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The American College Presidency as Vocation: Easing the Burden, Enhancing the Joy

William B. Frame
Published by Abilene Christian University Press in 2012

Reviewed by Jerry Pattengale, Assistant Provost, Indiana Wesleyan University

If Craig Dykstra’s comments on a higher education book prompt a pause, his endorsement of one on vocation should arrest your attention. In this case, his jacket comments both summarize and champion The American College Presidency as Vocation as “a great addition to the expanding literature on vocation and higher education as well as a superb handbook on the CIC’s [Council of Independent College’s] Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission Program.”

During the past two decades, this former Vice President for Religion of the Lilly Endowment led the formation of likely the greatest study of vocation for both individuals and institutions, and helped the Lilly Endowment determine the expenditures of hundreds of millions on its Theological Exploration of Vocation programs. And in the case of William Frame’s book, Dykstra enabled the funding of vocational studies among presidents of the CIC – the fulcrum of this book’s discussion. This book reads like a final report for the program’s first phase.

What initially appears rather nepotistic – having the organizer and funding voice as the lead commenter – is overshadowed by the reality that in this field there is nobody more qualified.1 And this book measures up to its three-fold purpose, emphasizing the importance of 1) presidents understanding their own vocation, 2) presidents aligning their vocation with the mission of the institution they choose to serve and that chooses them, and 3) the benefits of systematically reflecting on the above. Quoting Dykstra on the latter captures best the essence of the book, and Frame’s detailed description of

a process of serious, disciplined, sustained communal reflection that has enabled more than one hundred presidents and those who aspire to the presidency and their spouses to find their way into a new sense of meaning, effectiveness and even joy in their lives and work.2

On the face of it the book appears to address a total potential reading audience of only around 3,000, based on the number of CIC presidents and the average number of candidates in annual searches. But the consideration of spouses, and the stark reality of many who need to discover that their vocation remains outside the presidency, exponentially raises this number. Also, the principles transcend the independent/public divide, adding thousands more – especially those being asked to fill many of the public vacancies. The limited capacity of the CIC’s Presidential Vocation and Institutional Mission Program, and the logistical issues of widespread attendance at such a program, accent the need for a tool like Frame has produced. At the least, current and potential presidents and their spouses have a report replete with personal reflections of dozens of the Program’s alumni. College trustees would also do well to read this, regardless of the status of their presidency, as it would help to frame better many search processes.

Frame’s methodology is simple – categorize the key lessons learned, divide them into subcategories and then illustrate them with anonymous participants’ comments. It’s not a difficult read for someone steeped in vocational nomenclature. Otherwise, the subheadings appear as restatements, curious variations or tangents – and often with “cases” upon cases (illustrations from participants). In chapter 3, “Inspiring and Sustaining the Vocational Presidents,” we are introduced to four “Cases” to illustrate “The Centrality of ‘Cause’ in Vocational Life,” each with a subheading that includes engaging stories about four anonymous presidents. These range from a president emphasizing the important lesson of “self-awareness” to a “declared atheist” who demonstrated the “deep gladness” that he found in operating from personal and corporate integrity. The next subheading is sensible, with a summary of the four cases (“The Joy of Being Called”), but the chapter ends with another barrage of illustrations and convenient subheadings: “Vocational Resolve, Faith and Education”; “Mediating Realism and Idealism in Vocationalism”; “Success as Sustenance for the Vocational Presidency”; and “Mentoring Networks.” It becomes difficult to keep track of which “one president” is being cited in later sections. Perhaps giving them fictitious names would have helped.

With the names of institutions omitted and the Program’s participants’ anonymity, it sure prompts guessing. Several times I thought I found our own institution or recognized another, only to see another set of comments seem to identify the same. The one exception to anonymity involves the foundational case studies used within the Program to discuss institutional mission – an engaging section outlining the journeys of Antioch, Reed, and Swarthmore colleges (66-71). Utilizing Burton Clark’s The Distinctive College (1992), the Program introduces its participants to the three different types of institutional uncertainty with one constant – “remarkable presidential leadership.” Antioch College had grave financial concerns. Reed College searched for its purpose and identity and sought a new self-definition.

