Presidents Explore ‘Leading Strategic Change’ during One of Largest Annual Institutes

A wide array of speakers and sessions explored the theme “Leading Strategic Change” during CIC’s 2019 Presidents Institute, which took place January 4–7 at the Westin Kierland hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona. The Institute featured plenary sessions by distinguished speakers, concurrent sessions on practical issues, topical workshops, and an open dialogue—all designed to help presidents of independent colleges and universities formulate strategies and implement solutions to challenges such as shifts in demographics, enrollment patterns, cost structures, affordability, and public perceptions of the purpose and value of higher education. The Institute also provided participants with ample opportunities to network with both colleagues who lead similar institutions and industry-leading experts.
The Institute again marked the largest annual gathering of college and university presidents in the United States. In fact, with 346 presidents, 178 spouses and partners, and a total of 842 participating in all, 2019 marked one of the largest Presidents Institutes ever. Participants included CIC International Members from Canada, Greece, Kuwait, and Morocco. And for the fifth consecutive year, CIC welcomed a delegation of private university rectors and higher education leaders from Mexico.
 In his keynote address “Higher Education Today and Tomorrow: Lessons from New Research,” Harvard University professor Howard Gardner shared early findings from a large-scale national study on the future of higher education. The following day, noted author and New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explored ways colleges and universities can help students discuss controversial issues without impeding free speech and civility in the session “Equipping a New Generation for Inclusion, Civility, and Understanding.” Esther D. Brimmer, executive director and CEO of NAFSA, discussed the future of internationalization in independent higher education in the session “Strategic Leadership for Internationalization.” In the closing plenary session, moderated by Augustana College (IL) President Steven C. Bahls, a panel of presidents—Roger N. Casey of McDaniel College (MD), Helen Drinan of Simmons University (MA), and Billy C. Hawkins of Talladega College (AL)—discussed their efforts to lead strategic change.

“This year—my 28th—marked another outstanding CIC Presidents Institute,” remarked Scott D. Miller, president of Virginia Wesleyan University. “The meetings provide an excellent platform for reflection as we close out one year and prepare to start anew. Time well spent indeed.”

During its annual awards banquet, CIC announced the recipients of its 2019 awards. CIC honored Johnnetta Betsch Cole with the 2019 Allen P. Splete Award for Outstanding Service. Currently a senior consulting fellow at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and principal consultant for Cook Ross, Inc., Cole previously served as director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art as well as president of Spelman (GA) and Bennett (NC) Colleges. CIC President Richard Ekman praised Cole’s leadership “in strengthening liberal arts education and promoting the humanities. As the only president who has served two HBCUs for women, she has dedicated herself to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in higher education and beyond.”

CIC presented the Award for Philanthropy (Organization) to the Bernard Osher Foundation. The San Francisco-based foundation gives generously to colleges and universities across the country, and especially in California and Maine, with a special emphasis on adult learners and returning or “reentry” students. The award was accepted by Bernard Osher Foundation Trustee John Gallo. CIC recognized the foundation’s extraordinary philanthropic support of more than a dozen private liberal arts colleges and universities.

The 2018 Award for Philanthropy (Individual) was presented to Robert O. Carr, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and founder of Give Something Back. Formerly a first-generation college student, Carr helps students who have faced adversity achieve a college education at no cost and without student loans or debt. CIC recognized Carr’s impact on the lives of thousands of high school and college students and the example he set for others.

In conjunction with the Presidents Institute, CIC also hosted the New Presidents Program for presidents in their first or second year, which included sessions for spouses and partners of new presidents; the Presidents Governance Academy for experienced presidents; and the Presidential Spouses and Partners Program.

Videos, slides, and documents from many of the plenary presentations, concurrent sessions, and workshops are available on the Institute website.

Participants seated at roundtables asking questions at a session During the 2019 New Presidents Program, which preceded the Presidents Institute, Paul Hennigan, president of Point Park University (PA), discussed “The Changed Environment for Presidential Leadership: Innovation and Beyond.”

