Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Public Roles, Private Lives

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Public Roles, Private Lives

Article excerpt

Universities have become cognizant of the independent lives of presidential spouses, but it's still a role these "accidental ambassadors" must grow into.

When Phyllis Wong's husband, Leslie, was named president of Northern Michigan University, she found herself uncertain about how to approach her new role of first lady. The spouse of a college president is often an ambassador for the school and in the spotlight as much as the president So Wong asked her father for advice. The most important advice he had he couldn't overstate enough: listen and listen more.

The advice sounded simple enough, but "I came to understand the importance of listening," Wong says. "I'm serving a wide variety of people. It's important to be attentive to the needs of many."

She and her counterparts believe those priorities illustrate the breadth and complexity of the role of a presidential spouse. Indeed, expectations vary among college governing boards and campus constituencies of what a presidential spouse's responsibilities should be. Typically, a university spouse or significant other not only accompanies the president to events on campus and in the surrounding community, but also serves as a proxy when the president can't attend He or she is expected to regularly entertain and host gatherings at the president's home. At a time when universities rely on private gifts more than ever, spouses are crucial in maintaining donor and alumni relations.

Presidential spouses even have networks similar to those of other higher education professionals. Since 1981, for instance, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) has sponsored its Council of Presidents' and Chancellors' Spouses. Membership is voluntary, as is attendance at annual meetings. Meetings often coincide with professional development sessions for presidents. For the spouses, meeting topics include, but aren't limited to, fundraising and advancement, campus security and how to work with the news media.

"We're not chatting about color schemes for our homes," says Chris Foster, Purdue University's first gentleman.

Executive search consultants say college governing boards across the country have taken such a deep interest in presidential spouses that when filling vacant presidencies they often include spouses when they meet with finalists.

"They might not do the same level of background checks they do with the (presidential) candidate, but they usually want to see the spouse or significant other in social situations with his or her partner before a hire is made," says search consultant Dr. Jan Greenwood. She also is former president of Longwood University and the University of Bridgeport.

Fortunately for Fathy Shirvani, socializing and entertaining come naturally. As one of five siblings in a large extended family, she grew up accustomed to frequent homecooked dinner parties of 50 people or more with multiple conversations going on at once. So it isn't surprising that Shirvani and her husband, Dr. Hamid Shirvani, built a home large enough to host dinners of similar size soon after he was named president of California State University, Stanislaus, in 2005. The school doesn't own a home for its president.

But during more than a year of construction, the couple found improvisation challenging, Fathy Shirvani says. They entertained at campus facilities or local restaurants in their town of Turlock, population 55,000, or the nearby county seat of Modesto. Sometimes, they simply couldn't secure reservation dates and times convenient for their guests. And restaurant gettogethers usually had time limits to allow staff either to serve other patrons or to dose for the night

"It was difficult," Shirvani says. "I couldn't wait for our home to be ready. At home, it's easier to connect with people. It's a different feeling than at a restaurant."

The couple navigated their restaurant-hopping and other outreach successfully anyway. …

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