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First Person Singular

President Lex O. McMillan III was appointed on May 2, 2005 and took office immediately, picking up the reins of the presidency from Interim President David C. Stinebeck. A graduate of Washington and Lee, one of the nation’s most prestigious liberal arts colleges, he has spent his career advancing the liberal arts and calls himself a passionate advocate for the liberal arts. The Albright Reporter had a conversation with President McMillan in June, when he had been in office for just six short weeks.

AR: You found out you had been named president at a busy time at Albright and took the helm right away. Was it a challenge to make such a quick transition?

LOM: I took office four days before Reunion Weekend, and found out that I was expected to speak. I had already been learning everything I could about Albright, but the first couple of weeks were a little like trying to drink from a fire hose! Everybody was tremendously helpful and my staff were great at helping me figure everything out.

AR: Your background has been in advancing private liberal arts colleges, through development, public relations and alumni relations. What has attracted you to liberal arts institutions?

LOM: My undergraduate experience at Washington and Lee University was the most crucial in fostering my understanding of the transforming effect that the liberal arts can have in a young person’s life. I was inspired by gifted teachers who awakened in me a zeal for learning and an appreciation for intellectual life in a community of personal integrity and honor. Initially, I had the goal of becoming a professor of English literature. Although I completed my doctorate in 1986, years earlier I had the good fortune to convince Ladell Payne in the early days of his presidency at Randolph-Macon College that my strong communication skills and commitment to the liberal arts were just what he needed in his director of public relations. That fateful decision led to an unexpected, although highly rewarding, career in the advancement and support of liberal arts colleges.

Colleges like Albright play a vital role in the lives of the young people they serve and an equally important role in our culture. Our liberal arts colleges have an impact far beyond the relatively small segment that they represent in American higher education. Not only do they set the standard of excellence in undergraduate education, but they are also workshops for moral leadership and public service. It is here that we are preparing the next generation of community builders, business leaders, and, of course, scholars and teachers. It is noble work, and I have long been proud to be a laborer in this field and an advocate for its aspirations. I can promise Albrightians that I will be a passionate advocate for the liberal arts and for Albright in particular.

AR: Every president has a personal style of leadership that he or she brings to an institution. What is your style?

LOM: The college president’s pre-eminent responsibility is to be the most visible and effective advocate for the college’s values, needs and aspirations. I believe in teamwork and delegation but also in taking responsibility for my actions and giving direction and focus to my team. I am very comfortable with balancing the demands of consultation and collaboration that are essential to an educational community with the necessity to make decisions, explain those decisions, and move forward.

The chief academic officer must be one of my closest colleagues and confidants. Since the heart of the residential liberal arts college is its academic program, we will work closely to promote active engagement by members of the faculty in the life of the institution at all levels, not merely in the classrooms and laboratories, but also in setting institutional priorities, grappling with the difficult choices that limited resources always entail, and in supporting the advancement of the institution in ways appropriate to their diverse talents.

I have long felt that members of the faculty reflect the quality of the college community in their level of enthusiastic engagement beyond the classroom. A priority for me is to encourage and support the faculty in its commitment to shared governance and to call forth the best that they have to offer.

AR: How are you approaching our students?

LOM: As a father of five children, I have some experience that is relevant to the college presidency. Not only do I have direct experience in the challenges of parenthood, but I also genuinely enjoy being around young people of all ages. I am able to talk comfortably with them, to gain their trust and confidence, and even occasionally provide useful counsel. I have met many students in my first weeks in office, and I delight in working closely with them to support their education, and to challenge them to realize their own highest capacities. I will go to the places where they are, find out what they have to say and what is important for me to hear from them, and how they can participate not only in their education but in the future of Albright College.

AR: What is your vision for Albright’s future?

LOM: It seems to me that the key to the future must be found in Albright’s past. We have been successful for 150 years at meeting the educational needs of students. The proof of that is the way graduates have been successes for years in a wide variety of fields. I believe the kind of education Albright has historically provided is nicely described as “a different way of thinking,” and represents a very succinct way of describing what properly should happen to educated people – that they are challenged to cross boundaries, and can escape from narrow provincialism. That they are able to see others’ perspectives in a balanced, and even sympathetic, way without necessarily agreeing with it.

