John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What is the Role of the President/Chancellor in Improving the First Year?

John Gardner

For any readers who read one of my preceding posts, they will recall I had just returned from the 31st annual Conference on The First-Year Experience.  A recurrent theme in almost every session I attended was the role of the President/Chancellor. There was unanimity that this person and role mattered greatly in the priority assigned on a particular campus to paying more attention to new students. There was also a tremendous range of views and opinions on how attendees’ leaders were using their influence with respect to improving the first year.

Let’s back up. I remember back in the US 2000 Presidential campaign that Ralph Nader argued that there were no real essential differences between the Republican and Democratic candidates and that if the citizenry wanted real change they needed to support him. But this left a profound question: what difference does the CEO make?

That’s the question I am writing to raise here. And this question is very much on my mind because the non-profit organization which I lead is hosting a brief “institute” this April for Presidents/Chancellors only. We haven’t done anything like this for over a decade so I am feeling a bit rusty at approaching this cohort on my favorite subject, the importance of the new and transfer student experiences. And just the thought of presenting anything to this elite leadership class is daunting as I know of no group which is more challenged in terms of managing attention deficit disorder as they are deluged with so many competing demands for their time and mental attention, especially during the spring legislative sessions when their principal funder may be hard at work reducing their appropriation.

Some years ago the book, In Search of Excellence, was on the college student best seller list, as reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, for a long, long time. The authors, Peters and Waterman, argued that the most important role of the CEO was/is “to manage the values” of the organization.

I have always argued—and most recently again at the conference, that this work to improve the first year is “values based.” And historically, for much of the period post World War II until much, much later in the twentieth century, this work was undervalued, because the subjects to which the work was directed, namely, first-year students, were undervalued; In many places that has changed, but certainly not everywhere. And that is why I raise the question of the role of the CEO. It was clear to me at the just completed First-Year Experience conference that there are many campuses where faculty/staff do not believe their CEO places a premium value on the need to improve success of new students.

While I would be grateful if any of my readers were to offer to me any reasons why their presidents/chancellors matter, I assume that what would be more important for my readers would be to marshal their own arguments for why their leaders matter to improving the first year and how they could get those arguments in front of their president/chancellor. I think that is a very important item of business for institutionalizing the importance of first-year work on your campus. I think more leaders would be open to paying more attention if only they were approached about doing so. I hope you will push in that direction and not leave this to serendipity. There are so many campus conditions that matter – that must be in place for a stronger first year- and in my experience, the stance of the CEO is one of them. After our
Presidents/Chancellors Institute in April, I will write again about what arguments we used to try to persuade them they should be actively engaged in this educational conversation.


  1. Nathan RelkenMarch 13, 2012 at 12:36 pmReply

    Dear Dr. Gardner,
    As you mention… it is critical that the President/Chancellor of an institution take an active role by making first-year student success a priority. The President of my institution (Kim B. Clark) has seen the need for this and has commissioned a cross-section of influential campus leaders (VP’s & Department Heads) to focus on these types of efforts. The most recent efforts are in creating a pre-matriculation online module to help students engage with campus support resources before they arrive and following that up with collaborative “student survival seminars” during their time on campus. Successful FYE programs tend to involve multiple campus entities with sometimes varied or competing interests so the direction of the President is absolutely needed to help offer direction (keeping the vision intact through to implementation) and to help bring such entities together for the common good of the student.

    • John GardnerMarch 15, 2012 at 2:39 pmReply

      Thank you for your commentary on my blog and your perspectives on your institution’s presidential leadership. These are very good and helpful comments. And thank you for taking the time and showing the interest to read my blog.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


nine − = 7