In July 2017 when John Swallow took the helm as Carthage College's 23rd president, his campus residence, Trinity House, was undergoing renovations, and the temporary rental home wouldn't be ready for another month. The vice president of student affairs had a suggestion: an unoccupied resident assistant's room in a student residence hall. While the summer term didn't represent a typical academic experience, the setup was an easy way for Swallow to meet people, soak up information, read the books he'd brought for dorm-room company, and bicycle around the Kenosha, Wisconsin, campus. Living in the residence hall was like being back in graduate school, Swallow says, except for the double-takes in the laundry room when students realized the guy in jeans and a baseball cap loading the dryer was their new president. "It affirmed for a lot of people that I was a person who was down to earth," Swallow says.
His wife, Cameron, joined him later in the summer, and the couple moved into a rental house in the nearby town of Racine. This gave Swallow a chance to learn more about the areas surrounding Carthage and to bridge the communities of Racine and Kenosha. He also bought books on Racine's history. "I can now speak about Racine—I know the names of streets and restaurants, I know what the lakefront there looks like," he says. "Residents would not expect the Carthage College president to know all that."
Understanding the people and places that make up an institution's community is a challenge for any new college president. With retirements and shorter tenures increasing presidential turnover—and more than half of presidents expecting to leave their current post in five or fewer years, according to the American Council on Education's American College President Study 2017—institutions must be even more prepared for leadership transitions. So it certainly helps when your president is a "quick study" like Swallow, notes Vice President for Institutional Advancement Thomas Kline. (Only 15 when he entered The University of the South in Tennessee, Swallow graduated with honors in mathematics and English literature and then earned two master's degrees and a doctorate in mathematics from Yale University in Connecticut.) It's also key that Swallow views the president as the institution's chief fundraiser and advancement officer. Ultimately, though, the success of a leader's first year might come down to something simpler: the ability to listen and be authentic.
"The campus community particularly wanted to know that I understood the place and was being straightforward," Swallow says. One of Carthage's past presidents warned him that putting on airs just wouldn't work. "These are hardworking folks who come to make a difference," Swallow says.
Before coming to Carthage, a four-year liberal arts institution with 2,700 undergraduates and a legacy of Lutheran education, Swallow served as The University of the South's chief academic and operating officer and executive vice president and provost. He'd started there as provost and professor of mathematics and humanities. Prior to that, he'd taught mathematics at North Carolina's Davidson College, as well as in an interdisciplinary humanities program that brought together major literary, historical, religious, and philosophical works. So what led him to the 80-acre campus alongside Lake Michigan? He'd learned and accomplished a lot as a university administrator, and with both of his children now in college, he was considering his next step. "All of a sudden we might be able to go anywhere," he says. "It was a new chapter of our life."
The Carthage presidential transition team—a cross-section of faculty, staff, students, and trustees—tightly scripted Swallow's first six weeks, scheduling strategic events and meetings, including with Kenosha's mayor, John Antaramian. "We wanted to be deliberate in setting him up for success," says Kline, who co-chaired the team.
As a result of meeting with key community members this past year, Swallow plans to reinstate the business coalition lunches Carthage once held to connect local employers with students. Through formal addresses and informal conversations with staff and faculty, he's worked to ensure everyone is interpreting the campus in the same way, that the people he's serving agree about the concerns that need attention. A new leader, he explains, must assimilate the different information and perspectives he hears—about what the college means to a variety of people, as well as what they see as needing improvement—into a deep understanding of the institution. "Along the way, it is useful to reflect back to others what the leader is coming to understand and check that those general observations ring true," Swallow says.
"It's important to get a read on what the ethos of the place is, what made the campus what it is when you arrived, and to respect that history even as you bring in your priorities and vision of what might yet be," says Bridget Haggerty, Carthage's executive director of institutional advancement.
To introduce Swallow to as many of Carthage's 20,000 alumni as possible, Kline and his team organized a "Meet the President" tour with a local event in Kenosha and stops in cities with large pockets of alumni, including Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C. They also visited with alumni in Carthage, Illinois, the college's original site. Trustees hosted two smaller, more exclusive events at their homes. "The tour was a reason for people to come out and meet the president," Kline says. "He and Cameron are very warm people and easy to take around."
