by Con Chapman
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. In this city of academics there is no greater monument to intellectual navel-gazing than the Skolznak Center for Effective College Presidents, a week-long “full immersion” course in how to run an institution of higher learning.
“I don’t want to say it’s self-regarding, because that will come across as pompous,” says Executive Director Michael Adamlick. “So let me suggest that it’s a Mobius strip of a hamster wheel in a hall of mirrors.”
But the Center doesn’t lack for applicants, mainly presidents who head institutions with declining enrollments, sinking endowments or losing football teams, and those who want to avoid such career-ending problems.
“I’m here because I’ve got a Provost with a lean and hungry eye cast towards my primo parking space,” says Geoffrey Edgers, president of Hemphill College in Illinois. “You go at half-speed in the college presidents’ game, you’ll be sacked by the junior varsity.”
The desire to cram a career’s worth of cutting-edge advice into five days of courses often founders on an unseen obstacle beneath the surface, however; many applicants don’t realize until they get here that “full immersion” includes the mandatory swim test that, according to legend, was imposed on Harvard students as a condition to a million dollar gift.
“I’ve got two masters and a doctorate degree,” says Mahlon Armstrong, at thirty-five years the longest serving president at this fall’s session. “Why in the H-E-double hockey sticks should I have to tread water for five minutes and blow bubbles out my nose to get continuing professional education credits?”
But Harvard, whose pool is used for the swim test, is stuck with the terms of a bequest it accepted long ago. “Much as we’d love to waive the requirement we have to make sure that anyone using our classrooms can swim out to the middle of the deep end, turn around and come back,” says Norton Wilner, director of aquatic facilities. “You never know when a pipe’s going to burst in the men’s room during a break between PowerPoint presentations.”
Harvard’s swimming requirement dates to the request of Eleanor Widener, whose son Harry, a 1907 Harvard grad, died with his father when the Titanic sank in 1912. “I’m sure with just a junior life saving course Harry would have been able to swim to safety in New York, or at least Newfoundland,” Mrs. Widener told the graduating class of 1908. “I carry a bathing cap and a pair of nose clips with me wherever I go.”
The long-standing history of the test doesn’t stop the assembled presidents from grumbling about the after-effects of their ordeal, such as wrinkled fingers and a pervasive smell of chlorine. “I found the whole experience very unnerving,” says Edgers. “When I entered the aquatic center, the room swam before my eyes.”