On Jan. 29, about a month before she would become president of Elon University, Connie Book spent an entire day simply asking her predecessor questions.
It was a beautiful, warm day in Charleston. She and President Leo Lambert had met up earlier that day and together went to an Evening for Elon event with more than 100 Elon alumni, parents and friends that night. It was a time to reminisce on the past while looking to the future.
During the gathering, she and Lambert conversed in a question and answer session. That's something she plans to do quite often in the coming months.
As her presidency begins March 1, she intends on leading Elon in her own distinctive style. But she’s allotted herself a grace period, especially in her first year, to learn the intricacies of being president.
As everything else does in the spring, she has some growing to do as well.
“We're starting to have that sense of spring,” she said. “It's something new and it goes very well with having a new president.
"I'm looking forward to all of it. I am so excited.”
The day the Board of Trustees elected Book as Elon's first female president marked the beginning of the end of her time at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina. But she still had some work to do there.
When she returned Oct. 10 after a day of announcement festivities at Elon, she didn’t pack up her office. Instead, she filed paperwork to orchestrate the construction of a new building on The Citadel's campus. Book wanted to leave The Citadel on good terms. That meant spending as much time as possible with the cadets. One of them even hand-carved a wooden ink pen as a gift to show his appreciation for her part in enhancing his education.
“I think everybody understands that it's a great opportunity to be the president at Elon and so they're proud to send me off,” Book said. “I've been spending more time with the cadets just because it's such a distinctive model. Every college has a different model and I wanted to make sure that I spent some of my last few months with them.”
That mindset will translate immediately when she becomes Elon’s president. On March 1, her schedule is packed from dawn to dusk. She’ll work out in the gym at 6 a.m., have breakfast with physical plant staff, sit in on classes and attend a women’s basketball game. When Jeff Stein, chief of staff, arranged her schedule, he told Book she would be extremely busy that day. But she said, “I know it's going to be great because I get to do everything.”
Immersion will be vital for Book as she resettles on a campus that has grown rapidly since she left Elon two and a half years ago.
Buildings, such as the Schar Center, were just thoughts when she was here. Now, they are almost complete, with other construction projects progressing. Elon recently implemented changes to the curriculum, adding a a four-year engineering program and a master's of higher education.
Book foresaw many of these changes when she helped craft Elon’s 10-year strategic plan in 2008. Since then, it has served as the road map for policies, procedures and plans that has guided Elon's expansion for the past decade. She said the goal now is to finish it strongly and then solicit input from the community before drafting the next one.
“My spring semester, I am going to do a lot of listening,” she said. “I'm basically picking up Leo's schedule, what he had planned and we'll do that through graduation. The summer is when I'll start thinking through what I've learned and start developing the next strategic plan.”
To do that, she'll rely on Lambert’s closest circle — the 16-member team known as senior staff. When she arrived at The Citadel, she kept the same administration. She said she’ll do the same now, too. She said she worked with most of them while she was here and plans to keep the continuity.
“One thing I've always liked about Elon is we identify strong talent and then we retain them,” Book said. “Elon has a very successful team and that energy has advanced the university by every measure. I feel fortunate to inherit such a talented team.”
But that continuity comes with an adjustment. Now, she's at the head of the table.
Book worked under Steven House, provost and executive vice president, while she was associate provost. Since the announcement, Book has periodically met with people to discuss the transition. House traveled to Charleston to meet with her in person. He said he’s looking forward to seeing her transformation as a leader.
“I was her mentor and I helped her get to be a better administrator,” House said. “Now she's coming back, and while I’ve been her mentor, I think I will continue to be her mentor —the only difference is now she’ll be my boss, and I think that will be wonderful.”
But that change won't happen overnight.
House worked with Lambert for 17 years, first as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, then as provost. At least every other day, they met to discuss the operations of the university.
If there is anyone at Elon who understands the presidency without serving in that role, it’s House. It's difficult, and he said Book will quickly see that.
“I think she’ll have to continue to learn,” House said. “Being a provost is a tough job, but being a president is even a tougher job with more extensive duties because you are the face of the university.
“My job is to make the president look good — my job is to work with the faculty and the staff and students to help Elon achieve its mission, and that’s what I’ll do with President Book.”
In her meetings, she’s been training to do just that — taking on the roles of president she didn’t have as provost. She’ll be working with Jim Piatt Jr., vice president for university advancement, to become a better fundraiser. She’s had briefings on current Elon events, prompting her and Lambert to write a letter to the community addressing mental health after two student suicides this fall.
On March 8, she’ll attend SGA’s weekly meeting. And she has lunches planned with students in various fields to have a holistic understanding of the school.
It’ll be a fast learning curve, but she won’t be tackling it alone.
Lambert said he’ll be “getting out of Dodge” on March 1 to somewhere sunny in an “undisclosed location” for a much-needed vacation. He still wants to help Book whenever she calls on his year-long sabbatical.
That’s something Book will take advantage of.
“I will absolutely talk to Leo on a regular basis, particularly in my first year,” she said. “I'm sensitive to history, and I want to be as effective as possible. To do that, I'm going to need to know what happened before I got there."
Lambert said he is willing to help, but he wants to strike a balance.
"The university can only have one president at a time," Lambert said, and he wants to keep his distance so Book can establish herself. James Earl Danieley, the late president emeritus, did the same for him, he said.
"Dr. Danieley was a great supporter and encourager and a friend of mine and visible on campus, but never once in all the years that we were friends was there any confusion of who the president of the institution was," Lambert said. "I think that will be very much the same thing for Dr. Book and myself."
Lambert said things would be different — “as they should be” — with Book as president. But he’s not concerned. He said relationships “are an important currency on this campus,” and he’s confident she’ll cultivate new ones with people she has yet to meet. New things take time to adjust to.
And there is no better time to do that than in the spring.
"I think she will bring a new sense of vision and energy to campus," Lambert said. "I think she is a wonderful, authentic, smart warm individual, and I just hope people take time to get to know her, and I think they’ll get to love her."