Presenters gestures to projection screen in front of participants seated at roundtables CIC’s 2019 Presidents Institute, which took place in Scottsdale, Arizona, January 4–7, opened to a full house.

Participants discuss topics over breakfast seated at roundtables The Presidents Institute featured an Open Dialogue on Options for Private Higher Education in Institutional Banking and Commercial Lending. Christina Cutlip, senior managing director and head of client engagement and national advocacy at TIAA, moderated the session, which featured panelists John Pataky, executive vice president and chief consumer and commercial banking executive at TIAA Bank, and Roger D. Drake, president of Central Methodist University (MO).

Participants seated in a banquet hall with a stage and podiums in the front of the room Breakfast discussions provided informal opportunities for participants with similar interests to share information and ideas.

Tom Hellie and Robert Shelton hold a framed award with Richard Ekman Johnnetta Betsch Cole, president emerita of Spelman (GA) and Bennett (NC) Colleges, received the Allen P. Splete Award for Outstanding Service. The award was presented by Michael Gilligan, president of the Henry Luce Foundation, and sponsored by Jenzabar.

Arthur Levine stand on stage holding his framed award with Tom Hellie, Allen Splete, Robert Maginn, and Richard Ekman CIC presented the Award for Philanthropy (Organization) to the Bernard Osher Foundation, represented by Bernard Osher Foundation Trustee John Gallo. Elizabeth Hillman, president of Mills College (CA), presented the award.

Arthur Levine stand on stage holding his framed award with Tom Hellie, Allen Splete, Robert Maginn, and Richard Ekman The 2018 Award for Philanthropy (Individual) was presented to Robert O. Carr, founder and chair of Give Something Back. Pictured are Arvid C. Johnson, president of the University of St. Francis (IL), who presented the award; MaryAnn Baenninger, chair of the CIC Board of Directors and president of Drew University (NJ); Carr; and Richard Ekman, president of CIC.

Arthur Levine stand on stage holding his framed award with Tom Hellie, Allen Splete, Robert Maginn, and Richard Ekman The Presidential Spouses and Partners Task Force, which plans the spouses and partners programming at the Institute, included Christine Burns-DiBiasio of Ohio Northern University (second from left); Robyn Allers of McDaniel College (MD); Prema Samhat (chair) of Wofford College (SC); Jennifer Troha (chair-elect) of Juniata College (PA); Cayce McCormick of Schreiner University (TX); Christy Colson of Wartburg College (IA); Constance Currier Holoman of Centenary College of Louisiana; A. McGuire Gordon of the College of Saint Rose (NY); and J. Lawrence Smith of the York College of Pennsylvania. Also pictured is CIC Senior Vice President Katherine M. Whatley, who managed the program (far left).

Arthur Levine stand on stage holding his framed award with Tom Hellie, Allen Splete, Robert Maginn, and Richard Ekman During CIC’s annual business meeting on January 7, members heard several special reports, including a federal legislative and regulatory update from David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, whom CIC recognized for his 25 years of service.


Gardner Unveils Preliminary Findings from New Study

Howard Gardner presents while seated at a head table Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

During his keynote address, Howard Gardner seemed to be as eager to address the audience of more than 800 college presidents, spouses, and other higher education leaders as they were to hear from him. Gardner, an esteemed developmental psychologist who first garnered acclaim decades ago for his theory of multiple intelligences, revealed for the first time preliminary findings from his large-scale national study on the future of higher education in the arts and sciences. Gardner is John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. No stranger to long-term studies, he also is senior director of Harvard’s Project Zero, a 50-year inquiry into learning in and through the arts, as well as a co-founder and director of the Good Project, a set of initiatives that prepare students to become good citizens and good workers who contribute to society’s well-being.

Underwritten by 18 funders, Gardner’s latest project may be the largest qualitative study of higher education. The research draws on interviews with more than 2,000 students, faculty members, administrators, parents, alumni, trustees, and job recruiters on ten campuses (including DePaul University [IL] and Kenyon College [OH]) about the purposes of higher education and the value of non-career-oriented education. Higher ed researcher Richard Light and Project Zero senior project manager Wendy Fischman collaborate with Gardner on the project.

