The Seduction of a College President

In the world of higher education, generating dollars in support of research, salaries, educational initiatives and, of course, bricks and mortar is essential. Jennifer Raab (President of Hunter College) is, without question, a profoundly successful generator and that provides faculty the security they need and students the opportunities that could not be possible were it not for her efforts. The average college or university president lasts less than four years. One of the primary reasons is that they do not know how to do what Ms. Raab does so well. Her record at Hunter is, indeed, remarkable.

After twelve years, the sewer is backing up, and Ms. Raab’s limited skills in her other critical leadership role, that of managing others, are beginning to show (or smell). It does not take much intelligence to identify symptoms of a broken management system.

For starters, the revolving door of faculty, staff and other administrators, while not exceeding the $ figure achieved by her fundraising, takes expensive toll on resources, and productivity in terms of morale and performance.

Each time a mid-level university administrator leaves the cost to the system can be $50,000 to $100,000 in replacement fees. Small change you say. Good universities, and Hunter is one, normally find turnover minimal, since people arrive and wish to stay in an environment that provides intellectual stimulation and the opportunity to be a part of something positive.

If raising money is the only standard against which to measure a president’s performance, Ms. Raab excels. But, there is something deeply troubling about a leader who is unable or unwilling to name even a single “criticism of how she leads.” She is either unconscious, in a self protected bubble surrounded by those afraid to tell her about her impact, or arrogant and unwilling to even recognized the need to look at her effect as leader.

I have worked for fifteen years exploring a premise that most leaders will acknowledge:

The older you are, the more power and influence you have, the less those around your will tell you the truth.

In all those years, sharing the implications of this notion among leaders in higher education, business and politics, I have only received knowing nods from those listening. What I call “Seduction of the Leader”, is alive and well in most organizations.

It is for the leaders to overcome the reality of seduction, to develop ways of protecting those who, as in this instance, live in a climate of fear, and have a lot to say but no security to do so.

So, who are those around Ms. Raab who will tell her of her excesses? What does she do to measure her own effectiveness as both leader and manager? How does she model the use of feedback to allow course corrections in her own leadership or that of those around her?

It is not about her being a woman leader that is to be questioned. It is true of male and female leaders who create a climate where truth and candor go underground and fear trumps trust.

Her statement, “I have a vision and I have always been very, very determined …I am very tenacious” is, I’m sure, one of her greatest assets. It may also be one of her biggest weaknesses. Will her ideas be challenged by others as smart (or smarter) but, perhaps, less certain, less tenacious than she? Can she hear them? Will she seek them out or only those compliant to her strengths?

When Matthew Goldstein, the former Chancellor, was pressed about the case being built against Ms. Raab he said, “but her metrics are very good.” I ask, however, are their metrics about her behavior, about her style, about her impact on staff, managers and others? Did the Chancellor take part in the seduction of  her as a leader by being unwilling to look beyond the metrics he provided?

Without much training or experience in higher education when she entered the Hunter system, there may still be things she can learn that could help her presidency. As an educator, regardless of her degrees, you would want someone open to possibilities and who would be encouraging of others to share their ideas for the betterment of The University. That a minority of her constituents find Hunter to reflect a climate of fear, is something that needs to be addressed. It would logically start with Ms. Raab.