulting experience.

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