Working from home doesn’t work for a college president

During the COVID-19 pandemic, hybrid work arrangements emerged as the new normal, even for certain positions in higher education. But those may not include the college presidency.

As the world embraced remote—or hybrid—work, so did Scott Dalrymple, the president of Paul Smith’s College in New York, who was hired in June 2021 with the agreement that he could partly work from home, some four hours away. The agreement, officials say, made sense at the time—especially since they assumed that COVID-19 would blow over in a matter of months. But when Dalrymple resigned last week, university trustees noted that part of the reason was that the hybrid arrangement didn’t quite work out as.

Mark Dzwonczyk, chair of Paul Smith’s Board of Trustees, said when they were searching for a new president last year, Dalrymple emerged as the clear-cut top choice.

“Scott Dalrymple rose to the top”. He was the best candidate,” Dzwonczyk said. “And he was what the college needed at the time: a can-do manager focused on the business of the college.”

Dzwonczyk praised Dalrymple’s business acumen, noting that he “did an admirable job” and helped the college find ways to attract nontuition revenue. For one thing, he lured the World University Games—akin to a college version of the Olympics—to Paul Smith’s 14,000-acre campus tucked away in the Adirondack mountains of rural New York.

Dzwonczyk said Dalrymple spent about 75 percent of his time on campus and 25 percent off campus, though he notes those numbers are a rough estimate, not a formal agreement. But less than a year into his appointment, Dalrymple resigned, saying he wanted to spend more time at home.

Though he respected Dalrymple’s work, Dzwonczyk said his absence was noticeable even when he was away only a quarter of the time.

“I think his presence was missing at times,” Dzwonczyk said. “And he would admit to that—he was not going to the basketball games, or he wasn’t going to the hockey games. He felt like the college needed someone who could be there, so I give him a lot of credit for approaching us.”

Dalrymple could not be reached for comment.

Presidential Expectations

As the business world has warmed to remote work, so has higher ed—to a certain degree.

“It’s certainly more on the table than you would have heard pre-pandemic,” said Michael S. Harris, a higher education professor at Southern Methodist University who also serves as director of SMU’s Center for Teaching Excellence and chair of the Department of Education Policy and Leadership.

But Harris noted that remote work is not as big a trend in higher ed as it is in other industries.

Rod McDavis, managing principal of AGB Search, said that remote work in higher education is becoming more common, even high up the chain of command. But not all jobs are equally suited to remote work. For example, while someone on the financial side of the university might be able to work remotely, it’s much more difficult for the dean of student life, he noted.

Ultimately, experts say, the more public-facing the role, the less likely it is that candidates can do the job remotely and do it well. And a few jobs are more public-facing than a university president, who must regularly meet with various constituents both on and off campus.

“I think there are two clear areas for presidential responsibility. One is the internal role, and the second is the external role,” McDavis said. “The internal role really requires that the president be there for events, for critical meetings, to help oversee and supervise the cabinet, or the people that are vice presidents within the institution, and certainly to be there physically, to be around students. So I think there’s a significant role that a president has to play on the campus, in terms of physically being there, being present at events that might occur.”

One of the areas where Dalrymple was reportedly absent was at athletic events. With athletics often considered the “front porch” of an institution, experts say it’s important for presidents to show up, treating college games as business and networking opportunities.

“There’s a tremendous amount of work that gets done at those,” Harris said. “This is not a ‘let’s just go enjoy a sporting event’ for a president. This is where you make contacts with donors; it’s where you have elected officials come to your campus and you have a chance to connect with them more informally. The sporting event drives people who might not otherwise be on campus to be there, and then you need to capture their attention and help sell the institution.”

McDavis said that while presidents can’t be everywhere, they’re expected to attend a sampling of events, making the rounds to build relationships with everyone connected to the college.

“While the president may not be able to attend all of the athletic events, or all of the arts events, the president would certainly be expected to attend a significant number of athletic events and a significant number of other events as they occur on the campus, McDavis said.

Expectations for just how much face time a president is supposed to offer differs by institution type. Presidents at huge research universities that enroll tens of thousands of students aren’t expected to know those students’ individual names. But at smaller institutions like Paul Smith’s College—which has an enrollment of about 700—students expect to see their president with some regularity.

“At a larger institution, you could go weeks or months without ever seeing the president, because they are out doing their work, most of which is not tied to on-campus constituencies,” Harris said. “At a smaller institution, you tend to expect to see your leadership more frequently.”

Can a Hybrid President Be Successful?

College presidents, in essence, are a symbolic representation of the institution. The job involves regularly being seen and heard by various stakeholders, from the students on the quad to the donor or legislator popping by campus unexpectedly. As such, experts are skeptical that a presidency can thrive with a remote or hybrid appointment.

“A lot of their calendar is dictated by events, needing to be places, do things, see people,” Harris said. “That makes it really hard, for me, to see how functionally a president can work remotely.”

While higher ed may be warming to remote work, even among cabinet-level positions, experts suggest that hybrid arrangements like the one at Paul Smith’s College will remain quite rare.

“I think that there are certain instances where a president can be remote, in terms of being able to do the job. But I think in essence, it’s extremely difficult for a hybrid president to be totally effective, because there’s a significant part of the job that calls for the president to be there,” McDavis said. “From my vantage point, I don’t see a point in the near term where a hybrid presidency is simply going to be a totally effective way to serve in that role, because the internal work of a president requires them to have a physical presence more often than not.”

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