While many alumni asked about the new president's big plans for Carthage, Swallow wants to understand the entire picture and be deliberate when he finally communicates an institutional vision. Key to that is listening to alumni and their stories, and the tour was an opportunity for him to get a sense about what is important to different alumni in their experiences with Carthage. Swallow also learned about sensitive points in the college's history, including the move from Illinois to Wisconsin. "At the same time, I was there to tell them about me, what was important to me," Swallow says. "For instance, as a professor, I thought I was teaching mathematics, but I realized I was teaching students."
As Swallow heard more and more Carthaginians' stories, he began to relate them to others, including in an online video on the Carthage website. One story was about an alumna whose parents didn't think she should go to college but who persevered to earn a Carthage degree. "Histories like this helped John characterize the college in an authentic way," Kline says.
The tour energized Swallow, who says that early on, people mainly wanted to get to know him. "Do you make sense, can you be trusted, can they begin to develop a level of confidence?" he says of what alumni were trying to discern about him. "Just those very first impressions that make a lot of difference to people over time."
Planning a presidential tour takes work, Kline says, and requires being mindful of your staff's bandwidth and the many steps involved, from creating guest lists to holding strategy meetings. It's also important to maximize the time of everyone involved as well as the event's impact. "When you're traveling with the president, you want to make sure everything goes perfectly," he says.
In addition to the tour, Swallow took a two-week trip to Asia and met alumni and educational partners in Japan, China, and Hong Kong. He also attended a range of alumni events his first year, including a Kenosha Kingfish baseball game at which he threw out the first pitch. A new leader also has an opportunity to reach out to alumni who might have been disenfranchised in the past by bringing them into the conversation about the future of the institution, Haggerty says. Swallow, for instance, has been working with the Wiggan-Kenniebrew Black Alumni Network to establish a number of funds to support students of color. The alumnus who initiated the fundraising has since become a trustee.
"Every new presidency holds that [new influence]. Leverage that to your advantage. There's a reason there's a new president, whatever that might be," Haggerty says. "Even when a president retires at the end of a long tenure, life has changed. Now it's time to look to the new thing."
On June 30, 2017, the day before Swallow assumed the Carthage presidency, the college closed a comprehensive $47 million campaign, and the advancement staff had to be cognizant of donor fatigue. Development is increasingly important for college presidents: 58 percent of respondents to the American College President Study 2017 cited fundraising as their most time-consuming activity, and 47 percent identified fundraising as one of the most important issues for institutional sustainability. Prior to Swallow's arrival, Kline and Carthage trustees had initiated a smaller campaign with the attainable goal of raising $1 million for a new residence hall that was already in the works. The yearlong campaign brought in $1.2 million and helped focus the fundraising staff's work as Swallow began his first year as Carthage's president. "We had something to talk about with donors that was pressing and compelling," Kline says.
The staff also worked more broadly to get Swallow up to speed on Carthage advancement. They provided him with donor profiles (including information on gift history, sensitivities, and interests), rehearsed donor calls, and held weekly meetings to strategize about the top 25 to 50 prospects. Gift officers also told stories about interacting with donors. In addition, Swallow consulted with Carthage's immediate past two presidents, who have helped transition donor relationships by vouching for him. "It's important for a new president to rely on his advancement staff to provide continuity between leaders," Haggerty says.
The staff must also assess the president's fundraising experience and provide any needed training. "A president is likely open to this," says Swallow, who in coming to Carthage had experience with proposals but less in making the final ask. "The president is the chief fundraiser. A lot of fundraising has to happen at that level, and you need a whole team to support that effort."
