When controversial photos and videos of East Carolina University’s interim chancellor Dan Gerlach drinking and dancing at bars with students surfaced this week, he defended his actions by saying he was trying to be “approachable” to students.
While it’s critical that university leaders be accessible, some experts say there are better ways to connect with students than going out drinking with them at local bars off campus.
“It’s more important than ever to create a sense of belonging among students and that the president is there to serve them,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “You don’t need to go party with them, but to be visible in ways that they feel like [the president] is one of us and that person is approachable goes a long way.”
Pasquerella, a former president at Mount Holyoke College, said the hard line of what not to do is “engaging in illegal or unethical behavior.”
Drinking with students isn’t always inappropriate, she said, but it’s not the right approach to being accessible.
“It’s supporting students in behavior that puts them at risk and puts the institution at risk,” Pasquerella said.
Gerlach said when he first started as interim chancellor at ECU, students wanted a leader to be present on campus and “speak to them in their language,” according to his statement addressing the photos and videos.
That involves being where students are, whether it’s social events, student performances, protests or athletic games on campus, according to experts.
No longer just an academic job
It’s important for leaders to show up at student activities, not just to be seen but to be talked with, said Sydney Freeman, a University of Idaho professor and scholar of the college and university presidency.
“They’re at a sporting event and they’re not just with donors, but they are with the students,” Freeman said. “Eating in the cafeteria is another way. ... Maybe even working out in the gym.”
Presidents or chancellors can create events on campus that they can control, have an open-door policy in their office or be accessible to students on social media and engage with them on Twitter, Freeman said.
The role of the university president or chancellor has changed in a way that requires them to be more engaged with a student body and the community.
Historically, they were the intellectual and thought leaders of the campus and the faculty. Students looked up to them in their ivory towers instead of sitting next to them on the quad, as they do now. The chancellor’s job description has shifted from strictly an academic one to include being a fundraiser, business partner and mentor who personally engages with students, faculty and the community on a daily basis.
“That visibility helps to make clear that the person is committed to the notion that the institution’s success is dependent upon fulfilling the mission of student success,” Pasquerella said, “and is also linked to the well-being of the communities in which they are located.”
There’s an expectation to be professional but approachable, she said, which varies based on the culture and mission of the institution.
Drinking with students?
Gerlach’s efforts to be approachable included drinking beer on the dance floor and chugging alcohol with students at popular bars near campus in Greenville on a Wednesday night.
Thousands of ECU fans and students came to his defense through an online petition and on social media when he was placed on administrative leave. They applauded him for hanging out with students and being out in the community.
Students at Southeast Missouri State University had a similar reaction when their president Carlos Vargas apologized for drinking from a beer bong at a football tailgate last fall. Students called him a legend on Twitter and were angry that he had to formally apologize.
Vargas wasn’t suspended or forced to resign. The school’s board of regents decided the incident was a lapse in judgment but that it didn’t define who he is as a leader.
However, at the University of Alabama, a professor was placed on leave when the school caught wind of a video of a student shotgunning a beer in his class earlier this month.
University leaders should never drink with students, Freeman said, unless it’s in a controlled environment on campus.
Freeman is a board member at the American Association of University Administrators. He said he and some of his colleagues are putting together ethical standards and principles for leaders for issues just like this.
“You want to be accessible and show that you’re not just a stiff,” Freeman said. “On the other hand, you also have to recognize that the presidency is a living logo of the institution.”
That image has an impact on the reputation and success of his or her tenure and the institution itself.
A chancellor has to think about how his or her actions might be perceived by those who don’t know the circumstances, according to Pasquerella. Photos and video clips can be shared on social media within seconds and taken out of context.
“Part of one’s responsibility as a president or a chancellor is to look at not only the real risks in terms of physical harm, but reputational risks that come with this kind of behavior that can be misconstrued,” Pasquerella said.
There are a variety of events and venues where it’s accepted for university administrators to drink with students, such as cocktail receptions, football games where beer and wine are sold, or celebrating a championship win.
It’s a complex issue because drinking is part of American culture, Pasquerella said. The ECU case is challenging, she said, because Gerlach “could innocently have thought there’s nothing wrong with this and, in fact, ‘I’m doing my job by engaging with students in this way.’”
She said at a time of declining public trust, building a sense of confidence with the public is more important than ever.
“When we have incidents when an individual can be seen as violating social or cultural norms it can be viewed as placing the institution at risk even if there’s no legal or ethical wrongdoing,” Pasquerella said.
Now, it’s up to the UNC System Board of Governors members to discuss how they feel about Gerlach’s actions. They are investigating the incident and will decide whether he should remain in his role as interim chancellor.