The Good College President Revisited
Last year I wrote a post about The Good College President.
Most recent travels have led me to write a new one.
Last week I visited Lycoming College, a small (1,400 undergraduate) liberal arts college located in the heart of central Pennsylvania. Founded in 1812, Lycoming is one of the oldest colleges in the U.S., within a state that has more liberal arts colleges than any other in the U.S. I will be writing a more detailed profile shortly, but I wanted to add this post in the hope that you will read the profile soon after it goes live.
Lycoming might not be a name that you know. It’s too easy for an excellent student to overlook it for more famous names such as Bucknell, Franklin and Marshall and Gettysburg.
But my suspicion is that will change in time, because of leadership from the top.
Three years ago, Lycoming appointed Dr. Kent Trachte, formerly Dean of the College at Franklin & Marshall (F&M), to become its 15th president. A political scientist as well as a senior administrator at F&M for over 25 years, Dr. Trachte is quite well-liked among the students, faculty and administrators at Lycoming. Being well liked does make for a successful presidency. But that is not enough. It takes setting a direction and building relationships that make the community better and help people to do their jobs better. While Dr. Trachte has built upon an impressive set of accomplishments in a relatively short time, he has also helped to make Lycoming one of the Best Colleges to Work For in the U.S per the Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2015 survey. This is significant. The employees are the ones who are rating the quality of their work life.
Colleges, no matter their size and mission, have three primary obligations. Educating their students and guiding them to their degrees is the most important. Research and scholarship comes second; a faculty always needs to become more knowledgable and up-to-date in their field. Then comes service to the college community beyond the students, which includes alumni and well as the citizens and leadership in the city and region where the college is situated.
In fulfilling these obligations a college president must build many relationships. He cannot sit in an office and let the problems come to him. He has to engage the students, faculty and community to solve them, and make them feel that they, not the president, advanced the solution.
I sat with Dr. Trachte for over an hour. He told me about his intentions for the college. He is not trying to remake Lycoming into F&M though one residence hall has been renovated along the lines of F&M’s house system. Our conversation reminded me that change takes time, especially if it involves large expenses, such as building buildings. But time also works to advantage when you have a strong college community. When outsiders, especially those who can aid the mission directly, see the good that you are doing with the resources that you have, they will pitch in. I have seen this close to home at Rutgers, which is trying to advance in science and medicine as well as field athletic teams that New Jersey residents can be proud of. But I have also seen it at Lycoming.
Lycoming is located in Williamsport, founding home of Little League Baseball as well as the Little League World Series. A city of less than 30,000 people, its downtown has traces of a college town with galleries, performance spaces and eating and drinking places that college students and faculty would like. Lycoming shares the town with the Pennsylvania College of Technology, a college within Penn State’s system that has over 6,000 students.
But town and gown do not feel as physically tied together as they are at a school such as Bucknell or Gettysburg. A good college town needs people going on and off campus to succeed. Dr. Trachte has taken the lead to make this happen through the term of his presidency. An incoming freshman will not be around to see the physical changes by the time that s/he is a senior. But the satisfied alumnus who got the education that s/he wanted will be glad that they happened.
Lycoming is a good school for a B or better student who would benefit from the greater attention offered through a liberal arts education. Those students abound. You have probably met quite a few around your local high schools. Lycoming might not be the first name that rolls off your lips when thinking of a good liberal arts college. But in educating its students, the primary mission, it has faculty, staff and students who make them feel wanted and welcome. It is possible for a public relations person to embellish a school, even a senior leader. But when so many people talk unprompted of their enthusiasm, or say hello to a complete stranger as I was, the mission is serious. It is not an act.
Colleges, whatever their name, all have things in common. One is that they all deliver services performed by people, just like your local government. And, like a good local government, the colleges that have strong leadership receive the time and resources to deliver these services better. Under Kent Trachte’s leadership Lycoming College is becoming such a school.