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College presidents taste life outside their offices

By Jenna Johnson and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 12, 2010; A01

In his three years as president of George Washington University, Steven Knapp has tried nearly everything to bond with undergraduates.

He moved onto campus, right across the street from a freshman dorm known for its party culture. He hired a graduate student to tell him which events to attend. He helped students haul their stuff into the dorms, created a Facebook account, danced at parties, judged a pie-eating contest and drummed with a basketball player.

Still, many students thought he was boring and out of touch.

They kept comparing the quiet academic to his gregarious predecessor, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who worked the campus like a politician for 19 years and wrote a book called "Big Man on Campus."

A generation ago, it was typical for college presidents to be stuffy and hard-to-approach chief executives, the type who inspired the Dean Wormer character in "Animal House."

(Photos of college presidents mixing it up with students)

Many of the barriers separating a college's top-paid leaders from its tuition-paying students have disappeared in the past decade. E-mail, text messaging and social media give students unprecedented access to a chief executive, who can no longer hide behind a secretary and an office door.

Today, many students -- and their increasingly over-involved parents -- want a personal bond with the president. Instead of occupying the president's office, more students are stopping by to chat. They want to be friends -- and not just on Facebook.

In an effort to be more cool, presidents across the United States are starring in YouTube videos, serving hot dogs, starting blogs, hosting parties and eating with the masses in dorms.

Knapp's big break came in February, when he stopped by a nighttime snowball fight between GWU and Georgetown University, surprising student organizers.

"It was like a Civil War battle. We were all lined up," Knapp recalled. "I think I was a target, because I got pretty pelted."

After victory was declared, Knapp made a speech and canceled classes for the next day. Suddenly, he had some street cred.

"I was worried that he was going to get pushed or trampled," said organizer Kyle Boyer, who graduated in May. "I was very skeptical about it, but he really, unprompted, took a very active role in the snowball fight. He really pumped people up."

The student newspaper commended Knapp for attending. A commenter on a Georgetown student blog wrote: "Steven Knapp sounds like an awesome guy. Would [Georgetown President John J.] DeGioia ever condescend to come to a snowball fight?"

"Students expect a kind of face-to-face interaction that wasn't around when I was an undergraduate," said Knapp, who attended Yale in the 1970s and rarely saw the university president. "There is this expectation that you will always be out there and always be available."

Said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, an association representing presidents: "If you wanted to speak to your college president a generation ago, you either waited for them to come out to their car at night, or you made an appointment and you saw them a week later."

The gestures that win students' hearts don't have to be grand, usually just genuine and unscripted, several presidents said.

Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, deejayed at his 2008 inauguration party. Wesleyan University President Michael Roth played piano at an open-mic night.

President David Hodge of Miami University in Ohio formed an intramural broomball team.

University of California President Mark Yudof tweets several times a day, usually about higher education, but occasionally about celebrity deaths and parking problems.

Shenandoah University President Tracy Fitzsimmons allowed nursing students to watch the birth of her twins.

Tufts University President Lawrence Bacow serves hot chocolate to students sledding down the president's lawn. He also offers to meet with every student treated for alcohol poisoning, since an undergraduate was found passed out on that lawn.

At Macalester College in Minnesota, students call President Brian C. Rosenberg "B-Ro." He isn't sure how it started, but he went with it. He also agreed to star in a university-produced Presidents' Day YouTube video that went viral in February (and, more importantly, got a positive shout-out from the student newspaper).

Meeting expectations

Getting along with students is sometimes overlooked during searches for presidents, Rosenberg said, but "it's something that's very important to determining the success of a presidency."

Students expect more of presidents at a time when presidents have never been busier with fundraising, alumni relations, balancing the budget and branching into international education. Parents, too, have come to expect more personal attention.

The Rev. Brian Linnane, president of Loyola University Maryland, said he thinks that spiraling tuition has spawned a "consumer mentality" among parents: "I'm paying so much, I want X, Y and Z, and I want the president to be on it." He recalled one blistering note from a parent who arrived late to a popular campus event and was unable to find parking: "It was like somehow we failed her."

And it's not just more demanding students and parents -- presidents themselves have evolved.

Many sitting presidents are baby boomers, reared in the anti-establishment '60s, uneasy in suits. They oversee flattened organizational structures, teach their own classes, hold office hours and sometimes seem more comfortable lunching with a group of underclassmen than at a table of well-heeled donors.

"Interacting with students keeps me sane," said Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "It reminds me why I continue to do this work."

These presidents "are a far less formal generation than those that came before," said Leonard Steinhorn, a professor in the School of Communication at American University. They are the same men and women who, as college students in the 1960s and 1970s, "fought against hierarchy, questioned authority, didn't feel that they had to dress a certain way to express expertise."

AU President Neil Kerwin tells students about how when he was an undergraduate at American in the 1960s and '70s, he "many, many times threatened to occupy the president's office -- and now I finally have."

"All of us came out of that experience," Kerwin said. "Being remote as a college president? If they hope for that, then they are in the wrong job."

How to be a president

College presidents take leadership seminars on "the importance of walking around," said Loyola's Linnane, who is a regular presence on the Baltimore campus and on the elliptical machines at the student fitness center.

C.D. (Dan) Mote, the departing University of Maryland president, was known for telling students at the freshman convocation, "I want to shake the hand of every single student, every single year," an invitation that tended to slow his pace on the 37,000-student campus.

Students can be a hard crowd to please, and one appearance at a snowball fight is not always enough to keep them happy through four years of college. GWU's Knapp was again under fire from students when he announced last month that he couldn't make it to three of the five freshman orientation sessions.

The GW Hatchet published a staff editorial that asked, "Are students his priority?" A columnist advised freshmen to savor the occasion if they did get to hear Knapp speak: "The closest you'll come to interacting with our president again is the sternly worded letter you'll receive when you leave some empty Natty cans on his front lawn late one night."

Knapp rearranged his calendar so that he would miss only one session.

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