Reflections on 30 Years as a University President (Part One): The Constant Pursuit of Quality
The goal of a university president is to bring together people, ideas and resources in order to help shape an environment that fosters advancement in knowledge, skills, abilities and values for students and graduates. In this way, they can become even more effective as citizens, professionals and neighbors. University education, or college education as it is known in some countries, is, after all, a major vehicle for economic opportunity and social mobility.
We know, for example, that in the United States, if someone born into a family in the lowest fifth of income earners graduates from college, they have a good chance of joining the highest fifth of income earners in adulthood. They have more than a fifty percent chance of joining the middle class or better. We also know that education leads to more civic engagement.
I’ve spent thirty years as a campus president, and in my experience a university benefits most from a president who thinks of their role as the chief education or chief mission officer: One who can remind the campus community of the purpose and heritage of the institution and gain the trust and respect of faculty, staff and students.
However, the temptations are great for a president to act as if budget-making and fundraising are divorced from student learning and faculty teaching. The pressures of finance and politics can lead a president to think of themselves as a corporate-style chief executive officer, and ignore the priority of enhancing the environment for faculty teaching and student learning.
The campus president has the “bully pulpit” and should use it to honor the institution’s mission and promote excellence in all aspects of college life. However, the internal and external challenges related to resources have become even more central to all campus discussions. It is no longer sufficient, if it ever really was, to be an “academic” president or chief education officer alone. Today more than ever, college and university presidents and boards of trustees must understand the financial as well as the academic structure of their institutions. They must monitor risks of all types and ask questions about that which they don’t understand. When a plan or result suggested by a consultant or a staff member sounds too good to be true, it may be.
Sometimes, people from business will ask what expertise they can bring to a decision about faculty appointments and tenure. Leave it to those from academe, they say. Yet the decision to grant tenure is a multi-million-dollar investment, and must reflect approved institutional goals and strategy. Think of the questions that would be asked about a capital construction project or equipment investment of a similar size.
A campus president plays many roles, including budget master, lobbyist, fundraiser, cheerleader, and land development entrepreneur. Nevertheless, the president must always remember that they are first and foremost an educator, and an advocate for the institution’s mission. The university should be focused on the students and their success, graduation, opportunities and engagement as alumni.
More and more, people ask about the best preparation for becoming a university president. Most come through the academic ranks as teaching or research faculty and then rise through administrative offices such as department chair, dean and vice president before becoming the campus chief executive. At times of crisis, some boards of trustees appoint as president someone with what the board thinks of as relevant experience, whether in business, finance or law. Nevertheless, the record in the US, at least, is mixed when it comes to assessing the success of presidents whose life work was not at university.
The president must understand the values of higher education at large and over time, as well as the heritage of the institution that asks them to be leader. The president must know that the faculty may be employees in a legal and human resources sense, but are partners in governance in an historical sense. This is the essence of “shared governance”—a concept foreign to business, but essential to universities.
More than twelve hundred years old, universities serve three distinct roles: as creator, curator and critic. The university creates new knowledge through fundamental research into what is not known, new applications of what is discovered and known, and new interpretations of human activity through poetry and prose, body movement, music, and visual expression. Universities create or prepare new professionals and citizens.
At the same time, the university is the curator of human activity, of our heritage as cultural beings, and the repository, through archives and databases, of past accomplishments, whether for good or evil. This is why history is so important as a field of study. In fact, the study of history, the nourishment of the imagination, and the fostering of compassion are the essential elements in a college education and in the preparation of citizens.
The university is also a critic. In this way, the university is at the margins of society, just as in its roles as creator and curator it is at the center. As critic, it questions the status quo; it raises ethical questions.
It is in this role as critic that the university supports the free exchange of ideas, which is the essence of its character. While there are topics whose discussion is shunned in society, and whose mention can provoke catcalls of “appeaser,” “racist,” “jihadist,” “anti-Semite,” and “unpatriotic,” the university must be a place committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech. If one cannot raise fundamental questions or discuss controversial topics on a university campus, where can they? This is the role of the campus as critic, as the source of ethical questions, and it must be ready to be held to the same standards.
