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View From The President's Office: The Leadership Of Change



"The president and trustees must make the issue of alcohol abuse and its consequences a top priority."

Commission on Substance Abuse at Colleges and Universities, 1994

"Presidential leadership is key. This means putting the prevention of alcohol abuse at the top of the higher education agenda. It means speaking out and writing about the issue at every opportunity. It means reaching out to campus, community, and State-level groups to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy for prevention. It means building support for new programs and policies, especially those with a focus on environmental change."

Presidents Leadership Group, 1997


Research in organizational behavior has shown that continuous, committed, active leadership is essential to creating change (Hall et al., 1993). Some organizational change experts believe that producing change is the primary function of leadership, and they distinguish between leadership and management. For example, while leaders set direction, develop vision and strategies, communicate goals and enable action, managers plan deductively and organize and staff activities. Both functions are critical to the change process (Kotter, A Force for Change,1990a; Kotter, What Leaders Really Do,1990b).

The Presidents Leadership Group, which the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention convened in 1997 to recommend action steps for college presidents and administrators, recognized that many college presidents have not made student drinking problems a major leadership priority. Reasons range from frustration with the seeming intractability of the problem, fears that taking a visible stand will create bad publicity for the school, denial that a problem exists on their own campus, and time constraints (Presidents Leadership Group, 1997). Their report notes that, "Stemming alcohol abuse is not something that college and university presidents can do alone, but our active leadership is essential."

What Leaders Do

What does leadership mean in the context of college alcohol programs?

One element is making a visible, personal commitment to prevention efforts. "We have to lead; it's what we're here for, and we have to step out on issues other than fundraising," says President James Lyons. "(When I had) only been at Dominguez Hills for several months, but (I) made it clear that alcohol harm reduction (was) a major priority for me. I've spoken to all of the university's major constituency groups, both to educate them about the issues and to make my position clear as we review our needs and policies."

Dr. Edward Foote, president of the University of Miami, believes it is also essential to be able to justify the importance of college drinking efforts—to make the compelling case for change himself. His long-time involvement in substance abuse issues at the national and regional level helps give him credibility.

"The first challenge," says President Malloy, "is to have the courage to evaluate the situation on one's own campus… to make an assessment of the extent of alcohol abuse problems and the forms and patterns that it assumes. From then on, it's important to be alert, review the data, and respond to changes over time. The president can have a big impact on creating a fact-based system, by insisting on and providing resources for information collection and evaluation."

All the presidents interviewed also emphasized the importance of presidential involvement in developing the vision for alcohol programs, addressing strategic considerations (see section below), and communicating about the vision, values, and policies with key constituency groups. Being a leader on alcohol issues does not necessarily mean that the president must be actively involved in the day-to-day management of the effort, nor is he or she the only one playing a leadership role. However, presidents do have some unique advantages to bring to prevention efforts. "Both on campus and in the community, having my name on the letterhead gets a greater level of participation in our efforts," reports Dr. Susan Pierce, president of the University of Puget Sound. "I keep myself actively involved in the issue by raising it in my regular meetings with the university vice presidents. We'll talk about a problem globally, and then they figure out what they can do within their own bailiwicks and by cross-cooperation to get the job done." Dr. William Kirwan, president of Ohio State University, stressed the importance of leaders setting the tone for change while allowing the institution and the community to "own" this issue. "We have to be proactive and visibly associated with new values and strategies, but we also must look for ways to get everyone involved in solving the problem," he says.

Each of the presidents interviewed emphasized his or her ability to maintain active leadership without unrealistic time commitments through their influence on staff with direct responsibilities (and, in some cases, community stakeholders); their relationship to task forces and advisory groups established to plan and guide alcohol programs (see below); their regular review of program activities and progress; and their own continuous learning about alcohol issues and interventions.

Some of the presidents interviewed do get personally involved in selected decisions. For example, President Pierce resolves any conflicts among her direct reports by considering the issues and making the decision herself. Dr. Tomas A. Arcienega, president of the California State University at Bakersfield, has a policy of reviewing and making a decision on every request to serve alcohol at a university function. "Basketball is a major sport at our school," he says, "and despite the revenue loss, we made the decision not to sell any alcohol at games. We want to maintain a family atmosphere that involves our community in a positive way, and serving alcohol would not help us reach that goal. On the other hand, most of our students are of legal drinking age (the average age is 28), and commute to the university rather than being residents. I have signed off on allowing wine to be served at events whose audiences are mainly of legal drinking age, such as our annual jazz festival and a major business conference we run in collaboration with a community law firm."

Leadership: The Difficult Issues

President Arcienega, who rarely drinks alcohol himself, says he bends over backwards to ensure that he is not inadvertently imposing, or appearing to impose, his own values on his decisions. Many presidential leaders, however, have the opposite problem: the need to reconcile personal alcohol use—or allowing alcohol to be served at some college events—with alcohol program goals and the desire to avoid mixed messages.

President Foote confronts this issue every year when he gives two large parties for students at his home. At a picnic for freshmen, who are mostly underage, no alcohol is served. At a coat-and-tie reception for graduating seniors, beer and wine are available, despite the strenuous objections of some on his staff. "Sometimes, yes, a student does drink to excess, although that has not been a major problem," Dr. Foote recalls. "But I believe that drinking alcohol in moderation is fine, and because our goal at the university is to promote legal and responsible behavior I see no inconsistency in serving alcohol in some situations."

Even when you are paying attention, some disconnects can occur. President Jenkins remembers the day he attended back-to-back events: an alcohol-free meeting celebrating successes in their alcohol program and a champagne luncheon celebrating success in a fundraising campaign. "It only struck me later that some could say we are not being consistent," he says. When Dr. Lyons was president of Jackson State University he experienced a similar conflict: while school policy forbade drinking alcohol at sports events, the university accepted money from a beer manufacturer to pay for a badly needed new football scoreboard. "When an alum pointed out this mismatch, I had to agree: yes, we are not sending as clear a message as we should. But at the same time, I did not give the scoreboard back."

Another leadership issue is dealing with alcohol-related tragedies that occur despite a university's best efforts. "Generally speaking, the families (of students who die) don't want to see me, but some do," President John T. Casteen of the University of Virginia told the New York Times Education Life magazine. "One comes into the family's life as an invader. You go into the family's home, and what you're dealing with is their awareness it will never be the same again… What I can say is, I feel sorrow. I offer whatever help. Mostly what I do is listen, often for a couple of hours."

These traumatic incidents can also take a toll on the presidents themselves. President Malloy believes that, "It's important not to get overwhelmed by these distressing events and not to feel unduly responsible. People make bad choices, and there's a real limit to what we can expect of ourselves, even in the context of making a major commitment to reduce alcohol harm."

With a problem that has been around for centuries, it can also be hard for leaders and institutions to stay committed over the long term, especially if results are mixed or before outcomes are clear. "It took us a full 5 years to graduate all the URI students who had seen the old alcohol culture and aspired to it," President Carothers recalls. "It was tempting to moderate our approach at points along the way, especially when many predicted dire consequences for fundraising and admissions. But staying the course has paid off in tangible ways: applications are up, student quality is up, and alumni giving has increased, for example. It's become clear to me that people are hungry for strong statements about values. Alcohol and drugs can be a place to begin that conversation, and it can ultimately lead to a greater university focus on issues like social justice, local economic development, and community service. I know that support for me personally has grown with my reputation for taking strong ethical positions and sticking with them."

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Last reviewed: 9/23/2005

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