Dispatch from Kate Wellspring

Kate Wellspring

March 18, 2011

If you attended any of the listening sessions that this committee convened last fall, then you saw several of us scribbling away on notepads, trying to capture comments and suggestions that we didn’t trust our memories to accurately reconstruct. Those notes have served us well during the definition phase of the search process, as described earlier by Jide. I’ve been pleased to see that although this committee heard a wide array comments, we also all “heard” essentially the same things. There was marked consistency among search committee members when we discussed our impressions of comments voiced by students, staff, trustees, alumni, faculty and families. This is encouraging because it suggests that we were listening to all comments, not just those made by the constituencies from which we, as individual committee members, hail or those that coincide with our personal inclinations.

In addition to consistency within how the committee recorded what we heard, there was also accord in the substance of the requests by the various constituencies. There is general agreement that our next president should be intimately familiar with the workings of the academy but also have broad management skills, be an unflagging spokesperson for the liberal arts, possess a variety of communication skills and so forth. There was one request, however, that particularly caught my attention. It was made by multiple groups and individuals: the next president should be someone who can foster a “culture of respect” on campus.  Requests for more inter- and intra-group trust and a more holistic community were heard repeatedly and from several constituencies. Based on the recurrence of these comments, it seems clear that many believe the Amherst community has—at least at times—a problem with a lack of mutual respectfulness and would benefit from a concerted shift in this area.

At Amherst, and all college campuses, respect is an essential component of the dynamics among students, faculty and staff. Concerns about respect reflect loyalty to the institution and the hope that our culture can evolve. As it happens, the College has recently made strides towards encouraging open and thoughtful dialogue among employees and ensuring that all employees have a voice in governance. What we have heard from some employees and students, however, is that it’s important we strive to do more.

Mutual respect among individuals and constituencies creates a framework that allows us to achieve the high expectations we have for each other. Each of us values our ability to contribute to the College’s excellence in the classroom, the lab, or on the playing field and elsewhere.  I know that for my own subset of campus employees, the staff, that a sense of trust figures prominently into our work.  Because we often have less autonomy than other types of employees, we depend more heavily on good interpersonal relationships—with other staff, students and faculty—for work-flow efficiency and professional success. 

It is interesting that the topic of respect and trust was raised in the context of Presidential Search Committee listening sessions. It implies a belief in top-down cultural shifts, that a president can affect institutional change at an interpersonal level. This committee heard several requests concerning the management style of a president as it pertains to matters of trust and respect. They were often phrased along the lines of: “We don’t want a president who will micromanage us; we want someone who will trust us to do our jobs.” The committee will need to determine how we can establish a candidate’s administrative skills. Polar questions (“Will you foster a culture of respect at Amherst?” “Do you tend to micromanage those around you?”) clearly will not be helpful, so we may ask candidates to describe their record of managing difficult professional situations and personal/group interactions. We will have to be discriminating in how we interpret these descriptions, perform careful and multiple reference checks and develop techniques that allow us to assess the working styles of our candidates.

Naturally, we bear in mind that there’s an important difference between a president who is respectful of differences and one who concedes to all of them. To listen carefully to each person and to thoughtfully disagree, or not grant a request, is not tantamount to disrespect. A candidate with a record of trying to please everyone is not the right candidate for us; we would run the risk of finding someone who is, as Oscar Wilde said of George Bernard Shaw, “An excellent man: he has no enemies; and none of his friends like him.”  Rather, we would do well to find a president who can sincerely and effectively support all groups of employees in their work and students in their education. Is this committee going to be able to locate some beau ideal president who can be all things to all people? Let’s hope not, for that would be a president who would accomplish little of consequence. We can make a good-faith effort, however, to establish that the candidates we bring to the Board are ones who can demonstrate their ability to foster the culture of respect that many people associated with this college have requested. Whether or not a president finds success in this endeavor will ultimately be determined by the willingness of all parties to participate in what could be a subtle but substantive change.