Looking Back, Looking Forward: A Farewell Interview with President Rokke
You said when you came to Moravian that you had a lot to learn about being a president of a small liberal arts college and theological seminary. What would you say about what you have learned in the nine years you’ve been here?
Well, I think the challenge for a college president is, first and foremost, leadership. And I reaffirmed, in some cases, notions that I brought with me about leadership, and I’ve learned things as well in my experience here. In essence, as I reflect on the last eight-plus years, my life as a leader has revolved around three notions. First and foremost, teaching.
Leadership in the sense that it is required in academe today is essentially a teaching and learning experience, between those who are leading on various issues and those who are following on various issues, and frankly, they can switch places over time. But the president gets paid to spend more time than most worrying about his role or her role as a leader. In that capacity, what I have found is that effective leadership, leadership that’s going to make a difference, that will withstand the test of time, happens only when there is a learning and developmental relationship between the leader and the followers.
A second dimension probably would relate to what I would call the notion of caring. Frankly, that comes straight from my earlier life as a military person. You learn very early in a military career that you must take care of the troops. I recall as a young lieutenant going to my first unit and meeting the gentleman who was going to be my assistant. He was a crusty old first sergeant, and he looked at me and rolled his eyeballs at the prospect of another young lieutenant coming through, and said, “Well, lieutenant, this is a good outfit; take care of the troops and it’ll be okay.” And I learned, in working with that gent for three years, that it was a good outfit, and that if we did take care of the troops, it was amazing how well they would perform.
Well, the same phenomenon takes place here, as I’m sure it does at all institutions. For example, we began a process of inspecting student accommodations. I remember coming away from that experience uncomfortable with the knowledge that some of our student housing was in poor condition. Of course what came to mind was the guidance I’d received from that first sergeant many many years ago: you’d better take care of the troops or you’re going to be in trouble. Interestingly enough, what we found is that those students who were living in poorer accommodations tended to have more disciplinary problems than students we were putting in our more modern, nicer accommodations. Well, we’ve built some very attractive student housing; I can look parents in the eye these days. So the second notion I would put forward with regard to leadership and what I’ve learned is a reaffirmation of the notion that if you take care of your people, they will in turn do a good job. And that relates, of course, to faculty and staff as much as it does to students.
The third dimension of leadership that I consider to be very important in the context of my job here has to do with core values. I was recollecting recently a marvelous man with whom I became well acquainted during my time in Moscow. His name was Sergei Akhromeyev, and he was the senior person in the Soviet military. He’d been in uniform for 51 years, was beloved by his troops, and had been a hero in the battle of Stalingrad.
Well, my job was to keep track of those sorts of people and report about them back to Washington, and I did that. Every move he made, I became more and more fond of him. He did what I’ve talked about—he was a superb teacher, and in his relationship with me, he was constantly coming at me, not as a five-star marshal of the Soviet military but as a teacher, attempting to make points that were relevant to his philosophy at the time. He was the Soviet Union’s top military guy, and moved into a position, toward the end, as the senior advisor on arms control to President Gorbachev. But he was a profound teacher, and he had an unblemished record of taking care of his troops. He understood both those concepts.
I can remember being invited to his office the last night we were in Moscow, before returning to the States. At that point the Cold War was in tatters, and the Soviet regime was beginning to show signs of instability. Because I had very little to lose at that point, I said, “You know, I’ve watched every move you’ve made, Marshal Akhromeyev, and you’ve changed a lot.” And he said, “Yes, but”—and he said it with sadness—“but I must tell you that I remain at heart, a patriot, a soldier, and a communist. Stalin after all was my hero.”
I think it was only about a year after we said goodbye that the media reported that he had committed suicide. I was stunned that this marvelous person, for whom I had so much respect, had such a tragic end.
I was back in Moscow in 1996, and went out and found his grave in an unkempt cemetery at the edge of Moscow. The tombstone said simply, “Sergei Akhromeyev, Soldat, Patriot, i Kommunist.” Standing there looking at that, I realized for the first time why he had committed suicide. Those were his three touchstones, and they were all bankrupt. When push came to shove, the military in which he’d served for 51 years had turned out to be very weak and poorly led; the Soviet government had collapsed; and the ideology had shown equal weakness. And those were the three things that he told me he was all about.
My point is very simple: you can be an exquisite teacher, you can have all the right things in order with regard to caring for the troops, but if your core values are messed up, in the last analysis you will fail. So I think that a college president must bring solid, substantial, lasting core values into the job. I think that, as an institution, our responsibility to our students is to make sure that they have sorted out their own values when they leave, so that they don’t find themselves in the position of this poor marshal, who had everything else going for him, but stood essentially on a foundation of sand.
What did you experience as the major challenge of your presidency at Moravian College?
A major challenge that any college or university president faces has to do with the relationship she or he establishes with the faculty. That’s probably the toughest relationship that the CEO must handle. And that relationship, if it’s a failure, will ultimately result in failed leadership, because the core function of an academic institution is accomplished by the faculty. It happens behind those closed doors, in what I call the magic of the classroom—the essence of what’s important at an institution like Moravian. If the relationship between the administration and the faculty isn’t solid, what goes on behind those doors will not be so effective as it otherwise would be.
So the responsibility of the president is to do whatever she or he can to create a productive relationship between the faculty and the administrative staff. Does that mean it will always be friendly? Probably not. Indeed a good president will not seek to be a totally popular president.
I like to say that a president comes to a job with a handful of chips. And she or he can play those chips, but in the last analysis it’s like Las Vegas: the house will always win. The only question is, at what point do the chips run out? You can play them fast, or you can play them more slowly, but it’s unusual for someone to be hard-charging, dynamic, innovative, and risk-taking, with a large handful of chips, after she or he has beenon the job for ten years. So I would summarize this by simply saying that a major challenge—a leadership challenge—is bringing together the vision, the aspirations, the collaborative spirit, of your teaching faculty and your administrative staff.
I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that at Moravian College. But that marriage will never be without tension, and some tension is useful. It’s particularly difficult in a resourceconstrained environment, because in such an environment the game is virtually always zero-sum. In a zero-sum game someone must make the decisions. By definition there are going to be winners and losers. And the proper person, the person who has the responsibility to make sure those decisions are made, is the president. Every decision costs a chip or two; over time the president will have fewer chips in her or his hand with which to play.
That’s the kind of challenge that one faces, that my successor will face here. But I don’t want just that game. Most people as old and grey as I am have achieved enough flexibility so they don’t need that game. So why, then, does an old grey-haired person like me hang around for nine years? Because there are so many other opportunities available to the person who sits in the president’s chair. They totally overbalance the challenges associated with the one I just mentioned. For example, the students. What makes this institution, in the last analysis, is its remarkable capability, year after year after year, to attract these marvelous young people who come here and do their thing for four years, change dramatically in the process, and leave as young men and women of whom we’re very, very proud. Frankly, you watch that for a while and it’s entrancing. You become enamored of it and you enjoy it. That’s part of the explanation why people like me stay around for more than two or three years as a college president.