President LeBlanc Breaks Bread with Foes -- Chronicle of Higher Ed

Monday, August 31, 2009
SNHU Communications Office

A College President Breaks Bread With His Foes

A College President Breaks Bread With His Foes 1  

Paul J. LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire U., at the dinner table: Over wine and pizza, he heard out his critics.

College presidents, like mob bosses, have precarious jobs. Both work under the lurking threat of removal, whether by a no-confidence vote or a whacking. For that reason, savvy presidents live by the old rule: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

So it was that Paul J. LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, decided early last year to hold an intimate chat with a group of his fiercest critics. He put together a list of about a dozen faculty members and invited them to a dinner discussion about the future of the university.

In his emailed invitation to the dinner, Mr. LeBlanc gave recipients five reasons that they got the nod, including because they had disagreed with him in the past, had served in leadership positions, or, more simply, "just straight out don't like me."

Mr. LeBlanc booked a private room at a local restaurant, C.R. Sparks. Pizzas, salads, and wine were brought in, and the doors were closed for a three-hour, no-holds barred conversation. The president picked up the bill.

"He was essentially putting his foot in the lion's den," says Paul A. Barresi, a professor of political science and environmental law who, particularly as Faculty Senate president, often squared off with Mr. LeBlanc.

It was not a move born of desperation. In fact, Mr. LeBlanc's position was secure at the time. By most accounts, the small private university was humming along. Mr. LeBlanc, who is 51, was approaching his fifth year on the job and had solidified his role as a powerful and, for the most part, popular leader.

But Southern New Hampshire has experienced big changes during his tenure, some of them wrenching. His administration has moved the university deeper into distance education and has pushed aggressive marketing campaigns. The tall, mustachioed president with a booming voice had stepped on some toes, and he knew it.

"Storm clouds were forming," both on the campus and beyond, he says. Professors and staff members were nervous about the future. And higher education as a whole faced looming financial challenges and more scrutiny from lawmakers and the general public.

Mr. LeBlanc also knew how fast a presidency can tank. He had seen it from the other side. Back in 1990 the self-described "bearded, long-haired radical" was an untenured English professor at Springfield College, in Massachusetts, where the president, Frank S. Falcone, was struggling.

Mr. LeBlanc says that while he liked and respected him, Mr. Falcone was distant and isolated as a leader. He was the subject of more than one no-confidence vote and stepped down in 1992.

"I took a lot of lessons from watching a good guy fail in the presidency," Mr. LeBlanc says.

One goal of the pizza dinner, he acknowledges, was to defuse some of the tension on campus just by listening to a batch of common complaints. But that's not exactly what happened.

In the invitation, Mr. LeBlanc said he realized that the group of professors cared deeply about the university. Even so, some of the invitees were unnerved by the email message and say it was unpleasant to be cast as malcontents by the boss.

Christopher J. Toy, a professor of mathematics, marched over to the president's office after reading the note. While Mr. Toy says he has disagreed with Mr. LeBlanc—over what he sees as the university's shift toward treating students as customers, for example—he doesn't consider himself to be a strident critic. But Mr. LeBlanc helped ease his mind, telling him he was looking for straight shooters who had a stake in the university.

For Nicholas Hunt-Bull, the invitation didn't come as a surprise. The associate professor of philosophy, who also directs the university's honors program, says the nature of his field requires that he be oppositional. (Classics professors know a thing or two about job insecurity.) Once, at a public meeting, Mr. Hunt-Bull asked the president why he had "spent all that money" on a new soccer field with Astroturf.

The dinner began a bit awkwardly. Nobody wanted to sit next to Mr. LeBlanc, and it took a few minutes for the discussion to warm up.

But Mr. Hunt-Bull says it was a golden opportunity to air gripes, and the attendees made the best of what felt like neutral territory. To the president's surprise, some of their arguments hit home. "There were those uncomfortable moments where I thought, Boy, you've got a point," he says.

For example, the professors hammered Mr. LeBlanc over the university's "ghastly" new slogan, which "just made people want to commit suicide," says Mr. Hunt-Bull.

The slogan was "Go the extra mile." Mr. LeBlanc thought the widespread complaints were just a knee-jerk reaction. The group persuaded him that, as Mr. Hunt-Bull puts it, the slogan "really does suck." Mr. LeBlanc later dropped it.

The discussion revolved around deeper questions. Some professors talked about barriers to collaboration among departments, and many said the university's marketing office wielded too much power.

During heated moments, Mr. Barresi says, "you could see the steam curling out of their ears."

Through it all, Mr. LeBlanc got points for listening and not being defensive, a strategy he says he followed carefully.

"That event and its aftermath really helped to change my views," says Mr. Barresi.

That's not to say everything came up roses. The president still has his critics - Mr. Toy and others remain worried, for example, about the university's push toward online-only classes.

Mr. LeBlanc says he's been thinking it's time to call another dinner meeting, perhaps including some new guests.

But because of that first dinner, he says, he and his key critics now have what he calls a "reasonably affable working relationship."

For a college president, that's even better than being liked.

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