The new president … in Ripon, not in D.C.

On Monday, I walked to Ripon College for the announcement of its new president. (You can do that when you live in a college town and the weather is amazing for this time of year.)

And the new president is …

The Ripon College community met their 13th president-to-be, Dr. Zach P. Messitte, today during a public welcome event in the Great Hall of Harwood Union. He will assume his new duties starting July 1. …

Dr. Messitte (pronounced muh-SET-ee) is currently the dean of the College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where he also serves as vice provost for international programs and holds the William J. Crowe Chair in geopolitics as a faculty member. He is the author of numerous articles and the co-editor of the forthcoming book, Understanding the Global Community, that will be published by the University of Oklahoma Press later this yearHe hosts an award winning radio show, World Views, on National Public Radio (NPR) and has been in the classroom every semester teaching classes on American foreign policy. Prior to his tenure in Oklahoma, Dr. Messitte served as the first director of the Center for the Study of Democracy and held a tenure-track position in the political science department at the St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

A new college president’s résumé often tells you what the people doing the hiring see as priorities. Messitte’s predecessor came from a development background — fundraising, to use a less lofty term. He replaced a president whose background was in admissions. That was the first time a Ripon College president came from a non-academic background.

At a private college, the arrival of a new president mixes anticipation and apprehension among the staff. Unlike the faculty, college staff, including non-academic administrators below the president, have no tenure to protect them from running afoul of the new administration. Some holdover staff end up on the outs under the Not Invented Here school of human resource management.

Of course, that anticipation/anxiety teeter-totter goes the other way. Anyone hired for a new job never knows everything about that job, including things those doing the hiring prefer that candidates not know, until that person starts there. The CEO is supposed to be at least an authority on all aspects of his or her job, which at a college include, mostly in alphabetical order, academics, admissions, development and finance, and operations of an institution that feeds and houses 1,000 young adults nine months out of the year for four years. The average presidential term at a private college is around five years.

It is interesting to observe from outside the differences in how private colleges are run. Ripon College’s faculty appears to have the biggest share of influence on college decisions, even though the college’s biggest issues over the past decade or so (financial and enrollment) appear to have little to do with academics. (One could also ask what teaching has to do with management of the aforementioned operational responsibilities for a college president.) Most of Ripon’s trustees are alumni; that can either mean a lot of affinity for their alma mater, or resistance to doing things differently from when they were students.  Given the average length of a presidential term, recalcitrant tenured faculty could just decide to wait out the new guy until his or her replacement comes along. And yet without naming names, I can personally attest that the wrong presidential pick can do a lot of damage in less time than the average presidential term.

One of the more interesting lines from Messitte’s biography is that he was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to two Peace Corps volunteers. Ripon College has a lot of Peace Corps volunteers (including my wife) among its graduates, so that’s probably appropriate. And this is the first news release announcing a college president’s hiring that I’ve ever seen with quotes from a news anchor (Judy Woodruff of PBS, with whom Messitte worked at CNN), an actress (Famke Janssen) and a former CIA director.

One of the more interesting lines from the news release is a statement I would not have chosen to make as a college PR professional:

Bob Kirkland ’81, chair of the Ripon College Board of Trustees, said Dr. Messitte reflects the highest ideals of the College while possessing the vision and leadership to help realize its vast potential.

That’s an odd statement attached to a 161-year-old college. “Vast potential”? For what? By whose definition? Nothing like putting heat on the new guy when he doesn’t even know, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, the known unknowns, let alone the unknown unknowns.

As president, Messitte will get a lot of unsolicited advice. I used to work with a Ripon College graduate who went into the college admissions field who suggested that Ripon’s best future was as a school for smart jocks. If Messitte reads this blog he’ll be the first to read this, but as Ripon’s football and basketball announcer, I think it’s a tremendous idea. Messitte’s introductory speech quoted Ripon’s retiring men’s basketball and baseball coach, Bob Gillespie, so maybe there’s some hope in that idea. (Since Messitte works at Oklahoma now, I assume he knows what a Sooner is, particularly those Sooners who can be found at Owen Field. If Ripon College uniforms turn a darker shade of red and college games include a new song called “Rally Red Hawk” that sounds suspiciously like “Boomer Sooner,” I guess we’ll have our answer.)

As someone who  has a lot of media experience, Messitte hopefully will seek a larger national and public profile for his new employer. Viewed from a few blocks away, Ripon College has seemed to me to have an oddly passive approach to public and media relations and marketing itself, particularly in this electronic media era of ours. Given Messitte’s résumé and the interesting (as in the Chinese curse) state of foreign relations today, Messitte needs to be the short list of TV and radio talk show producers’ expert lists, particularly given this election year.

Messitte’s first speech mentioned his need to listen and ask questions first. The most important initial thing for a new college president to do is to get an accurate picture of the state of the college, which means listening to the right people and not listening to the wrong people. (The corollary to that is: Don’t believe your own press, including your lofty rankings.) The “wrong people” includes those who see the college’s purpose as advancing their own careers or inflating their own power. (Any piece about higher education is required to include the Henry Kissinger quote, “Competition in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so small.”) My philosophy of personal egalitarianism, that we are all children of God, compels me to add that one should be wary of those with advanced degrees who demand to be referred to as “Doctor” when their doctorate is a Ph.D. or Ed.D., not a medical or related degree. (I got that from Yale University President A. Bartlett Giamatti.)