When he and his team began the study seven years ago, Gardner had no hypotheses. “I just wanted to find out what was going on,” he recalled, adding that social scientists with a strong hypothesis can too easily focus only on data related to that premise. Instead, his team looked simply for alignments and misalignments within and between constituencies and among different campuses.

Some of the interview questions asked were:

  • “How would you describe the students on this campus in one adjective?”
  • “Is it important to go to college? Why or why not?”
  • “If you were czar or czarina of the academic programs, what three changes would you make?”
  • “What are the biggest problems on campus?”

Gardner’s team is using big data analytical tools as well as traditional interview analysis to glean insights. At this preliminary stage, he offered campus leaders seven takeaways:

  1. “Most colleges are more similar to one another than one might have thought.” And the differences within and across colleges are often surprising. “For example, in the course of an hour-long interview, students from a wide variety of colleges used the same words, the same language.” But, Gardner added, they seem to mean different things by the same word. For example, “diverse” can refer to students from different cultural backgrounds or to students who favor different activities. Sometimes they may use different words (such as “diverse” and “quirky”) to mean the same thing. “More troubling, mental health challenges and feelings of alienation cut across colleges large and small, public and private, highly selective and less selective.”

  2. “Formulate and know your school’s mission,” he advised, “make sure that everyone knows and understands it. The mission should be fundamentally academic, unless the school is avowedly vocational.” He added that there can be a secondary mission—such as a civic or a religious mission—but that mission should be addressed academically.

  3. “Be flexible.” Very few students interviewed had specific ideas about what to change in the curriculum. “This gives faculty members and administrators a great deal of flexibility in the creation and curation of the curriculum. Campus leaders should take advantage of that opportunity.”

    Gardner believes that all college students should ponder big philosophical questions—ranging from the nature of truth to the meaning of a good life—and understand how various systems of communication work—spanning from languages to computer codes. “Those topics are crucial for an understanding of our human world, in its constant and in its rapidly changing guises.”

  4. “Strive for better alignment, and identify the misalignments.” As an example of alignment, he noted that issues of belonging loomed large across campuses. As an example of misalignment, he said that constituencies within and across campuses differed strikingly on whether colleges should teach practical and/or career-oriented skills.

  5. “Invest in people, not primarily in buildings.” Gardner found a surprising consensus among students: Campuses should “invest in effective teaching, in relevant, pointed advising, and in timely and sensitive personal support—which help students cope with their mental health challenges and feelings of alienation and anomie.” Acknowledging the appeal of bricks and mortar projects to donors, Gardner advised leaders to educate trustees about what is genuinely needed and useful. “The satisfaction of helping a student, or a cohort of students, to navigate the personal and academic challenges of college can be great.”

  6. “Maintain the ethos of the liberal arts and sciences, but don’t dwell on the phrase.” Gardner said that they began their study with unabashed admiration for traditional liberal arts. “But we learned that many, perhaps most respondents, cannot define liberal arts at all, or define it erroneously.”

    Gardner remarked, “I believe that the most promising formula for 21st-century higher education was identified by a graduating student at the Massachusetts-based Olin College of Engineering. As the student put it, ‘I’m getting the best of both worlds, a liberal arts education and an engineering degree.’” Gardner added, “If quality higher education is to survive in our nation—and perhaps if it is to survive globally—an auspicious blend of liberal arts and vocational training may be the most promising blend.”

  7. “Monitor your mission and guide it forward.” Speaking directly to the assembled college presidents, Gardner urged them to articulate a viable mission with the appropriate personnel and guidelines; show that they are moving in the right direction; and ensure that others on campus share and embody their vision.

For further developments on this research, follow Gardner’s blog.

Haidt Advises How to Equip a New Generation for Inclusion, Civility, and Understanding

Jonathan Haidt presents from a podium with a slideshow screen behind him Jonathan Haidt of New York University’s Stern School of Business

“We’re in a tough time,” acknowledged Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, in his plenary address. Rising financial pressures, growing mental health problems, and increasingly difficult relationships with faculty members and students are among the challenges presidents face today, he said.

