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April 12, 2012

Leaders of higher education institutions are often respected, revered, cursed and mocked in equal measure, and do not always get the chance to tell their side of the story.

However, Harold R. Wilde, outgoing president of North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, has decided to set the record straight ahead of his departure at the end of the year.

Writing for Zócalo Public Square, a project of the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University, Dr Wilde is candid: "While the privacy-invading characteristics of this life can occasionally get to you - e.g., when my salary gets published in the local paper...the truth is I have the best job in the world."

Dr Wilde, who lives in the middle of campus with his wife, says that the president of a small institution "lives in a bubble, one in which students, alumni, the community and even faculty treat him or her like someone really important".

"If he lives on campus, he never has to cut the lawn, shovel the walk, or fix the dishwasher," he writes.

Under certain circumstances, he gets the presidential treatment off campus: "When he's outside the bubble, nobody knows his name, but when he speaks to the local Rotary Club or an alumni group 1,000 miles away, he's treated like a celebrity."

So far, the job seems akin to any high-profile public office, but Dr Wilde states that there are misconceptions surrounding the position that need addressing.

"Like every college president, I have to spend a lot of time raising money," he writes. "Many people think this must be miserable and difficult - or that it takes time that could be better devoted to 'important' things. Baloney. Funding is important, and fundraising success at a school that isn't rich gives the president leverage to move the institution."

Dr Wilde says that many Americans have misconceptions about the costs of college and think tuition fees have risen due to "simple bloat or greed". "But the reasons are hardly so simple," he asserts. He cites the example of the increasing number of students with disabilities who enter higher education - a fantastic societal advance, but an expensive one, too.

He is also candid about dropout rates.

"There's been much talk about 'bad' colleges with high dropout rates. But a lot of that has to do with the fact that most colleges are not hard to get into," he writes.

The universities of Harvard and Princeton have high retention rates, but they also accept less than 10 per cent of applicants.

"The easiest way for other schools to improve retention...would be to accept a lower percentage of applicants, weeding out more at-risk students. But most schools do not really have that choice."

Dr Wilde also attempts to tackle the perennial argument over the relative importance of the arts and sciences.

"If you want to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry, physics or medicine, your odds are much higher if you get your undergraduate degree from a liberal arts college rather than a research university," he writes. "The better we understand what colleges really do and what they really face, the wiser we'll be (when) making education choices and policy."

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