A Chat with Cornwell

By Fiona Campbell

Grant Cornwell

Fiona Campbell:  What does a day in the life of the president of Rollins College look like?

President Grant Cornwell: I’ll just be very literal about it in response to your question.

I am at my desk corresponding at 6:00 a.m., and I spend between the first two and four hours of the day writing . . . I’m either writing correspondence, proposals, speeches, or essays . . . I manage well over 100 emails a day and most require some response. And I try to be very responsive . . . whether it’s a student, faculty member, parent, alumnus—if somebody [asks] me a question or [asks] me to address something, I’m going to do it . . . as soon and as efficiently as possible.

And then once I am on campus I really belong to the campus. Jillian Shum [my secretary] basically constructs the schedule of my day every day, and I simply move through meetings with committees, alumni, people in Winter Park or Orlando, or I go to various speaking engagements to discuss higher education, liberal arts education, or the situation at Rollins College.

I typically work right through lunch, or I might grab something on the fly.

And then almost every night in the week I have some kind of dinner engagement. [In the eight weeks since classes have started], my wife Peg and I have probably already had 350 guests at the Barker House. That includes groups of students, faculty departments, and people from Winter Park . . . everything from very intimate dinners with two trustees to big events with over 100 parents and everything in between. And then, after those events, it’s not uncommon that there will be an event on campus that we want to go to—a volleyball game or a lecture or musical performance—and then I’m back managing correspondence and email from about 9:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Then I go to bed and it starts all over the next day. And this is kind of seven days a week. There aren’t really weekends.

But let me answer your question in a different way.

[The] president of a college is this nexus of communication between all the constituencies that make up a college. So there are students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, there’s the local citizens of Winter Park or Orlando, and there’s the national context of higher education where I’m working in Washington with Senators and with national associations. And a president needs to help each constituency understand the interests and needs and concerns of the others. So I need to help parents understand faculty, I need to help faculty understand where the trustees are coming from, I need to help trustees understand students of today. So I’m always trying to mediate or help each of these constituencies understand how the others see the college and what they care about.

 

FC: In many of your speeches and interviews, you have cited the Rollins College mission statement and, most frequently, the idea of educating students to become global citizens and responsible leaders. Can you elaborate on these ideas of global citizenship and responsible leadership? What do they look like on a practical level?

GC: I think the most salient dimensions of global citizenship [are] that our graduates are able to enter the global economy and global civil society in a way where they understand how . . . their own background, race, class, gender, identity, and faith tradition position them in the in the global matrix so that they can behave in a way that is both sophisticated and ethical. I think global citizenship means having a certain facility with intercultural relations, to be comfortable collaborating with people from different backgrounds, different identities, different parts of the world, different worldviews. A global citizen is cosmopolitan, or worldly, in a way . . . so that when they are in a situation where they work with somebody from a different background, they’re not turned off by that, but rather, they embrace it. Global citizenship also means understanding the dynamics of globalization: who benefits from the prophecies of globalization, who is harmed by the processes of globalization, and what is our position in the dynamics of globalization.

And in terms of responsible leadership, I think it is important to understand that every graduate of Rollins College, by virtue of their degree, is privileged. When you enter the global economy from a privileged position, you have a responsibility to understand the power dynamics of your “positionality”—how that privilege benefits you—and to use that privilege in away that improves the condition of humanity overall, as well as your own well-being. So responsible leadership means using your power and privilege to advance the well-being of the world and especially others who do not share that privilege.

 

FC: What would you say is the most pressing issue we face as global citizens today?

GC: I’m still incredibly impressed and disturbed by the extent and variety of racial injustice – both in the U.S. and globally. The way that racism and prejudice play out in ways that advantage some and disadvantage others—that’s on my mind all the time. Also on my mind all the time is the way in which we as humanity are failing at interfaith relations—the way that different faith traditions wind up being the basis for profound human conflict. So racism and ethnic conflict and faith-based conflict are, to me, some of the most pressing issues.

 

 

FC: Based on your first few weeks on campus, what do you think is the most pressing issue we face specifically at Rollins College?

GC: We have a mission of educating students for global citizenship and responsible leadership, but I think that we could do much more to add substance to that claim. I’m very concerned about the composition of our community of learners, because if we’re going to be a campus where the experience of students sends them forth as global citizens [and] responsible leaders, they have to be living and learning with people who bring that kind of global diversity to the learning mission. So I think that we need to become a more global campus; we need to become a campus that has a richer demographic composition with regard to diversity.

 

FC: The presidential search committee wanted someone who believes in the idea of shared governance. Can you describe what shared governance means to you and how you hope to act it out at Rollins?

GC: This gets back to the college being a network of constituencies. A good system of shared governance would have the faculty, the administration, and the trustees aligned and working in a collaborative way to advance the liberal education of our students. That’s the outcome. And so I think shared governance is a division of labor or division of authority.

For a college to be a great college, it’s important that the faculty have authority over the curriculum and pedagogy—what is taught and how it’s taught. The job of the administration is to both organize the work of the college and provide the physical and financial resources for the faculty and students to be able to get about the mission—to make the teaching and learning possible. And the role of the trustees in shared governance is to make sure that the claims about our mission have integrity. That is, what the trustees should ask me every day is, “what evidence can you provide to us that the college is fulfilling its mission?” Because they’re really the stewards of the mission, the trustees are.

So shared governance is everybody serving the college to the maximum of their ability within the sphere of responsibility that they have. For faculty and students, it is the business of a liberal education, for the administrators it’s about providing and organizing the resources to make the teaching [and] learning possible, and for the board of trustees it’s about storing the integrity of the whole mission.

 

FC: And what is your role in the web of shared governance?

GC: Connecting [all the other constituencies], keeping them all pointed in the same direction, and also trying to pull together everything I hear to articulate a common vision. The vision for Rollins is not mine. I try to listen closely enough to be able to articulate a shared sense of vision and to negotiate differences where I find them.

 

FC: What is it about this profession (President of a Liberal Arts University) that keeps you coming back every day?

GC: There’s one answer, clear as a bell: it’s my belief in the mission of the college.

I mean . . . it’s incredibly arduous work, and when I go to bed at night, when I get up in the morning, I’m thinking, “What can I do today to advance the quality of teaching and learning at Rollins?” That’s what I care about most. I so believe in [this] kind of education and how important it is not just [for Rollins students], but for the nation and the world. And it’s that belief that fuels my passion for my work.

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