In this context the book begins to breath, and the disparate reflections seem to find a structure for action. Through Clark’s lens the presidents developed a comfortable nomenclature around “Institutional Self-Consciousness.” The same vocational questions asked of the presidents were asked of their institutions, including the appropriateness of a president’s role in trying to shape mission. The “eureka” moment comes in celebrating the status of being a “distinctive” college, and not needing to be compared to others. Reaching this stage of “distinctive” (often synonymous with “outstanding,” and of Parker Palmer origin) can be systematically reached through an “envisioning” process. Frame defines it as “a deliberative, creative process that yields a yet-to-be-realized college or university.” Once again the Program’s nomenclature borrows Clark’s concept of “saga” in framing the institutional journeys and histories of participants’ campuses.

The American College Presidency takes somewhat of a Hegelian dialectic approach in accomplishing its task. Just as we enter a category framed by a subheading (and many of these are not self-evident), we suddenly are taken back to another anonymous reflection that begins with a sequence of discovery leading to the topic at hand. Many of these reflections begin with descriptions such as: “A president came to the program for guidance…” and “A new president decided to inaugurate his presidency by…” And some perhaps more com- mon, “Another president came to the program deeply frustrated by faculty resistance…” The upside to this serpentine route to the end is that sooner or later we will all find something that resonates. For me it was the dean who chose a college that not only “wanted him,” but “needed him.” I also gleaned from the reported trials of several leaders who came to learn the merit of Jim Collins’ warning about hiring “visionary leaders” before they had “an internally validated basis for it” (73).

A curious aspect of Frame’s assessment of his own Program is that most assessment models aim to close the loop and to address next steps for improvement. This quasi-report is replete with positive examples, and the book leaves us thinking 100 percent of participants had meaningful if not revolutionary seasons of reflections. Given those in leadership, this could have indeed been the case. Frame also could have aligned the anecdotal support through the cases with systematic insights from research in this growing discipline. For- tunately, though ensconced in some erudite subheadings in the closing chapter, he gives a useful summary of a key aspect of healthy presidencies in “The Alignment of Personal Vocation and Institutional Mission.” He claims that “in every case” these fulfilled leaders aligned with the following elements:

  1. His or her own vocation;
  2. His or her capabilities, both for personal and institutional discernment, and for the practical business of managing one’s own and one’s institution’s life in a competitive environment;
  3. Institutional mission, and
  4. The culture of the college or university (147).

If we take this list and reflect on this delightful collection of stories from the inside of presidencies, we would find that Frame’s book indeed supports these conclusions. He also highlights in the antepenult the “stiffest challenge” for vocationalists is “making a place for vocational colleges in the present context.”3 And he tips his hand with his last words: “It seems to me that the most valuable gift of the program is a strengthened respect for the human need of sociality and of community service as satisfaction of that need” (159). I agree, and so do dozens of anonymously-quoted presidents.

Cite this article
Jerry Pattengale, “The American College Presidency as Vocation: Easing the Burden, Enhancing the Joy”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:1 , 96-99


  1. Craig Dykstra also receives an emphatic shout-out for his leadership of the Lilly Endowment’s “Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation” (Frame, 146-147).
  2. Craig Dykstra’s extended back cover endorsement.
  3. William V. Frame’s earlier professorship in Political Philosophy and Chinese Studies at Kenyon College (OH) and his presidency at Augsburg College likely accent this uneasiness with “context.” Many from traditional liberal arts backgrounds struggle with the onslaught of MOOCs, adult distant education and the career, STEM and utilitarian emphases of higher education and increasing government demands.

Jerry Pattengale

Indiana Wesleyan University
Jerry Pattengale is the author of dozens of books and essays in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Christianity Today, The Washington Post, Books & Culture, Religion News Service, Inside Higher Ed, Patheos, The Chicago Tribune, and others. He was founding scholar for the Museum of the Bible (Washington, D.C.)  where he still serves as senior advisor to the president, and is University Professor at Indiana Wesleyan University.