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Reflections on 30 Years as a University President (Part Two): Getting Embedded in the Community

The EvoLLLution | Reflections on 30 Years as a University President (Part Two): Getting Embedded in the Community
To effectively tell a university’s story—and to truly understand the organization at every level—it’s critical for university senior leaders to communicate openly with staff at every level, to respect their insights and to gain their trust.

A leader on campus must finds ways to listen—walk the halls and pathways, attend events—always looking for opportunities to ask, “What is going well? What do you wish had been changed last week?” Often, people answer in a way that is off the mark because they did not listen carefully to the question asked. We must not only listen carefully, but also, when necessary, ask for clarification. It is important to show that we want to understand the question before we answer.

Effective leaders pay attention and learn; they do not just wait their turn to rebut what was said. They hear what is important to faculty members, rather than tell faculty members what is important. For example, I invited several faculty members from the same department to speak with me after hearing there were problems with leadership in their unit. I didn’t think it was appropriate to ask directly about the problems. Instead, I asked the faculty members about their particular interests. I engaged them in a broader conversation, where I could comfortably ask: “How are things going?”

Once, when interviewing senior faculty members in this way, each started with the same response: “Fire the dean.”

“You have business experience, don’t you?” I said.

“Yes,” they each replied.

I responded, “When one makes a decision such as the one you recommend, the leader must have the second, third, and fourth steps in mind.”

They asked what I meant. I said, “Well, if I fire the dean, we have to know who will be put in the dean’s place, who will be the associate dean, and when we would start the search for a permanent dean.” This dialogue led to very helpful suggestions. Each of the faculty members recommended the same person as the new dean and the same person as the new associate dean. By implementing their suggestions for new leadership, a unit in turmoil quickly regained its stability.

On another occasion, I wanted particular advice from my vice presidents so at a meeting I gave them each a piece of paper and said, “Imagine a new president is coming in July. What are the top three actions you would recommend the new person take in the first three to six months?” They all gave the same number-one recommendation, so I said, “Why wait for the new president?” We took action.

On yet another occasion, I lived in a residence hall to learn what it was like. In my first semester at Adelphi, I enrolled in a freshman seminar class. I told the faculty member not to make a fuss about me—that I would sit in the back and engage with the students. During one small group discussion, I asked a young lady where she “hung her hat” during the day.

“My Volvo,” she said.

I didn’t understand, but then she explained that she used her car as her lounge and the trunk as her locker.

After class, I called the vice president responsible for facilities and asked how many lockers we had for the 5,400 commuter students enrolled at the time. We quickly set about surveying various buildings, and created lounges and locker space so that commuter students could feel comfortable on campus, rather than in the parking lot. We also developed plans for student involvement on campus so that everyone could have a complete collegiate experience, no matter where their pillows were located.

A new campus president is often encouraged to think of a vision to lead the institution in a new direction. Unless the president understands and respects the heritage of the institution, he or she may encounter unnecessary challenges when advocating change. Change is often needed—innovation is almost always required—but departing from core values and disrespecting the heritage of an institution can make change and innovation more difficult to accomplish. Process is important. Ignoring it can make the process itself the topic of discussion rather than the change required.

A similar set of principles relates to gaining trust. There should be no surprises. Whether a campus has labor unions and collective bargaining agreements or not, leaders should never so surprise the campus community that it loses trust in the decision-makers. In a similar vein, it is important to share information. The effective leader will provide a rationale for his or her actions.

With unions, and especially with faculty unions, some leaders believe it is difficult to have trust and to share information. I disagree. The leader must respect the office, if not the person. The president or executive director of the union might be someone who is difficult to like, but he or she represents an office and a membership. Showing disrespect to the office creates a problem of process, which almost always trumps substance.

This matter of respect and trust applies equally to faculty, staff, students, trustees, alumni, neighbors and officials. The leader must make a promise and keep it. The promise can be straightforward, such as restoring integrity, or it may be a matter of financial or facility priorities. It is essential to make the promise, keep it and communicate with people about the progress made. In this way, the leader can establish and develop productive relationships and mutual support.

It is the leader’s responsibility to create and encourage a culture of conscience, not just a commitment to compliance. In order for a board of trustees to help the president develop appropriate leadership skills and abilities, members must know the characteristics of an ethical, effective campus leader. Those characteristics start with character. Good leaders for a campus, or for any other organization, must be committed to transparency, integrity and fairness. They must be able to listen and willing to learn. Principled leaders have a moral or ethical relationship with others based on trust, mutual interests and obligations to an entity greater than any one person. The effective leader acknowledges the four elements of leadership: listening, reading, speaking and writing.1

Listening can mean seeking both formal and informal opportunities to hear students, faculty, staff, alumni, employers, vendors and others comment on how things are going and what they wish could be improved. Listening carefully also includes watching intently and paying attention to physical expressions, in order to acknowledge one’s partner and affirm what has been heard. Active listening requires memory as well as comprehension.

