The Job Description

The College president's role includes plenty of the unexpected.

Dear Friends: On occasion I am asked, “So what does a college president actually do?” It’s a question that always makes me laugh about the wide (and sometimes wild) range of things that can come across my desk. During one week in the middle of June, it was also a question that gave me the chance to appreciate the unexpected opportunities I may have on any given day to learn from a community of curious, creative, and dedicated faculty, students, and staff.

During this particular week, I was busy with many of the meetings, conference calls, and discussions that I expected would be part of a college president’s life. I attended the annual meetings of the Annapolis Group, a national organization of liberal arts colleges, and chaired a board meeting of the Pennsylvania Consortium for the Liberal Arts. I welcomed new staff to Bryn Mawr at new employee orientation and then spoke to an alumna who works at another university about building institutional partnerships. Kari Fazio, our CFO, and I discussed options for endowment management with outside advisors. Cheryl Horsey, our chief enrollment officer, and I had a conference call with members of an advisory group of college counselors, and I took part in a planning meeting with leaders of the Board of Trustees about our work for 2019–2020.

So far, you are thinking, “Nothing surprising here.” But being president also comes with responsibilities you never imagined during the interview process. On Tuesday morning, for example, I received an email informing me I was responsible for compliance with the Pennsylvania spotted lanternfly survey. At the time, I didn’t know what a lanternfly was, or why I should be responsible for them. Fortunately, two members of the staff responded quickly that they knew about this invasive species and that we were on top of it. Phew. The best was yet to come, however. When I told this story on myself at a dinner I hosted later that day for new STEM Posse students taking part in a summer immersion seminar, I learned that they were way ahead of all of us. Jennifer Skirkanich, director of the STEM Posse Program and lecturer in our biology department, had created an interdisciplinary lab for the summer program to investigate the ecology of this invasive species. Their course had included ecological field study, DNA extraction, and analysis of DNA sequencing to try to identify the unique genetic markers of the species. From weird to wonderful, these are the kind of moments that provide the best answer to why I like being a college president.

A second unexpected adventure of the week followed my morning swim at Schwartz Gym, as I was walking back to Pen-Y-Groes. On the path outside the fenced stormwater retaining ponds was a giant snapping turtle blocking my way—and I was wearing flip-flops. I thought Really, do I have to worry about turtles, too? But concerned for others who might encounter the turtle, I called the College’s Facilities Department, and the turtle was quickly dispatched to her home. Apparently this was not her first campus excursion! In the process, I discovered that our staff knew far more about the pond’s environment than I did, including the ways in which the ponds and their flora and fauna serve as a lab for various science classes and as part of our stormwater retention and filtration system.

My new answer to the question of what a college president does—in addition to attending many, many meetings and working with smart, dedicated colleagues—is remaining open to the possibilities created by the unexpected.




Kim Cassidy