The current, intense political and social discord in the U.S. is reflected on the nation’s campuses by student protests and a breakdown of civility in public discourse and in social media. While student activism can be thoughtful and inspired by clear inequities, Haidt pointed out, today’s student protests often are characterized by strong emotions, closed minds, intimidating tactics, and sometimes even violence.

Haidt is a social psychologist whose research helps people understand and respect the moral motives of those with whom they disagree. His latest book, The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), written with Greg Lukianoff, analyzes how efforts to keep young people emotionally “safe” may backfire and ultimately weaken their resilience and ability to handle difficulties.

In 2013 and 2014, Haidt relayed, stories about “trigger warnings” appeared and more speakers were disinvited from commencements due to pressure from student groups or faculty members. “We started hearing the first reports of ‘safe spaces,’” he said. Then in 2015, protests erupted on campuses across the country.

In 2016, Haidt continued, “the culture on campus changed. There was a lot of turmoil…often starting as racial issues, but it extended to almost everything.” And when Donald Trump was elected president, “the volume, the tensions, and the passions on college campuses [increased] quite a lot.” From riots at UC Berkeley, to attacks on faculty at Middlebury College (VT), to Nazis at University of Virginia in Charlottesville, “most leaders have been so caught off guard, they don’t understand what’s happening.” This makes it hard to act, Haidt said. “When leaders are faced with these sorts of protests, they are often visibly afraid.” They do not want to challenge the students’ narrative. But if the president capitulates to student demands, the institution and the leader both can lose moral credibility, often leading to violence and intimidation.

Haidt also shared instances of strong, clear leadership during campus protests. These leaders “don’t seem to be afraid of their students. They always validate specific points without validating the entire narrative. And when students break rules…[those students] are punished.”  

In this new climate of “safetyism” on campus it is difficult to educate students, Haidt emphasized. “Students in such a culture think that they are fragile, that they live in a dangerous and hostile country and university, and that they therefore need protection from words, books, and speakers. And they think that you, the president or other administrative staff, must give them this protection.” But what are the roots of this strange new culture?

Although anxiety, depression, and social media play into it, Haidt maintains that overprotection of children throughout their childhood is the root cause. In the 1990s, he explained, just as the crime wave of the 1980s ended, “we freaked out and said, ‘If any kid is ever unsupervised, that kid could be snatched, and that parent should be arrested for negligence.’” Haidt said in the 1990s children were constantly supervised and scheduled. “We denied them the joys of childhood at the most important time of childhood learning, which is roughly ages seven or eight to about 11 or 12. Increasingly, research shows that when you deny kids play… you are inviting depression and anxiety. Depriving kids of play makes them anxious, fragile, non-resilient, and non-independent,” Haidt said.

Research on Millennial students compared with Gen-Z students shows that something changed for children born in 1995 or later. “They have a very different behavioral profile…. Fewer bother to get their driver’s license…. They’re not going out on dates, and they’re not working for money. They’re not doing all the sorts of things outside the home that would prepare them for life or at least for college. Instead, they’re home on their beds on their devices.”

Haidt cited research by Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at UC Berkeley, that explained: “By shielding children from every possible risk, we may lead them to react with exaggerated fear to situations that aren’t risky at all and isolate them from the adult skills that they will one day have to master.”

The result of these developmental changes, Haidt maintained, is widespread depression. “Now one-sixth of college women say that they have a mental disorder.” Hospital admission rates for girls ages 15 to 19 (for cutting, or non-lethal self-harming) increased by 62 percent from 2009 to 2015. The suicide rate for girls and boys ages 15 to 19 also has skyrocketed in recent years (up 25 percent for males and 70 percent for females since the 2001–2010 period). The main driver for these increases is social media, Haidt said. “Girls have higher rates of depression and anxiety to begin with, and so girls who are prone to depression and anxiety are more easily devastated and pushed to suicide by social media.”