A liberally educated person is someone who is going to contribute to a civilized, and civil, society. I was really touched by the image at the induction ceremony of Psi Chi [the psychology honors society] where they each held up a candle. It made me think that was a perfect image of what we do at Albright College. We light candles one at a time and send forth our graduates into a world with a lot of darkness and we challenge each of them to be a source of light.

AR: What do you feel is the value of interdisciplinary education, especially Albright’s brand, where students have the option of tailoring majors, and created more than 200 different combinations of majors last year?

LOM: The interdisciplinary ethos that we see that we have here at Albright is a great strength. I think it’s a remarkable tribute to the faculty that we have such a rich and diverse range of curricular offerings when you consider how small we are. Our faculty deserve real accolades for their creativity and imaginative ways of combining and recombining and finding connections between disciplines. Not only does interdisciplinary study help students have a higher measure of confidence that they are preparing themselves better to navigate the world, but I think it actually does challenge them to make connections in ways that may not be as likely to happen if they only focused in on one academic discipline. It is wonderful to see so many students respond to that.


“I can promise Albrightians that I will be a
passionate advocate for the liberal arts
and for Albright in particular.”

– Lex O. McMillan III


But having said that, the fundamental core curriculum at Albright is designed – regardless of what one majors in – to prepare our students to be successful in a wide variety of ways in life. I really believe that a liberal arts education is an education for leadership. Not that everybody is going to go out and be president, but our students are the people who emerge as leaders in whatever sphere they find themselves in, whether it’s a local Rotary Club or their company or their church, because they have been trained to think differently. They rise to positions of leadership because of the habit of thinking that they have developed – a balance, a kind of tempering of thought, analytical skills, communication skills.

I like the idea of an institution asking itself where it can find an excellence that is uniquely its own, and the best way to find that excellence is in the deep roots of the place itself – What has happened there, what has been good there, what has been strong there. We are fundamentally, and at our core, a liberal arts college. We can develop many kinds of programs but the heart of our mission is in this ideal of the liberal arts. And that’s where we seek our excellence in a way that has its own distinctive flavor. One dimension of that is certainly our interdisciplinary orientation. We are also rooted in a commitment to a student-oriented culture, trying to serve our students in a challenging but also caring and supportive kind of environment.

AR: What kinds of things do we need to carry out that mission? What needs to happen for Albright in terms of growth, facilities?

LOM: We are exploring the way to “right-size” Albright. What is the optimal number of students for our campus? How do we balance educational quality, institutional size, facilities and revenue? We need to have facilities commensurate with the quality of people and programs at Albright. We have a wonderfully committed faculty. We have a wonderfully committed staff. We have a lot of people working to provide the best possible programs for the students we have. But we need to build a new science center, that’s the first priority. We need to enhance the facilities devoted to fitness and wellness. We need to continually upgrade classrooms and other learning spaces and laboratories. After we build the new science building, we will do a thorough renovation of the old Science Hall. But the facilities serve a purpose. While we are enhancing the physical plant, we need to keep our eye on the ball, and the ball is that relationship between students and teachers so fundamental to what we are and the teaching and learning that occurs in this kind of environment. We want our facilities to support that.

I’d like to see us become more widely known and better appreciated for the strengths that we have. I’d like to see increasing diversity among our students – both racial, ethnic, cultural but also geographic. I’d like to see them come from a broader swath of American society and expand our geographic reach.

We want to continue to be seen as good partners with the city of Reading and Berks County. This is our community and if we are going to prosper we need to be in a place that is prospering. So we will look for opportunities to partner with our neighbors.


“The college president’s pre-eminent responsibility
is to be the most visible and effective advocate
for the college’s values, needs and aspirations.”

– Lex O. McMillan III


A pressing need at many institutions like Albright is to enhance what I call a “culture of gratitude.” As a philanthropic institution, Albright depends heavily on the support of alumni and friends for its future success. The seeds of such support are sown on the campus, particularly for students during their four brief years of residence. The president must lead this effort by fostering in faculty, staff and students a spirit of thankfulness for the role of philanthropy in their lives, for the gift of the college itself. There is a reason that US News and World Reports uses alumni participation as a measure of “alumni satisfaction.” It is because there is a direct correlation between how colleges have flourished and the level of support from alumni.