It is, however, unlikely that a new president would make a big ask in the first year. Every giving relationship begins with listening and connecting a college's priorities with a donor's priorities, Haggerty says, and a new president is just establishing an institutional vision. Still, Swallow has met with as many longtime donors as possible and has engaged with new donors at events. He and Cameron have also hosted dinners for more focused time with Carthage supporters. When presidential historian Jon Meacham came to Carthage to give the 2018 commencement address, the Swallows invited him to their home, along with other guests the advancement team thought would be a good fit for the gathering. A longtime donor and a trustee brought an influential local business figure, who then got to meet Swallow.
"You cannot afford to put those development relationships on hold," Kline says. "John [Swallow] made himself available for fundraising work. In the first year of a presidency, it's one of the most important things you can do."
It's not just donors a president has to get to know. A new leader must learn about the development team's systems and its prior and ongoing relationships. That involves assessing which staff members have the most experience, as well as understanding how effectively the institution has been stewarding and cultivating donors over time. And it means having trust in your chief advancement officer, Swallow says. He and Kline spend a lot of time together, sometimes on the road when they are tired and things aren't always going right. "You have to be an extremely close team," Kline says. "You have to have the utmost respect for each other."
In February 2018, the Swallows (and their basset hound Watson, a companion students much admire) moved from Racine to Trinity House. "We felt like the rental house was a hidden away secret space," Cameron Swallow says, with the time spent living off campus allowing them to ease into living directly on the college's grounds. "On campus, there is simply no way for you to be anything but the president," John Swallow says. "You have to accept that, and I've come to enjoy it."
Even off campus, it can be hard to be something other than the face of Carthage. At an opening at the Kenosha Creative Space, Swallow thought he was attending as a private citizen. As soon as the program started, however, someone handed him a mic, and he ended up talking about how Carthage supports the local community. "It's very difficult to have a relationship with someone locally that is not completely colored by the fact that you're the president of this institution," he says.
Likewise with alumni, a president needs to understand what hat he or she is wearing. Swallow's relationship with a local graduate might involve an alumnus-to-president interaction or, alternatively, a local leader-to-college leader interaction. "I try to pay attention to that to have a strong relationship in both ways," Swallow says. "It can help by clarifying the point of the meeting you're having."
And while the Swallows might have moments of feeling odd when they realize they are the only people over age 25 in a certain radius (unlike some colleges that have housing areas for staff, Carthage has only a presidential residence), their home on Carthage College is "beautiful," Cameron Swallow says: "I never imagined having the sun rise in the eastern window over the lake into my bedroom every morning."
During her first month in Wisconsin, Cameron Swallow and her two college-aged children performed at an open-mic night. She didn't mention that her husband, John Swallow, was the new president of Carthage College. She simply thanked the audience for welcoming a Tennessee family to the town of Kenosha.
Afterward, another musician shook her hand, saying that he wanted to make sure he welcomed her home here. "I thought, ‘That's what I need—to be welcomed home here in this new place,'" Cameron Swallow says. "In the process of moving into our new roles in the community, I decided that I would make that idea tangible."
Elizabeth Young, Carthage's associate vice president for marketing and communications, helped organize a "Welcome Home" tour for Swallow. A call went out through the campus e-newsletter for the community to share special places at and around Carthage with Swallow. A simple online form collected invitations.
Alumni, staff and faculty, local residents, and students invited Swallow everywhere from the Mars Cheese Castle to the Kenosha Harbor Market, to Racine's Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin. After each visit, Swallow wrote an entry for her Welcome Home Tour blog and posted pictures. "I continue to be shocked by how many people have read the blog posts," she says. "It's worked exactly as I envisioned when given that prophetic message [at the open mic night]."
The experience has caused Swallow to rethink the traditional notion of advancement. The tour, she says, is not about fundraising but about finding her own connections to the community and shaping her role as a presidential spouse. On the tour's one-year anniversary, Swallow had planned to write a closing blog post. Realizing, however, that she still had much to do, she instead has extended the tour through her "sophomore" year.
"You find something that you want to do, and you make a path to do it," Swallow says. "Then, if you are so fortunate, you find out that it brought good things not only for you—it was good for the college, the students, the community, and college-community relations. Then you're in a better place to continue the path in a deliberate way."
Read more about Swallow's tour
Christen Aragoni is a former CASE content creator.