Spouse’s role in supporting the president

Clockwise from top left: AACC's Martha Parham (event moderator); Mary and Wayne Graham; Walter and Aileen Bumphus; and Merrill and Jose Irving. (Screenshot from webinar)

There are plenty of programs to help community college leaders aspiring for the presidency as well as seasoned presidents seeking to lead another institution. But what about programs to help their significant others make the transition?

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) recently held a webinar featuring three community college leaders and their spouses about how they balance their personal and professional lives, as well as factors they considered in deciding to apply for or take certain CEO positions.

AACC typically holds a program for presidents’ spouses at its Presidents Academy Summer Institute (PASI), but because the annual event was canceled this year due to the pandemic, the association asked a few members and their spouses to remotely share their experiences. The couples shared how they decided where to live, how to raise their children, what the spouse’s role is in supporting the president, and how they unwind.

A ‘safe place’ to talk

The spouse program at PASI has allowed presidents’ husbands and wives to learn from each other, as well as an opportunity for couples to discuss their own issues in a “safe place.” Often, spouses didn’t realize their husbands and wives were under such pressure given what they had to address at their jobs, said Aileen Bumphus, who has been married to AACC President Walter Bumphus for 49 years and has coordinated the PASI spouse program for the past few years.

“We certainly have very critical conversations about unity, around support, around traditional marriages, contemporary marriages, and rules and regulations associated with the president’s role,” said Aileen Bumphus, who works on diversity, equity and inclusion issues at the University of Texas at Austin.

The role of spouses — and even their gender, race and sexual orientation — have changed considerably over the past 30 years. Walter Bumphus recalled that at the first PASI he attended in 1990, about 90 percent of the participants were male, and almost all of them were white. By 2011, when he became CEO of AACC, half of PASI participants were female. In 2019, around 65 percent of them were female.

Some spouses and partners continue with the traditional role of mainly entertaining, but most have “equal and shared responsibility in their relationship, and not so much ‘set the table, get the linen out and entertain the board members,'” said Aileen Bumphus, who noted many spouses have their own careers.

The family factor

Walter Bumphus noted that sometimes the person applying for the presidency doesn’t consider his or her spouse or the needs of the family in a decision. It’s difficult pulling young kids out of school, added Aileen Bumphus. It’s especially hard when the person applying for the presidency sees it as the ideal job, but perhaps doesn’t initially see the bigger picture: “Will it also be the ideal place to raise a family?” she asked.

Sometimes presidents can hit a bump in the road with a controversial decision or make a mistake. That, too, can take a toll on a family, Walter Bumphus said. He noted one president’s wife recently asked him how to shield her children from negative press or comments on social media.

“Sometimes it’s not about if you’re going to get some bad press, it’s when. And you have to be prepared for that as a family,” he said.

Moving with children is also a challenge, said Water Bumphus, who has had a career in the community college sector for a total of 27 years, including time as a dean, college president, state system president and AACC president and CEO for nearly a decade. One regret he shared during the webinar was uprooting his family from Maryland when he took the presidency at a Texas community college. It affected his son, who was a high school freshman at the time. His school in Maryland had a total of 500 students, and he could walk there. The school that served their new home in Plano, Texas, had 200 students alone who tried out for soccer and football teams.

“Every place since then, I have commuted for about a year to make that transition work,” Bumphus said.

Navigating the terrain

Jose Irving, who has been married for six years to Merrill Irving, president of Minnesota’s Hennepin Technical College, reminded spouses that the presidency is a 24/7 job. He ensures their home is in order and handles appointments for any repairs, prepares to host events, and volunteers at college and community functions. It’s a challenge since Jose Irving has his own career in the purchasing, procurement and sourcing field.

He’s also learned how to “navigate” through the people he meets, as he is occasionally asked questions regarding what the president may think about certain issues, which can be slippery.

“You have to be careful how you respond. You don’t want to put your foot in your mouth,” Jose Irving said.

Wayne Graham, the husband of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (MGCCC) President Mary Graham, has over the years encountered similar questions in casual conversations.

“Over the years, you just get better at realizing what this person (asking the question) is trying to accomplish. It’s not always negative, and it gives me an opportunity to present to her what somebody else may not say (to her). I take it as a positive. I think I’ve gotten to the point that I know the difference between the two.”

Mary Graham said she jokes with the college’s board that it got a two-for-one deal when they hired her for the top post 10 years ago because her husband is engaged in helping her at the college (both are MGCCC alumni). He is at many athletic events and fundraisers with her, and he can read and work a room very well, she said.

“He may be the reason that we have million-dollar donors at Gulf Coast,” she said. “They associate Wayne with the college as much as they associate me with the college.”

Raising children

Wayne Graham, who has been married to Mary Graham for nearly 29 years, retired from his career with Johnson & Johnson in its pharmaceutical sector when she became president.

“When our children were very young, we made the decision that I would step away. And I can honestly say that it is one of the best decisions that we have ever made in our lives,” he said.

For the Grahams, parenting has been a team sport, with each one taking certain roles and stepping in to fill a position when needed. The couple emphasized they have been “intentional” during the time they spend with their three children.

“People use the term ‘quality time’; we use ‘intentional,'” Mary Graham said. “The thing we want our kids to know from birth through adulthood is that we value them — we value them as a person, we value their time, we value the efforts they put forward.”

“Not only do you have to tell them and reassure them, you have to demonstrate it in everything you do,” she added. “It’s akin to leadership because to have a good team and have people work with you, you have to demonstrate to them.”

Her husband “clears the deck” for her so she can be “intentional” with their kids when she is at home. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s worked. Mary Graham has occasionally missed a work meeting or come home a little early for a prom or a first date. When their kids were younger, they would even reenact some events that she had to miss so they can share and enjoy it as a family.

“You have to treat it with the same level of respect and priority that you do your job — it’s even more important,” she said of family time.

That connection extends even to when kids are adults. Aileen Bumphus observed that her husband answers promptly when their kids call.

“Whenever they call, he picks up that phone,” she said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.