Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Fearless inexperience

Q: At some point in your life, you probably decided to take a leap of faith and go in a direction -- professionally or personally -- that others did not expect. Like quit Goldman Sachs to be a goat farmer. Or leave a company job for your own venture. Was the move a success? Did the new direction turn out the way you thought it would?

"If you fail, no one will blame you."

With those encouraging words, the chair of Trinity's board of trustees handed me the key to the president's office on a hot summer day in 1989.

I turned the lock and walked into my brave new professional world. I sat at the president's desk where five other people had exercised presidential authority over a short nine-year period. I saw a gigantic crucifix sprawled across the desk, removed from the wall for painting. A single black telephone, vintage about 1970, graced the desk. In a far corner an old first generation IBM Selectric typewriter sat on the floor gathering dust.

The first thing I did was hang up the crucifix.

The second thing I did was get rid of the desk.

I called the chief business officer and instructed him to get me a new telephone that could take multiple calls, a computer and printer, and a fax machine.

"You can't do that," he said.

"Why not?" asked the new president.

"We'll go bankrupt!" he spluttered.

I soon had my telephone with multiple lines and a hold button, an original IBM XT green screen computer and dot-matrix printer -- and the same equipment for my secretary, who was amazed that office technology might finally come to Trinity.

The fax machine, however, had to wait until I could get the Sharp demo guy to come out to show my new colleagues what a fax could do.

"Why would we want to get mail that fast?" was the first question.

Soon, Trinity had its first fax machine.

Now, starting my 22nd year in that same office, we have dazzling technology throughout the campus, modern systems and a professional team that is continuously advancing the next big thing in collegiate management. Trinity is thriving, about to welcome its largest enrollment ever with more than 2,100 students likely to attend this fall. We have a remarkable new athletics center, and a new academic center is on the drawing board. Finances are strong, and Trinity's reputation is growing.

But on that long-ago summer day, the board chair was right to be skeptical of my chances for success in this job. I was just 36 years old. I had never held anything resembling a senior management position. While I had been a good student at Trinity, my undergraduate alma mater, I found law school somewhat boring, and the practice of law unappealing.

I spent the first part of my career working in the Street Law program, teaching kids in DC how to avoid getting into trouble. Midway through that experience, the dean of Georgetown Law School discovered that I had a gift for gab, and offered me a position in the law school development office. I soon learned how to raise money and run capital campaigns, an invaluable skill for any future academic executive.

Meanwhile, my beloved Trinity was having its own challenges. Traditional women's colleges throughout the country experienced serious enrollment declines in the 1970s and 1980s when coeducation swept the university sector.

Without substantial change, the future looked bleak for these colleges -- but change also proved to be extraordinarily difficult. Hence, presidents came and went at Trinity in the 1980s as, first, the founding order (the Sisters of Notre Dame) realized that the college needed to open the presidency to lay leadership, and then, even experienced lay leaders found the institutional issues daunting.

Enter the inexperienced young lawyer with no fixed career goal other than to have a rollicking good time at any job she held.

A friend asked me, "Why did the board choose you with so little experience?"

"Precisely!" I answered. "With no experience, I didn't know what to be afraid of." Fearlessness, I soon learned, is a necessary trait to achieve great change.

"Why are we doing it this way?" I asked time and again. My colleagues soon learned that the answer, "Because it's always been done" became a sure-fire way to get me to insist on change.

Today, at times, I find myself wishing for that blithe time when I could ask questions and experiment with directions without the constraint of knowledge and experience. Now, the answer to the question, "Why are we doing it this way?" might be, "Because you said so!" I hate that. Not only does it remind me that I've been around so long that I've forgotten half of what I once said, but worse, I'm now the "old guard." So, I try to be sure that everyone knows I'm still experimenting and not tied to things that just can't work any more, even if they once were my good ideas!

Many people ask me how to become a college president. I tell them, "Be careful what you wish for!" But for those who are still interested, I share my own story. While some institutions and boards still look for the candidates with the most traditional backgrounds -- someone with a Ph.D. who has come up through the academic ranks -- many more colleges and universities today are open to innovative ideas about leadership.

The most important factor in becoming a durable and successful collegiate leader is the capacity to keep innovating, the willingness to embrace change, and the stamina to persist in the vision for the future despite a great deal of disagreement along the way. Controversy is as basic to academia as Shakespeare, and a disposition toward innovation is as necessary as modern technology.

Being able to lead large groups of people who love tradition through change processes is one of the most important qualities necessary in a president. Achieving success requires a great deal of personal vigor, large capacity to forge agreement within dissonance, respect for the highly idiosyncratic, and a relentless sense of humor.

Keeping that crucifix handy also helps.

By Patricia McGuire  |  August 2, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Going for it Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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