Pa. college president switches places with student
CHESTER, Pa.—Widener University President James T. Harris III had only one question before hopping on a mini-motorbike to deliver newspapers across campus: "Where's the brake?"
No, Widener is not that short-staffed. Call it Freaky Thursday: Harris and one lucky student were trading places for the day.
So there was Harris, wearing jeans, loafers and a black fleece pullover, perched on the motorbike normally ridden by senior Doug Shultz. Meanwhile, the 21-year-old Shultz -- nattily dressed in a navy pinstriped suit and yellow power tie -- headed off to a catered breakfast in the president's dining room with a potential donor.
The annual President for a Day switch gives undergraduates a taste of the responsibilities of running the 4,800-student campus outside Philadelphia. It also reminds Harris of the challenges students face in balancing work and education.
"It gives me a firsthand experience of what they go through every day," Harris said. "It makes me a better administrator in the long run."
Harris first instituted the program years ago during his presidency at Defiance College in Ohio. Since then, his student jobs have included leading campus tours, answering phones, filing paperwork and, of course, going to class.
Student leaders, in turn, have used their temporary power to make admission decisions, reclaim faculty parking lots, offer free cake and "fire" favorite staffers to give them a day off.
Harris always "hires" them back the next day.
Students also get the president's parking place -- but not his paycheck.
Provost Jo Allen said that while the idea started out as "sort of funny and a little whimsical," students now realize it's an unparalleled opportunity to share serious ideas about improving the university.
Shultz, an environmental science major from Halifax, Pa., beat out 16 other applicants by wowing the selection committee with a comprehensive plan to expand Widener's recycling and sustainability initiatives.
As president on April 15, Shultz presented the proposal to top administrators, university staff and other students. Widener officials say they plan to implement it in full.
Still, Shultz acknowledged over lunch that it was a bit of a shock to realize being at the helm did not give him free rein to "concentrate on my agenda." He had to balance his one-day term with presidential tasks like schmoozing with a possible benefactor.
Granted, Shultz's target was an easy mark. Widener board of trustees Chairman Nicholas Trainer knew ahead of time he would be hit up for money at the breakfast meeting but said later he was curious what approach Shultz would take.
In the end, Trainer said, Shultz did all the right things. After some introductory small talk, Shultz updated the trustee on university news, expressed gratitude for previous gifts, described how students benefit from such philanthropy, then looked Trainer in the eye and asked: Will you give to the annual fund?
"He did a great job," said Trainer, who -- not surprisingly -- agreed to donate. "He was really very calm, cool and collected."
Shultz said afterward that it was one of the hardest parts of the day.
"I am not a showboat by any means," Shultz said. "I do not like to sell myself."
Shultz faced another tough situation that afternoon when Admissions Director Ed Wright presented him with the file of a wait-listed applicant. She was taking challenging courses her senior year, had shown steady academic improvement and was the daughter of a Widener alumnus; however, her class rank and SAT scores were low.
So, Wright asked, should she be admitted or kept waiting?
Shultz sifted through the paperwork. He liked the positive comments from the applicant's teachers, and noted that test scores and grade-point averages don't always tell the whole story. Shultz decided to admit her.
"She'll be thrilled," replied Wright.
Harris' day was no cakewalk, either. He took copious notes for Shultz in calculus. "I can't tell him what it means," said Harris, who also watched student presentations in an environmental science class. Luckily, he did not have to present Shultz's project on biodiversity in Costa Rican tidal pools.
Freshman Thomas Kmiec, 19, of Lawrenceville, N.J., was in the calculus class with Harris. He admired the president's effort to reconnect with students but said he wouldn't be interested in Harris' job.
"I think I'd be pretty intimidated to do that," Kmiec said. "It's a lot of responsibility."
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