Furman University's Student Newspaper

The Paladin

Furman University's Student Newspaper

The Paladin

Furman University's Student Newspaper

The Paladin

The Role of Furman’s President

It’s a question that seems simple — what should be the role of Furman’s president? — but the answers given at last month’s Presidential Search Committee’s Listening Sessions were anything but.
Courtesy of Furman Athletics

It’s a question that seems simple — what should be the role of Furman’s president? — but the answers given at last month’s Presidential Search Committee’s Listening Sessions were anything but.

The president should be the public face of the university. Someone who can articulate a strategic vision. A fundraiser first and foremost. An advocate for the liberal arts. A community leader. A manager. A superstar.

Such wide ranging responses from students, faculty, and staff at the listening sessions could be interpreted in similarly wide ranging ways — as indicative of disagreements among university constituencies, as reflective of higher education in flux — but most simply, the differences seem to suggest a level of confusion among at least certain members of the university community regarding what it is exactly that Furman’s president does.

Enter Interim President Carl Kohrt, who, having now served as both president and trustee, has a unique set of experiences to draw from in speaking to the president’s role within the life of the university. In an interview with The Paladin, Kohrt suggested that everyone is right to an extent since the job requires the president to play so many different roles.

“It’s an amalgam,” he said. “You have to have a toolkit, and each tool has to be pretty sharp.”

The role of university presidents can vary widely between institutions, but university governance structures, Furman’s included, generally dictate that presidents are appointed by a board of trustees which retains final say on the most important decisions affecting the institution.

Furman’s 36-member Board of Trustees, which includes many alumni, appointed Kohrt as interim president and is ultimately responsible for finding the university’ next president. The trustees also meet on campus three times a year, dividing into committees over a long weekend to discuss the university’s direction and goals and to set its policies and practices.

The president’s role in relation to the Board of Trustees can be a complicated one. On the one hand, the president’s job is primarily to ensure that the university takes actions and spends money in accordance with what the Board has approved. Failure to do so is grounds for dismissal.

Yet on the other hand, the president plays an important role as a liaison between the university and the Board of Trustees. Trustees, Kohrt noted, only meet on campus three times per year, and many don’t live in Greenville. Inevitably then they tend to be less connected with what’s going on around campus than the president, whom they rely on to help provide knowledge of university programs and operations.

Kohrt said the trustees also look to him to synthesize his knowledge and experiences in order to make larger arguments about the university’s direction. He gave the example of how, at the most recent trustee meeting, he made trustees aware of the upcoming budget shortfall and suggested that there were two ways forward — either increase the size of the student body and sacrifice the quality of a Furman education or maintain high standards and look to save money elsewhere. Kohrt said he argued for the latter approach and that the trustees agreed.

All that said, the trustees have begun to take a more active role since Kohrt became interim president, a move he’s helped initiate. He said there’s been an effort to send trustees more information in advance of their visits so they’ll be better prepared. Trustees are also now giving more of their time to one committee instead of dividing it between committees.

The result, Kohrt said, would be that he would have more help addressing what he called the “knotty problems” facing the university and higher education.

“Getting them more engaged, rather than less, is the direction we’re going,” he said. “I think we’re going to benefit from their expertise on a level that we haven’t always in the past.”

Working with the Board of Trustees, while an important part of the job, is only one of the president’s many responsibilities, one somewhat divorced from day to day matters.

Kohrt divided a typical day into two types: event days and work days. On an event day, he might attend an awards ceremony or sit in on a class. Or he might travel to places like Atlanta, Columbia, or Charleston to speak at an alumni event or talk to parents of students.

Kohrt’s experiences echo comments of other university presidents about the importance of being visible. The former president of George Mason University, Alan Merten, wrote that he had to keep in mind that making an appearance “blesses” things.

Meeting with potential donors is also a frequent reason for travel. The need for money is constant, and fundraising, Kohrt said, is an important part of the job, though he said he’s still getting used to it.

On work days, it’s all about meetings — with administrators, faculty chairs, directors, coaches, student press. Once a month, the president meets with all the university’s vice presidents. Kohrt said all the meetings can make it difficult to find time to step back and develop his own ideas and vision.

But he emphasized the importance of listening, saying that, even with his lifelong connection to Furman, it’s taken time to get comfortable in his new role. He compared the transition to his experiences doing business in China, where he said he had to withhold judgement and take the time to learn about a different culture before he could fulfill his role.

It’s a lesson that Kohrt, paraphrasing a proverb he said a Chinese businessman once shared with him, suggested the university’s next president would want to remember.

“If we’re going to go forward together, we must first look backward together,” he said.

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