Ripon College occupies a place in American higher education that doesn’t at first blush appear to be a growth area. Ripon College is a traditional (students are generally 18 to 23 or so, with few older students) residential (as in most students live on campus instead of being commuters) undergraduate-only (no graduate programs) liberal arts college. Like most private colleges, it is dependent on tuition revenue for the majority of its revenue; it does not have a large enough endowment (similar to most private colleges) to be able to weather more than a couple bad enrollment years.

The other four-year-college in Fond du Lac County, Marian University (for which I was its college relations director), is less prestigious and less selective in choosing its students than Ripon. On the other hand, Marian has two areas of student growth — adult undergraduates (those who never finished, or never started, college who determine after a few years that having a degree would be useful) and graduate students (master’s and Ph.D. s) — although those areas are threatened by the growth of for-profit colleges, such as the University of Phoenix.

Ripon has never been publicly seriously interested in either adult undergraduate or graduate programs. It may be too late to get into either market by now, which puts Ripon in a challenging place given the state of higher education today, and not just at Ripon.

One of the numerous dubious complaints of the Occupy ______ movement is complaints about the cost of higher education, and the six-figure levels of student debt handed to a graduate. The complaints seem to be loudest from those  with degrees in fields that would not appear to have a lot of  jobs attached to those degrees, such as gender studies.

Those are not, however, complaints limited to the Occupiers, or to Gender Studies graduates. The mantra in nearly every American family above lower class since the end of World War II has been to go to college. While our K–12 education system appears to be treading water at best compared with the rest of the developed world despite our billions of dollars in annual “investment,” the American college and university system has no equal in the world.  Most of the world’s world-class universities, including my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, are within the U.S.’ borders.

Some would argue that there is a direct relationship between the amount of federal and state financial aid given to students and increases in the cost of college, private and public. And an argument can be made that the purpose of going to college shouldn’t be vocational at all given that we’re supposed to have several different careers over our 50 years or so in the workplace. That, however, causes others to ask why one should go to college at all.

That last point prompted two commentaries in The Atlantic from Marty Nemko, Ph.D., author of How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. First:

Rigorous studies have revealed that college students learn shockingly little. For example, in Academically Adrift, it was reported that 36% of graduating seniors nationwide grew not at all in problem solving, critical thinking, and analytical reasoning since entering college as freshmen!

And our sending the highest percentage of students to college in history (now 70%) has created an oversupply of college graduates. That helps explains why, according to a Pew fiscal analysis, 35 percent of the unemployed with college or graduate degrees have been unemployed for more than a year, the same rate as unemployed high school dropouts!

And then:

The government would never allow a drug to be sold, let alone subsidize it, without the drug’s manufacturer demonstrating its efficacy. Colleges receive enormous sums of taxpayer dollars. They should be required to demonstrate freshman-to-senior growth in learning and employability that even minimally justifies the four to eight years, enormous cost, and risk of not graduating. Nationwide, fewer than 40% of first-time freshmen graduate within four years. Fewer than two-thirds graduate even if given six years!

Putting a little flesh on that skeleton, I believe that, to receive taxpayer-funded financial-aid dollars, all colleges be required to demonstrate:

1) At least modest average-student growth in critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and problem solving as measured by a standardized exam selected by a national blue-ribbon panel of psychometricians, higher educators, and employers. Well-validated such instruments exist, for example, the Collegiate Learning Assessment. …

2) At least modestly improved employability of the institution’s graduates. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has long categorized jobs in terms of how much education is typically required. Colleges should show that they are capable of delivering a certain standard of outcomes for students with a certain level of achievement.

So, let’s see: Bring in students and graduate them so they can get good-paying jobs, bring in money, keep the alumni happy (see previous comment about students), represent the college well in public and in private, and leave the place in better condition than how you found it. Piece of cake — or, if you will, a box of Rippin’ Good cookies.

There is a lesson from, of all places, the 3½-year presidency of former constitutional law professor Barack Obama. The theme of “change” was hammered upon the brains of voters throughout Obama’s first presidential campaign. Obama misinterpreted his 2008 victory as an endorsement of “change,” when it was not. Voters wanted things to be better, not merely different. Change and progress are not necessarily the same thing, and while change is inevitable, positive change is not.

How Messitte does as Ripon College’s president is important because how Ripon College does is important to Ripon. The line of the night at last week’s City Council candidate forum was from a Ripon College graduate, who said that Ripon without Ripon College is Berlin. (He also is a Ripon High School graduate, so he knows of heated rivalries.) Ripon College’s town–gown relations are not perfect and need to be better. (For instance, Ripon the community would be better if more Ripon College graduates decided to live and work in Ripon instead of returning after graduation only for their class reunions.) But if you want to see what Ripon would be like without Ripon College, take a drive to Milton, which has buildings similar to Ripon’s on the campus of the late Milton College.

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