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Being President Versus Doing President

Steve Sample, president of the University of Southern California, writes:

In the spring of 1970, when I was 29, I learned I had won a fellowship from the American Council on Education, which would allow me to serve an administrative internship with Purdue University President Fred Hovde for the 1970–71 academic year. I was elated by the opportunity. Despite having only recently been awarded tenure and promoted to associate professor of electrical engineering at Purdue, I was already leaning toward a career in administration….

Soon after the award was announced, I happened to bump into a colleague, Vern Newhouse, who was a highly respected senior member of the electrical engineering faculty. "So, Sample," Newhouse said, "I see you've won some sort of administrative fellowship in the president's office."

"Yes, that's true," I said.

"And you'll be learning how to become an administrator?"

"I suppose so."

"And then you'll probably want to be president of a university somewhere down the road?"

"Well, I don't know. I guess I've thought about it now and then," I said, somewhat disingenuously.

He smiled and said: "Personally, I've never had any ambition whatsoever to be an administrator. I am totally inept at managing things…. But I've been a careful observer of ambitious men all my life. And here, for what it's worth, is what I've learned: many men want to be president, but very few want to do president." And with that he wished me well and walked away.

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