Education has always been a big part of John Griffith's life, and he has built his approach to academic leadership on a personal commitment to spirituality and intellect. His father was an academic dean at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, and Griffith always suspected he would travel a similar road. "For me, it seemed natural," says Griffith, now in his second year as president of Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina.
He spent the majority of his academic career studying religion at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and Harvard Divinity School. As a doctoral student at SU, he began considering an administrative career. "I saw my career path as either teaching and research in higher education, or administration," he says.
After several years as a pastor, lecturer, and college chaplain, Griffith made a smooth transition to academic administration at small, church-affiliated schools. "These institutions are quality liberal arts colleges," he says. "In the South there seems to be a close affiliation with church values and commitment to academic quality. At these traditionally Presbyterian institutions, I find that reason and faith can be in partnership."
Griffith's leadership style is based on his early influences and shaped by professional experiences. "I don't think you can come to an institution with a rigid set of ideas," he says. "There are things you learn along the way. I certainly see parts of my administrative style that reflect the traits of people who influenced me, but I also know you develop your own ways of doing things through your own experiences."
Griffith believes it's important for a college president to stay connected with student needs. And he readily admits it's not easy to balance the demands of an institution's various constituencies. "In the final analysis, we are here for one reasonto facilitate interaction between faculty and students," he says.
At Presbyterian College, Griffith recently completed a yearlong strategic planning initiative that required him to interact with every part of the college community. "I operate from a consensus-building standpoint, so this was a great way to get started," he says.
Griffith says his leadership style is best suited to traditional liberal arts colleges with low faculty-student ratios, and believes he has found his niche in southern schools like Presbyterian College. "It's what I know well, and this is an exciting time for this area of the countrythe economy is exploding and there are many new opportunities," he says. "This institution's star is on the rise. It's a very attractive opportunity."
Whenever she can, Antonette Cleveland, president of Niagara County Community College in Sanborn, New York, goes to lunch with an engaging, ever-changing group of consultants. She looks forward to these casual meetings that are peppered with lively conversations. Sometimes she even gets a few tips to take back to the office.
Cleveland's lunches are not with top business executives or community leaders. They are with students at the campus dining center. "You have to find ways to maintain contact with students," Cleveland says. "It is important, especially at a community college, for the president to be as visible as possible."
As secure as she is today in her role as an academic leader, Cleveland didn't exactly plan for a career in educational administration. She earned a master's degree in health education from the State University of New York College at Cortland, and planned to pursue a career in health administration.
But when she came to SU to finish work on a doctoral degree, everything changed. Cleveland interned as an assistant to Harold Rankin, then-interim president at Utica College, and was surprised to find herself so comfortable in the academic environment. "I literally researched his management style," Cleveland says. "When I finished that experience, I said to myself, 'Someday I'd like to be president of a small college.'"
Cleveland launched her educational administration career with a seven-year stint at the State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology at Morrisville, where she held various positions, including director of international programs and associate dean of academic affairs. From there she went to Herkimer Community College and Rockland Community College in Suffern, New York, where she served as interim president. Last January Cleveland was appointed president of Niagara County Community College. "I am thoroughly enjoying it," she says.
Cleveland has tailored her leadership skills to suit the unique needs of small community colleges. "We have a lot of nontraditional students," she says. "These people overcome so much to get their degrees. I can't tell you how meaningful it is to be a part of that."
Niagara, Cleveland believes, can benefit from her progressive ideas and strengthen its role in the community by addressing such issues as the needs of nontraditional students. "For example, I'd love to be able to offer campus housing for students who are single parents," she says. "There is enormous potential at an institution like this. That's the nature of the job."
Like other academic leaders, Cleveland knows the importance of listening to those around herespecially the faculty. "Some faculty members have a deep commitment to the institution," she says. "As an administrator, you're seen as the new kid on the block. You have to expect some proving time. For an academic leader, it can take six months to two years to build momentum. And sometimes, the fit isn't right."
While she has faced her share of institutional problems over the years, Cleveland has enjoyed her career choices. "Every place I've been, I've felt comfortable," she says. "I have been lucky to have good people around me. And I have learned by asking questions and seeking help when I needed it. That's not just applicable in the academic worldit's a lesson for all of us."