April 1, 2017 at 3:45pm
Patrick E. White, President

The Mirror and the Telescope

President Artwork

Early on in my time as president, as I was walking across campus on the first day of class, I fell in step with a freshman student. We talked about his excitement, and then he asked, “What is it that you do here?” I responded, “Well, the jury is still out on that, but the job title is president.” 

Many of my friends, inside and outside of the business of higher education, echo that question: “What do you do as president of a university?” Technically, in governance you are the chief executive officer, a title that echoes corporate America; but in reality the job differs in many ways from those of corporate presidents such as Bob Givens ’66, the founder of Monotype profiled in the cover story

My 98-year-old mother sums up the general understanding when she says, “So you’re the head honcho, eh?” At a small university like Millikin, multiple decisions rest on the president’s shoulders. As president, I must take responsibility for all that happens at Millikin and rightly give credit to others for the good that we do. No matter how assertive in individual style, each university president depends on the wise choices and independent actions of not only hundreds of colleagues, but also thousands of students who body forth and enhance the greatness of the university.

I have for some time articulated my role as president as being both a mirror and a telescope to the University. As a mirror, I see the president’s role as leading by noticing, by discovering with the community and reflecting back who we are in our best imagination of ourselves, so we can say together, “Ah, there you are Millikin.” The telescope metaphor shifts that vision to the months and years ahead: What can we become as we look to our future with all its challenges and possibilities? 

This metaphor may make the work sound awfully passive, just a lot of noticing and looking, but the envisioning provided by a president or leader is never mere solo looking. At Millikin, the complex teaching that makes the University’s characteristic Performance Learning possible is part of the president’s role as well. In Performance Learning, the hallmark of a Millikin education, the teacher notices and encourages creativity and independence, helping students grow and develop into independent thinkers and agents who make a difference in their own growth and education. As president, I try to engage in the same complex process of show-and-tell as we communicate what we see together and articulate what Millikin can become. Sometimes this discussion is contentious. Sometimes we see things in different ways. But we have to communicate our disparate visions of the present and the future and choose our directions. That is the kind of empowering leadership we want to encourage in all at Millikin. 

Millikin’s Performance Learning depends on teaching and empowering students, faculty, staff and alumni to be leaders and owners of Millikin. Performance Learning demands — and Millikin’s future depends — on developing colleagues and students who are rainmakers; leaders who will make a difference and get things done.

Universities and colleges all over the country claim they “produce leaders.” What does that mean? With the opening of the new University Commons coming this fall, Millikin is taking a bold new step in the process of creating the kind of leaders our society needs.

Nowhere will this be more evident than in the new Doug and Diane Oberhelman Center for Leadership Performance opening in the University Commons. By establishing this center, Doug, class of 1975 and recently retired CEO of Caterpillar Inc., and his wife, Diane, herself a highly successful real estate developer, have shown their commitment to developing a truly Millikin understanding of leadership performance. In the months ahead, a continuing project will articulate the programming and staffing of the Oberhelman Center and help us invigorate the vitality of leadership growth opportunities at MU. 

As you read this issue and take pride in Millikin, please join me in the conversation about the character of leadership performance we want to foster at Millikin. Talk to your friends and fellow alumni and write to me at the address on the back of this magazine, or email me at pwhite@millikin.edu. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely yours in Millikin,
Patrick E. White, President

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