Another way to take in information, ideas and inspiration is by reading. Presidents need to keep up with news and informed opinion; they need to know about the latest technologies and developments in science; and they need to know what is happening in higher education policy and practice. Presidents should also read history in order to understand context, biographies to learn how others have faced challenges, and fiction and poetry to see imaginations soar and find new ways of refining their use of language and imagery. History, biography and fiction, followed by reflection, are good sources for presidents to find meaning in their own lives.

Presidents also express themselves through speech. Every campus president and vice-chancellor gives speeches, talks and welcoming comments to groups of all types and sizes. These are opportunities for college leaders to express values, emphasize the unique features of the institution and tell stories that illustrate how its mission is being fulfilled. These stories become fables: legends that illuminate the history and heritage of the campus. Every talk—spontaneous or prepared, short or long—should have a message beyond “Welcome.” Each one is an opportunity to broadcast the mission, vision and unique nature of the institution. Such speeches are usually more effective when they are authored and delivered with personal passion rather than scripted by a professional speechwriter.

Finally, writing is an essential art for effective leadership. Since most college presidents come up through the ranks of academia, they have written scholarly articles and books, but mostly for relatively narrow audiences that often have their own vocabulary. Campus leaders should be encouraged to write for publication in more popular outlets and professional journals. Writing op-ed pieces for the daily or weekly newspaper or an e-newsletter is good practice. It is a form of teaching, with the general public as the audience instead of a group of professional colleagues or students.

Another audience, of course, consists of the alumni. The president should share with them his or her thoughts on important issues related to higher education and society, especially as they relate to the campus. Maintaining an email list, a blog or a Twitter account for colleagues, alumni and friends on and off campus is an effective way of communicating with many people simultaneously. Through this widespread communication, campus leaders can inform, influence and encourage others, promote worthy ideas and engage a wide range of readers in an ongoing discussion that connects them to the campus.

Of course, not all writing is of an intellectual bent. The president should send handwritten notes of congratulations and condolence to campus faculty, staff, students and alumni, and often to parents or guardians of students. These expressions of congratulations, thanks or grief will be appreciated and reflect well on the person, the office and the campus. There are no small gestures.

The campus leader is more than an executive focused on organization and finance. He or she is the leader of a mission-based organization with a set of values that must be honored even as the institution charts a strategic course toward greater student engagement and success.

In the United States, university presidents are often asked about the amount of time they spend fundraising. In many ways, everything the president does is fundraising and “friend-raising,” because every encounter with students and faculty can become a story of progress for prospective donors. The goal is not about money but about enhancing the environment for teaching and learning, and about engaging prospective donors as partners as well as investors in quality, affordability and achieving aspirations.

In fundraising, as in all aspects of life, it is important to say thank you, whether in response to a gift, a special effort, a call, an award or an email. The leader should be responsive—quickly. It is amazing how the simple act of returning a phone call or email can be viewed as nearly revolutionary, given the fact that many people fail to do so. There are illustrative anecdotes about how simply saying thank you for one action or gift led to significant increases in future efforts.

To tell the university’s story, the leader should know the students, faculty and alumni. Foundations, rating agencies and donor prospects want to know that the leader is intimately involved in the mission of the university—which, of course, is teaching and learning. Such audiences respond well to stories of particular individuals who have flourished in the university environment. These stories of student, faculty, and alumni life and development help give life to what makes the institution or organization distinctive.

A good part of fundraising is simply showing up early. There are many stories of presidents simply being at a funeral home, a memorial service or other gathering, solidifying relationships. This must be done sincerely, of course, but the results can be significant. Also, showing up early can gain additional time for the task at hand, whether it is on- or off-campus.

It is important to focus on priorities. When a prospect asks about priorities, it is important to detail those priorities, and then try to incorporate the interests and priorities of the questioner into those broader campus priorities.

There are times, of course, when someone’s interests do not coincide with institutional priorities and the president must make a judgment about whether the idea will be beneficial to the university. There are proposals that could require the campus leader to divert energy, time and money that could be better spent in other ways. Linking priorities to the vision is an essential step. A request for $2,500 can take as long to achieve as one for $2.5 million. We must think about the use of hours and energy as well as the university’s future.

A campus presidency is a form of covenant. It requires an ethical commitment to a culture of conscience; compelling compliance rarely works. It is more than a contract. It is a commitment to advance the institution with the optimal matching of talent, resources, and ideas through people, in fulfillment of an institutional mission.

Robert Scott is the author of How University Boards Work, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. To view the first installment of this series, exploring the constant pursuit of quality, please click here.

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1 Scott, Robert A. “29 Years and Counting: A President’s Journey” posted on the Carnegie Corporation of New York website. An abbreviated version of this essay, entitled “Perspective: Eight Lessons for Leadership,” appeared in the June 2014 edition of The Presidency, the American Council on Education’s quarterly magazine.

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