Beginning in 2013 and 2014, college campuses saw spikes in visits to the college mental health center. “They’re flooded.” It’s not due to stress or increases in schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, Haidt said. “The only thing that’s rising is depression and anxiety.”

Given this information, Haidt laid out several recommendations for college and university leaders:

  1. Talk about anti-fragility. Students are not fragile and don’t need over-protection. Campuses shouldn’t validate “emotional” safety; education is meant to make people think, not to make them comfortable.

  2. Pass a version of the Chicago principles of freedom of expression on campus. Provide a platform upon which all campus constituents can discuss and debate. Do not take sides or suppress views; it should be up to faculty and staff members and students to “openly and vigorously contest the ideas they oppose.”

  3. Admit hardier students. “Favor gap years, veterans, and look for evidence of a student’s ability to live independently and tolerate a diversity of viewpoints.”

  4. Teach cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Promote norms of critical thinking. “If your mental health or counseling centers are overrun, teach CBT; a three-hour orientation session on CBT could give everyone a common vocabulary.”

  5. Use the Open Mind program—a psychology-based educational platform designed to depolarize campuses and communities. Teach students about the pitfalls of human psychology and help them practice engaging with different views. “Open Mind can help improve students’ thinking and interaction with each other.”

  6. Support open inquiry, inclusion, multiculturalism, and diversity. “The key for higher education is not free speech. The key is to create an environment in which people participate in conversations with those who differ without fear of exclusion, shaming, and intimidation. A healthy speech culture will be inclusive and open and therefore must be protected by walls and rules. It must not be an extension of the public square.”

  7. Visit, a politically diverse group of more than 2,500 professors and graduate students working to improve the quality of research and education in colleges and universities by increasing viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement. Haidt co-founded the Heterodox Academy and currently chairs the board.

NAFSA CEO Says Stable Policies and Clear Processes Ease the Way for International Students

Esther Brimmer presents from a podium Esther D. Brimmer of NAFSA: Association of International Educators

“If students, particularly those from regions of the world of strategic interest to the United States, no longer come here, we will lose the ability for our country to build relationships with future leaders and to strengthen our own national security,” emphasized Esther D. Brimmer, executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, in her plenary address, “Strategic Leadership for Internationalization.”

NAFSA is the world’s largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. It works to advance policies and practices that ensure a more interconnected, peaceful world. The organization’s 10,000 members include 3,500 institutions in 150 countries.

Brimmer pointed to increasing competition among institutions around the world for international students, coupled with U.S. visa policy changes, as factors that dissuade students from deciding to study in the United States. Canada, New Zealand, China, and other countries are actively recruiting international students by “enacting nationwide policies that make it easier for them to study and gain work experiences.” She illustrated that in 2017 more than 489,000 international students were studying in China, a 10 percent increase from 2016. And China is on track to reach its goal of half a million international students by 2020.

Chatham University (PA) President David Finegold underscored Brimmer’s point during the session’s question-and-answer period. “A few months after I started [as president], we hosted an international higher education summit to which I invited four colleagues from Canada to discuss common North American issues around higher ed.” He recalled that the Canadians gave the Americans an ironic standing ovation because the 2016 U.S. election outcome enabled Canada to reach its five-year international student enrollment target in just six months.

Beyond actual legislation, Brimmer cautioned, in “today’s political environment in the United States, we continue to hear harmful rhetoric” that targets international students and scholars, refugees, and immigrants. In contrast, internationalization involves the recognition that our global community is intricately connected. NAFSA works to diversify the numbers and types of students who study outside their home country and widen the range of places to which they travel.

The majority of U.S. students will never study abroad, although interest in study abroad is high. Brimmer cited a recent report that indicated 81 percent of students want to study abroad, but most of them face prohibitive institutional, curricular, cultural, and financial barriers. Currently, less than 2 percent of U.S. college students study abroad each year. By graduation, only 10 percent will have had an international education experience. “For 90 percent of students, their window on the world will be framed by their home campus…. But we can help bring the world to these students through curricular and co-curricular programming to ensure graduates are prepared to…lead the way to a stronger future for all nations.”

