When a new president takes over a college, he or she can usually count on a soft opening. There are donors, faculty and staff to meet and facilities to run, but starting the job in July means few students on campus.
But something changes at the end of August as students begin to move in and classes start.
“It literally changes the lifeblood of the college. It might be one of the most exciting days of the school year,” said Kurt M. Landgraf, the new president at Washington College. “(Students) bring an energy. They bring excitement.”
Landgraf joins three other new college presidents in Maryland this year. Aminta Breaux and Panayiotis Kanelos took their first jobs as college presidents at Bowie State University and St. John’s College, respectively. Elliot Hirshman, meanwhile, becomes president at Stevenson University after leading San Diego State University.
Hirshman also gave some advice the first-time presidents, comparing the beginning of a presidency to a rocket launch.
“Everything is kind of shaking,” he said. “Everyone is trying to figure out where you fit in and where they fit in and they’re trying to do it with a lot of things going on.”
The challenge for the president is to meet everyone and do everything, Hirshman added.
“It’s very intensive and very exciting and you have to be prepared for that character of it where you’re going to have to keep working in a way that’s productive when you might be a little tired over time,” he said.
No longer are college presidents running just academic or student affairs – everything that happens on campus is now their responsibility.
“Running a college is like running a small city,” Landgraf said, citing oversight of dining, police, housing, roads, buildings and students. “You have so many constituencies. It’s a very complex job, much more so than I ever would have thought.”
Still, the most important constituency for a college president is the students. Breaux and her cabinet will make their presence known as students move in, appearing at residence and dining halls.
“We are going to be sitting at the tables over lunch with the students on day one, making sure that we say hello and we’re here,” she said. “I want the students to know that leadership is accessible and we are here for them. That starts with being available for them.”
Just like the beginning of any new relationship, there will be some events to help ease that introduction and provide some ice breakers.
At Washington College, Landgraf will take a bike tour of Chestertown with students. In Annapolis, Kanelos will help finish their first week of classes with pie and jazz.
“I’m going to get out there and serve all the students,” he said. “It’s just a great way for me to be around everybody and show my enthusiasm for the community.”
St. John’s, a small liberal arts college, has no majors and students take the same classes. Kanelos plans to follow along with students’ reading list so by the time this year’s first-year class graduates, he will have read everything they have.
Breaux was forced into the position of supporting the Bowie State community even before she officially took over as president. In May, Richard Collins, a student from the historically black college, was killed on the nearby University of Maryland campus by a white student in what appears to have been a racially motivated attack.
Breaux said Collins’ murder has been on her mind and that she would address the campus. The campus, along with the other campuses of the University System of Maryland, will hold a moment of silence for Collins on Aug. 30th at 12:05.
“Lt. Richard Collins will be remembered by BSU and we don’t ever want to lose sight of what that tragedy meant to our campus,” she said. “It is a unique time for us as we are celebrating a new class, but it’s a very unusual time in the history of our country and the history of higher education. And so at that same time, we will be helping, we hope, to bring together our campus to stand firm and reaffirm our values and that includes our values of diversity and, foremost, inclusion.”
All of the presidents have learned that the job they have taken on is tougher than they imagined. Landgraf once served as the chief operating officer at DuPont, but he’s quickly learned that his new job is a little different.
“As far as I can tell, this is a harder job,” he said.