Even as the president must be mindful of the budget and investments, they must also be mindful of the quality of student learning and general education, department and faculty scholarship and creative activity, and off-campus experiences. The president must be a philosopher who knows the curriculum, the campus, and the community, representing the three major spheres of educational activity over which they have influence.
A campus president performs these varied roles by drawing on a well of experience gained on the playground, in youth groups, in summer camp, and in school. Leaders are always filling their “well” of experience with life lessons, whether professional or personal, on campus or on vacation. We must always ask: What can we learn from this? Many have found that lessons learned early in life helped influence later results.
I once attended a program at the Japan Society on department stores. Partway through a presentation on the department store as “theater,” I realized the same could be said about a college campus. The next day, I asked the drama department chair to give me a tour of our campus as a theater set, highlighting points of focus and energy flows that supported the institutional storyline. I took notes, discussed some ideas with the head of facilities, and, with their help, improved our “stage” for current and prospective students, faculty, staff and visitors.
In this way, my well grew deeper. In later years, these memories supported my vision for the campus to attain arboretum status, and for biennial outdoor sculpture exhibits as additional measures of external quality validation to be used in quality control and strategic planning.
Quality control is an essential part of strategic planning and leadership, which consist of three words that begin with the letter “C”: communication, cash and credit. Communication involves speaking, listening, writing and reading. Too often, those who refer to “communications” think it is only one-way. It isn’t. Not only do we need to listen to others, we also need to “listen” to data and ensure that the data we measure are accurate, meaningful, and related to priorities. “Data books,” dashboards, and enrollment-by-design matrices should include historical trends and comparative information. These are essential to good communication and should be routine documents that support decision-making.
Data—that which we like and that which we wish were different—should not be hidden; they should be shared. It is true that sharing reliable information with relevant comparisons can gain credibility and assist in moving an organization forward.
Communication also involves understanding the institution’s history, heritage and culture. Too often, I have seen leaders join an enterprise only to talk about change and new goals without grounding those ideas in the history and culture of the organization. For them, history starts the day they enter the office.
Communication requires a rigorous questioning of assumptions and an ongoing sensitivity analysis of the levers of change and markers of progress that can go awry. This type of questioning requires a culture that encourages staff to speak “truth to power” and know that their questions and suggestions will be respected. Another element of communication is “no surprises.” This is important with regard to the board of trustees, senior staff, deans, faculty, union leadership, the campus as a whole, and neighbors.
An essential element of campus communications, and an important point of leverage for leadership, is the strategic plan. A strategic plan is all about principles for decision-making, priorities for action, resource allocation, assignment of responsibility, metrics for monitoring progress, and feedback. Setting priorities can be difficult, even contentious, but leaders must abide by the idea of open dialogue based on valid information to guide strategic thinking. During times of demographic, technological and economic challenges, difficult choices need to be made in an atmosphere of trust.
For many campuses in the US, enrollment is the major source of revenue. For them, the rallying cry must be “enrollment is everyone’s job, if everyone is to have a job.” This includes not only admissions officers but also the faculty in the classroom, advisors after class, secretaries at the department office, custodians in the hallways and groundskeepers on the lawn, and members of the public safety staff as well as admissions officers. Accurate and enthusiastic communications with prospective students and families can affect admissions yield and enrollment. Equally important are communications with current students: their successes and concerns, all related to retention and graduation, and saying “thank you” to all those who make the campus a welcoming place.
Communication is all about people. This includes not only listening to others but also informing them. It also involves people from off campus serving on formal and informal advisory boards and councils. Such groups can be helpful in reviewing plans, critiquing assumptions, and achieving optimal results.
Important stakeholders include donors and fundraising prospects. Campus leaders need to listen to them, keep them informed, get them involved, thank them, tell them the university’s “story,” ask them to comment on visions and plans, be with them at personal events as well as professional settings, and help them understand priorities. At all times, they can be asked to give career advice to students.
