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Bradley U.'s president, Joanne K. Glasser, meets regularly with students. "Holding office hours demystifies, to a certain extent, the president's office," she says. "It's absolutely critical and vital to stay in touch with students. It's the whole reason for being here."
By Ashley C. Killough
The Chronicle of Higher Education
August 10, 2009
When Corrie E. Brite left the president's office at Bradley University late one night last semester, she wondered if she had just wasted her time.
Mikhail Gorbachev was coming to town for a dinner, and Ms. Brite, a junior majoring in political science and history, wanted desperately to attend. Having exhausted all other options to get a ticket, she decided the university president might be her "in." So after class she scrambled to make President Joanne K. Glasser's monthly office hours. She arrived 15 minutes late—but, to her surprise, the president welcomed her anyway.
"I told her it would make my life if I could go to this dinner," Ms. Brite says. "He's a world leader. The chances of seeing him again are zero." While Ms. Glasser said she would try to help, Ms. Brite walked away skeptically. "I thought, 'She's Bradley's president. I'm sure she has better things to do than find tickets for students.'"
A week later, Ms. Brite received an e-mail invitation to the Peoria, Ill., dinner, as did 14 other students.
While it's unclear just how many presidents hold office hours, the practice has become a popular way for students on some campuses to communicate with a top administrator. The meetings give students a chance to voice comments, concerns, and requests—and sometimes shoot for that coveted recommendation letter—while allowing busy presidents some manageable one-on-one time with their largest constituency.
While it's common for presidents to meet regularly with student representatives, says W.H. (Butch) Oxendine, executive director of the American Student Government Association, he has never heard of open office hours for students in general.
"Some presidents are very hands-on and are seen around campus, and some are hands-off. It depends on the institution," he says. "The bigger the name and the bigger the enrollment, the less likely the president will be around much."
About 100 students have shown up at Ms. Glasser's office since the hours began, in February. Once a month, she opens her doors for about two hours, in late afternoon or early evening. Some have waited in line for more than an hour. From the waiting room, a staff member knocks on the door every five minutes, signaling the president to wrap things up and move on to the next student.
The students want to talk about a wide range of things, Ms. Glasser says, from academic struggles to career advice to broken printers. Because the president went public with her diagnosis of breast cancer last year, many students come in to discuss the fight against the disease within their own families.
"Holding office hours demystifies, to a certain extent, the president's office," she says. "It's absolutely critical and vital to stay in touch with students. It's the whole reason for being here. I look at these office hours as one of the most important things I can do."
It helps that Bradley is a private university with about 5,000 undergraduates—just the right size to develop numerous relationships with students, she adds.
"She's around a lot more than the previous president," Ms. Brite says of Ms. Glasser. "I don't even remember the name of the man who was here before her."
Responsible for balancing various tasks and pleasing multiple constituencies, university presidents face growing demands that can pull them in competing directions. For many, says Ronald K. Machtley, president of Bryant University, in Rhode Island, the pressure to raise money often overrides time commitments with students.
When college presidents undertake major fund-raising campaigns, he says, "you can't spend only 30 percent of your time on the road and be successful. Big donors want to see the president."
But he knows students, too, want to see the president. A former member of Congress, Mr. Machtley says his time on Capitol Hill prepared him to deal with the needs of different groups. A university president has to figure out how to make an impact and be visible without seeming superficial, he says.
"I know a president who claimed to have slept in college dorms," if only for one night at a time, he says.
While he doesn't hold office hours, Mr. Machtley reaches out to students by eating meals in the cafeteria, inviting students to his house for picnics, and leading them on overseas trips. Presidents play a vital role in "setting the tone and standard" for student behavior, but the immense weight of fund raising often dilutes the importance of that job, he says.
Generational experiences may also be a factor in the usual disconnect between presidents and students, Mr. Machtley says. In the 1960s, what he calls a "rancorous, offensive" time, students didn't act the same way as the students he knows now do.
"My generation was taking over campuses and declaring we were all-knowing, and administrators were not revered," says Mr. Machtley, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1970. "Now the pendulum has swung a little bit. Administrators are realizing students are different than they were in the 60s. Today the kids are really wonderful, courteous, and thankful for anything you do for them."
Of the four careers he's had—he was also a lawyer and a naval officer—Mr. Machtley says being a university president has been the most rewarding: "While raising a lot of money can be a capstone to a career, if presidents miss the interaction with students, they miss the essence of the job."
For Janet Morgan Riggs, who was a faculty member before becoming president of Gettysburg College, holding office hours for students feels natural. She finds the experience inspiring and says it keeps her grounded and focused. "If I'm having a little bit of a down day," she says, "it lifts me right up."
While the open-door policy she had as a professor in the psychology department no longer applies, she tries to meet with students once a month for an hour or two. Since she began doing so, in February, Ms. Riggs estimates that 25 to 30 students total have attended the three sessions, each getting 10 to 15 minutes of her time.
"I have to say, every conversation I have had has just been terrific," she says. "The students who come in are well prepared. They're certainly very polite. There's no hostility."
At Bradley, Ms. Glasser, too, beams about her students, saying she has had no confrontational or disgruntled encounters. Initially her cabinet members worried about the "unknown" and "uncharted territory" of the idea, she says. "They didn't know what to expect—whether there would be two or 2,000 students."
Follow-through is important. Ms. Glasser says she has responded to every request or concern expressed by the visitors. "I didn't want students to just feel like all they had were good sessions. There needed to be credibility and substance behind the meetings."
Melanie Pagan is particularly glad she went to the president's office. Ms. Pagan, who graduated in May, was the leader of Bradley's only Latino-oriented student organization. It wanted to meet with 16 of the university's top officials to spread awareness of its work. Upon hearing the plan, Ms. Glasser made sure it happened.
Because of its efforts, the group was awarded $1,800 by the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute, an advocacy group, to attend a weeklong national conference in Chicago. With additional support from the president's office, each of the 10 students paid only $6.40 to stay at a hotel for the week. The conference led to internship opportunities for two Bradley students.
"We had been struggling with our organization for a while. We had a lot of roadblocks," Ms. Pagan says. "After [Ms. Glasser's] help, things started falling into place. We had her back us up, and she did back us up every single time."
Without direct communication, Ms. Glasser says, it is difficult to respond to students' needs. And without office hours, she adds, she would not have made so many new friends this year. "I want each and every student to say, 'I know my president. My president knows me.'"