What Does Bro Do Anyway?
A former Colby president remembers a bright and earnest first-year student who showed up in the president's office on the third floor of Eustis during the first week of school. The young man made a lasting impression when he said, "I'd like to know more about what a college president does. And my first question is, is this a full-time job?"
By Gerry Boyle '78
| Photos by Fred Field
Published February 25, 2005
Want more? Discussing the practice of admissions "tips— for some recruited athletes (Colby and NESCAC are carefully considering the practice). Lunch with students in Dana, including a senior who sent harshly critical e-mails to Adams the previous spring about the canceling of Doghead, an off-campus party. (Adams had had nothing to do with it.) "I wrote back to him and said, 'You know, I know we don't really know each other but this is really over the top,'— Adams said.
The pair now talk occasionally and civilly. Adams ends by inviting the student to stop by and chat.
President Adams hurries to his next meeting in Manhattan in October.
Illustration by Gerry Boyle
Other students do just that. A student makes an appointment and sits very formally across from Adams's wing chair. She thinks Colby should do more to compensate alumni who come to campus to speak. Adams listens cordially and directs her to take her concerns to Career Services. No micromanaging here. Another student, an Echo columnist, comes in and talks about his summer internship abroad, his travels. The student is thrilled to find Adams has read his column and caught a reference to a Woody Allen film. "Annie Hall, right?— Adams says.
It is a triathlon of a job, one that requires the president to be facile, knowledgeable, thoughtful, political—usually in the same minute. The successful president has vast reserves of social stamina, the ability to converse with equal and considerable interest about world events, literature, the financial markets, and the Colby drag show. "You have to be able to engage in a lot of different things, so you have to be interested in a lot of different things,— Adams said.
But to what end?
On the car ride to Lewiston (he drove his gray Toyota Avalon; I rode), Adams took the question, mulled it for a moment, and said he believes strongly in what institutions like Colby accomplish. More precisely, he said, "I think there's a kind of elemental social aspect to it. You know, most of these kids will go out and be in places of important—reasonably important and sometimes very important—responsibility. I'm sure I can find better words for this, but it is an undertaking that involves what a French sociologist might call the education of elites. They're not always from elite backgrounds, but they're going to be elites in the kind of social, theoretical sense of mattering in institutional life, organization life.—
They will have influence?
"They will have influence.—
He mused philosophically about the role colleges like Colby have in providing equal education opportunities, the continued reliance on wealth to make those opportunities available, the "progressive force— that Adams sees at work at Colby, his occasional worry that the nurturing Colby experience is too comfortable and can lead to complacency.
Adams relaxes with guests at the president's house during the annual holiday gathering in December.
Illustration by Fred Field
"But you know, you never think about one thing at a time. Most of the time I'm thinking about the other things, the good things the experience does both for individuals and for collective life. As long as I feel that balance, I'm content. . . . I mean, these places are full of contradictions. That's all there is to it—they are. They're not just simple and formulaic.—
It was big-picture stuff, but it should be noted that a college president—like the rest of us—needs the occasional serendipitous boost. Example? In New York, I left Adams checking his watch in the ornate lobby of The University Club in mid-town Manhattan. Adams, a member of the historic club along with dozens of other college and university presidents, had invited an alumnus to lunch.
Adams's luncheon guest had expressed interest in exploring the possibility of making a substantial gift to the College. However, before proceeding the alumnus wanted to meet Adams—they'd neither met nor spoken—to discuss the situation, including another donation plan that, years before, hadn't worked out. For the alum the earlier discussions had left hard feelings.
So he arrived at the club, shook hands with Adams, and the pair chatted over lunch in the club's grand dining room for more than an hour. "How did it go?— I asked Adams, as he emerged onto 54th Street. "He was great,— he said with a grin. "It turned out we lived in the same village in France, though not at the same time. For twenty minutes of the conversation, we spoke French.—