“Being college president is more like being mayor of a city than it is being CEO of a company.”–Jim Mullen


Jim Mullen, President of Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, talks with Norman Sandridge (associate professor of classics at Howard University, fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies) about his transformation as a leader in higher education, his work in establishing the Allegheny Prize for Civility in Public Life, and what he feels should be the role that higher education plays in training future  leaders.


  • Who were the leaders Jim grew up admiring i n history, film, and literature? (00:01:54)
  • Did Jim see himself as a leader as early as high school? Did others see him as a leader? (00:05:10)
  • Who were the different types of people that Jim gravitated toward in high school? How does this affinity relate to his own psychology and upbringing as an only child? (00:06:13)
  • When did Jim begin to find himself in leadership positions? (00:07:40)
  • What does Jim feel like people saw in him that was leader-like? (00:09:10)
  • What does it take to see oneself as a college president? Did Jim seek the role? Did someone see him in this role? (00:12:49)
  • What does Jim believe people saw in him when they were nominating him for leadership roles in higher education? (00:15:38)
  • What percentage of the leaders that Jim knows fit his description of a good person? (00:16:25)
  • What does Jim mean when he says that a college president is like a mayor? Are the skills of a college president transferable to political leadership? (00:17:40)
  • What aspects of the politician’s life does Jim admire? (00:20:55)
  • How did Jim develop the Prize for Civility at Allegheny beginning in 2011? (00:22:45)
  • What do we need to make civility possible? What other character traits and attitudes make civility possible? (00:31:40)
  • Are there limits to civility? Are there situations where civility is no longer helpful, e.g., in instances where someone is threatening the idea of democracy? (00:38:28)
  • How do you avoid normalizing the behavior of others by being too civil? (00:42:10)
  • Are there particular areas of contemporary American society that Jim would like to be more civil? (00:43:28)
  • Does Jim see Allegheny College as a place that trains leaders? If so, how? (00:46:13)
  • Is Jim’s understanding of the process of becoming a leader akin to a person figuring out how to make his/her best contributions to a community? (00:48:48)
  • What are some things that Allegheny does to make its students more moral? What does it mean to be more moral? Where in the college experience does this change happen? (00:49:55)
  • Why does Jim believe that the college mission of training more moral, community-minded students is such a hard sell to the general population? (00:52:35)
  • Last question about leadership from Jim: How do you reach people across great difference and invite them to find what links us all together? What are those core values (or narratives) that energize us as a community? What gives a leader that courage, day in and day out, to lead most effectively? (00:57:45)

Key Leadership Insights

“I always gravitated toward people who were different from me, who had different life experiences, different backgrounds.”–Jim Mullen

“I’ve always had in my career folks that helped guide me along the way.”

Gratitude and humility are fundamental to success as a leader.

Being a college president is an inherently political job of balancing constituencies. 

“I’m still a firm believer that if you have integrity, and you work hard, and you are kind to people, and you have gratitude, and you reflect certain character traits, good things happen.”–Jim Mullen

Being a college president requires an ability to listen and not hold rigid views. 

“There was a time in American history when presidents turned to college presidents to advise, to lead.”–Jim Mullen

One way to make a difference in the world is to honor those who are doing good.

Commitment to the truth is a core part of civility.

Part of leadership is the ability to grow (cf. Abraham Lincoln).

Works Referenced

The speeches of John Kennedy

William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream (1974)

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen (1590)

Plutarch’s Life of Pericles (Section 5) on civility (praotēs)

“This man [Anaxagoras] Pericles extravagantly admired, and being gradually filled full of the so‑called higher philosophy and elevated speculation, he not only had, as it seems, a spirit that was solemn and a discourse that was lofty and free from plebeian and reckless effrontery, but also a composure of countenance that never relaxed into laughter, a gentleness of carriage and cast of attire that suffered no emotion to disturb it while he was speaking, a modulation of voice that was far from boisterous, and many similar characteristics which struck all his hearers with wondering amazement. It is, at any rate, a fact that, once on a time when he had been abused and insulted all day long by a certain lewd fellow of the baser sort, he endured it all quietly, though it was in the market-place, where he had urgent business to transact, and towards evening went away homewards unruffled, the fellow following along and heaping all manner of contumely upon him. When he was about to go in doors, it being now dark, he ordered a servant to take a torch and escort the fellow in safety back to his own home” (translation Bernadotte Perrin).

Further Reading

On the Allegheny Prize for Civility in Public Life: https://sites.allegheny.edu/civilityaward/