Perfect Propriety for Presidents, Vol. 4, Issue 20

Dear Etiquetteer: I'm a chief academic officer at a small private college and desperately need your advice in how to handle that Mother of All Uncivil Behavior, the College President.  If you don't believe me, let me tell you a hair-raising, yet true, story.Some time ago the president of a college where I consulted got into a snit with his faculty, not because of inept or corrupt management, but because he was a bully and a tyrant.  The faculty moved heart and soul first to redeem him and second, when all attempts failed, to unseat him.  This, of course, enraged him more, and he set out on a path of revenge against his enemies, real and imagined.After several years of tireless effort cultivating its best and brightest students to compete for prestigious national fellowships, the college found itself in the enviable position of having produced its first-ever winner of the distinguished and coveted [Insert Name of Distinguished and Coveted Fellowship Here].  Everyone at the school was ecstatic and endeavored to celebrate the young woman’s triumph with great fanfare.At the luncheon following the annual spring awards convocation, the student and her parents found themselves walking next to the college president as they were leaving the auditorium.  He did not speak to the young woman and also ignored her parents, although he did congratulate another student present for having won some lesser honors.  The fellowship recipient and her parents were surprised but thought it merely an oversight. As they waited at the head table where they and several other students and parents were placed, they received an even greater insult.  The president arrived at the head table, and instead of sitting down, picked up his placecard, said only, "I'm going to move to another table," turned his back and walked away.  The reason for this snub was simple: the student’s advisor was a faculty member who had worked to remove the president.  The young woman and her parents were crushed. Well, Etiquetteer, I know you are as horrified as we all were.  Could you please comment on appropriate behavior of chief executives in academia?   And especially offer some insights for those leaders who must be attentive to the ceremonial role of their positions? Dear Chief Academic Officer Who Never Wants to Be a President: Etiquetteer’s heart goes out to that poor fellowship winner and her parents, needlessly snubbed just like a child stuck between two divorcing parents. Your college president seems to be guided by the maxim “The friend of my enemy is my enemy.” This is not only foolish, but could be disastrous for the future of the college in question. Small-Minded People should never be placed in Big Picture Positions. Academic leaders, like world leaders, cannot afford to compromise their dignity or to burn bridges. This means that the carrying-on of blood feuds such as the one you describe need as much as possible to be limited to the issues, and not to personalities. We have only to look back as recently as last year for examples. Take, for instance, the profane way Vice President Cheney treated Senator Patrick Leahy during their “class photo” in Congress. It justifies what Cornelia Robson said in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile: “Cousin Marie says politicians aren’t gentlemen.”All this is to say that whatever disagreements one may have with a colleague, they must be confined only to the colleague, and they must not intrude on the public role of the college presidency. And of course that public role involves acting as a figurehead for the entire college, and acknowledging dignitaries and special guests, such as your fellowship winner and her parents. Most of this can be limited to hand-shaking en masse, taking seats of honor on daises, delivering keynote addresses, making small talk with people who speak other languages in the glare of photographers and thousands of onlookers, and remembering to wear pants under one’s academic gown. Etiquetteer will admit that this routine can become grinding after only a few years, but heavy lies the head that wears a mortarboard.Your Petty Little President behaved inexcusably moving to another table, and if it were up to Etiquetteer he’d get a good sound spanking. As it is, he needs a handler who will stick to him like glue and make sure he behaves the way he ought, and Etiquetteer is not kidding. Heads of state and celebrities of all stripes employ people to help them remember everything they need to do and everyone whose names they are supposed to remember. Your guy needs to shape up and hire one pronto if he cares anything about the institution he’s leading.

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