AR: What do you think about the many pressing issues facing higher education today, such as increasing affordability, and calls for colleges and universities to be more accountable?

LOM: There are big issues. Everyone in higher education is concerned about the ability of students to afford college. One reason we’ve been competitive is because of our commitment to financial aid. We make Albright affordable for our students. Last year we offered $16.25 million in aid to our students. Most of our students receive some form of aid.

As to accountability – we simply have to do a better job of demonstrating to the public how effective we are. Although we are private, we operate in the public interest. We enjoy a privileged position as a tax-exempt institution, so we do have an obligation to show that we are using that privilege wisely and well. It’s difficult to feel you have to prove anything to anybody because we know our level of commitment, but we have to use that position to demonstrate that what we are doing is in the public interest. It’s clear that higher education no longer enjoys the level of public confidence it once did. That is part of where this cry for accountability comes from.

AR: How do colleges and universities work to regain that public confidence?

LOM: I think some in the general public have a perception of higher education that we have too narrow a scope. We need to be a place where very different ideas can be voiced safely and without fear, and sometimes that means very unpopular ideas. We ought to be a place where these ideas can be voiced and not give anyone reason to think that we protect only one set of ideas. That will do a lot toward increasing public confidence in higher education. Our position is not to take a position; it’s to provide an educational environment where these matters can be discussed in a civilized way. I like the idea of a forum, not necessarily a debate but a conversation, with two folks who are interested in the same problem or question. Let’s say stem cell research, for example. It’s a very hot topic. You get two well-informed people with different takes who can speak with credibility. It can really enrich the educational environment. At some events now you might get a handful of students because a faculty member has required them to be there or they are all persuaded this person is going to tell them the things they want to hear. And so they come and say hooray for our side. That’s not an educational experience. It is not advancing thought. We should at least let them know there is another side, indeed many sides! The demonizing of the opposition has a devastatingly corrosive effect on the body politic. These events can also be truly interdisciplinary with faculty from different perspectives putting it all together.

AR: What other things are on your agenda for the first year?

LOM: One of the most important things I can do in my first year is a lot of listening. I need to learn the stories of Albright. I’ve already heard a lot of stories and it’s been a lot of fun. I’m going to be on the road a lot to get to know our alumni. But I’m also going to be on campus as well, to get to know our students. I am blessed with a bright and charming wife who has been my best friend and helpmate for over 30 years. Dottie is my enthusiastic partner in meeting the obligations and opportunities of the college presidency. The community of the college is tremendously important to both of us, and we are committed to strengthening the familial bonds of community that are essential to a residential, liberal arts college.

Lex O. McMillan

Education

Institute for Educational Management,
Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2003
Ph.D. in English, University of Notre Dame, 1986
Dissertation: “C.S. Lewis as Spiritual Autobiographer: A Study in the Sacramental Imagination”
M.A. in English, Georgia State University, Atlanta, 1975
B.A. cum laude, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Va., 1972

Career Highlights

1993 - 2004 Vice President for College Relations, Gettysburg College. Provided staff leadership to $100 million comprehensive campaign that exceeded its goal by over $11 million.
1987 - 1993 Executive Director of Development, Director of Development
Washington and Lee University. Provided staff leadership for $127 million campaign that exceeded goal by more than $20 million
1979 - 1987 Director of Development, Associate Director of Development, Director of Public Relations, Randolph-Macon College
1978 - 1979 Editor, Amicus, a bimonthly magazine, National Center for Law and the Handicapped, South Bend, Indiana
1975 - 1978 Graduate Teaching Assistant, Department of English, University of Notre Dame
1974 - 1975 English Teacher (grades 7-8)
1973 - 1974 Graduate Assistant, Department of English, Georgia State University

Personal

Born October 8, 1949, Paul's Valley, Okla.
Married to Dorothy Argoe McMillan
Children: Justin, Flannery, Graham, Meredith and Patrick

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