Years ago, I learned that the editor of a successful magazine called a subscriber or advertiser each evening before going home. I thought, “What a great idea.” This started me on a pattern of calling school, community, and business leaders periodically to ask what we at the university could do to help, what we could do better, what we should change. I asked students, faculty, staff and alumni the same questions, and learned many helpful lessons by doing so.
Communication also involves our expectations of quality as well as external forms of validation. These can include such forms of assessment as meeting arboretum and museum status, in addition to formal academic program reviews, operations audits, annual goal-setting, and post-tenure review. While perhaps seemingly tangential to the core enterprise, these investments signal points of pride to the campus community. For instance, the beauty of a campus can be one of its signature characteristics. Often, we hear that students choose a campus based on their emotional connection to grounds and facilities, not just the faculty. Seeking recognition for the campus as an arboretum can signal support for the grounds crew, validate their work, and engage them in the recruitment and retention of students.
The design of the curriculum and extra-curriculum, as well as faculty and staff appointments, should communicate the goals and the outcomes expected. Communication is the sea on which the leader adapts to the wind, always tacking toward known goals.
It became evident during the “Great Recession” of 2008 that “cash is king,” and liquidity is essential. This lesson seemed impossible to forget—yet the leaders of some prominent institutions did seem to forget it. Cash requires consistent controls on positions, salaries and expenses. Rigor must be routine, not episodic. The standard analyses of tuition diversity, expense and financial aid ratios, debt ratios, liquidity ratios, FTE revenue and expense ratios, and FTE expenditure ratios all must be monitored routinely. In addition, enrollment ratios in terms of inquiries, applications, offers, deposits and student contacts should be regularly monitored.
As is well known, expense control is essential. The best time to install controls is when times are good. We have witnessed institutions that have taken on extensive amounts of debt in order to build new and varied facilities, only to get into fiscal difficulty. In response, they often need to furlough employees and freeze salary increases because of the requirements for debt service. Some of these projects can be called frills, exemplifying the “edifice complex” charge leveled at colleges by critics.
Institutional leaders should monitor enrollment and financial statistics weekly as a team. The CFO should do so daily, and deans, often viewed as points of expense control and not revenue generation, are critical to an enrollment-by-design management structure. Enrollment equals the revenue necessary for positions, equipment and facilities.
Facilities and grounds maintenance also require monitoring. Keeping the facilities and grounds in good shape should never be lowered in priority. When deferred maintenance is deferred, the costs increase.
Cash is also related to investments and investment policy, the allocation formulas used, and whether or not and to what extent investment income is used. As has been seen in recent years, those who rely upon investment income to support a significant portion of the operating budget run into difficulty because of declines in value and the lack of liquidity. The goal should be to build for the next 100 years, not to ease the management of the next few.
The institutions that took on variable-rate credit, expensive credit, and taxable-rate debt, sometimes for operating purposes, found themselves heading down the wrong road. The amount, type, and purpose of debt are critical elements, and discipline is necessary.
Leaders should refer to a set of ratios useful for comparing their institutions to more highly rated institutions. The goal should be to raise their credit rating by paying attention to planning, execution and controls. The rating is a measure of fiscal soundness.
Credit also involves maintaining good communication and relationships with banks and other lending institutions, agencies at the state and federal levels, and, often, local officials. Good credit can give the board of trustees confidence in the institution’s position of strength and ability to act quickly when strategic opportunities are presented. It is better to be restrained routinely than to have to shrink suddenly, as abrupt and unanticipated course corrections often undermine confidence.
In summary, quality control is an essential part of strategic planning and leadership, and these rely upon the three C’s of leadership: communication, cash and credit.
Robert A. Scott is the author of How University Boards Work, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. In the second installment of this series, Scott will continue his reflections on the role of the university leader.
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 Parts of this paper are drawn from my book, How University Boards Work, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.
Author Perspective: Administrator