To lead a college or university toward increased internationalization, Brimmer challenged her audience, colleges and universities must build bridges between academic affairs and student affairs and increase the number of international students on their campus. She noted that efforts to enrich the curriculum and to incorporate innovative teaching methods could benefit both local and international students.

CIC President Richard Ekman asked Brimmer for guidance on how small institutions might select the countries or institutions with which to partner. She emphasized the importance of a long-term view and investment when selecting partners and countries to work closely with. “Identify institutions that share your fundamental values so that that the partner and the home institution have common long-term interests,” she said, and that programs and curriculum align well.

Such long-term relationships make the most of the value international students receive when they study in the United States. “These huge strengths continue to exist—the fantastic curricular programs, fundamental academic strength, the spirit of inquiry, free speech, and critical thinking. This is not true in all countries.” The U.S. still has these strengths, Brimmer believes, and Americans should talk about them more.

Many American colleges and universities are in “welcoming communities with strong, local relationships,” she said, and it is important to say, “our community wants you here.”

Brimmer advised Institute participants to remind policy makers from all parties that uncertainty is the primary challenge for international partnerships. “For example, announcing that we might change ‘duration of status’—that worries people. That’s not a partisan issue.” Participants discussed the difficulties their admitted international students are experiencing with delays in visa approval, sometimes until after they should have been already on campus. She concluded the question-and-answer period by restating her belief that stable policies and clear processes can ease the way for international students to benefit from an education in the United States.

Experienced Presidents Describe Efforts to Lead Strategic Change

Three presenters and a moderator seated in chairs on a stagePresidents Steven C. Bahls of Augustana College (IL), Helen G. Drinan of Simmons University (MA), Roger N. Casey of McDaniel College (MD), and Billy C. Hawkins of Talladega College (AL)

Efforts to lead strategic change on U.S. campuses—all of which are facing sweeping changes in demographics, enrollment patterns, cost structures, and public perceptions of the purpose and value of a college education—are extremely challenging. In the most successful cases, presidential vision and the ability to motivate and coalesce campus constituents are crucial. The closing plenary of the 2019 Presidents Institute featured a panel of presidents who have repositioned their institutions for growth and financial stability.

Presidents Roger N. Casey of McDaniel College (MD), Helen G. Drinan of Simmons University (MA), Billy C. Hawkins of Talladega College (AL), with moderator Steven C. Bahls of Augustana College (IL), shared their stories of success.

Bahls opened the session by citing the book How the Mighty Fall by Jim Collins, which concludes that organizations often fail because of trying to implement too much change too quickly—and that the change often is not strategic or connected to mission. Bahls asked, “So, how do we push our institutions for strategic change, without our institutions collapsing upon themselves?” He encouraged the panelists to describe how they have led strategic change at their institutions, focusing on the attributes of presidential leadership that have enabled that change.

Drinan, a national expert on women in education who has been recognized for her work on behalf of women’s and girls’ education and leadership, noted that she began her presidency at Simmons just as the Great Recession was beginning. “In some ways, that gave us cover, because everyone was in pain. But we were surely in pain. I learned in my first month that we had lost $30 million during the previous three years. We had buildings under construction that we borrowed the money for and the money was gone…. Our budget was way too optimistic on the revenue side and too unrealistic on the cost side.”

“First, we had to get our [fiscal] house in order and we had to lay people off…and then we had to level our expenses and focus on monitoring our revenues,” Drinan explained. “Next we had to look at strategy…. I went into the strategic planning process with great trepidation, because our previous strategic planning process…[led to] no resolution of ideas.” So Drinan hired a consultant experienced in successfully managing strategic change in an academic environment.

The key elements of launching strategic change, Drinan said, required the president to commit to an open process; the establishment of many small teams that were empowered to make decisions; the president’s trust of these teams to make decisions; the appointment of a strong leader and a committed team to oversee the implementation; and agreed-upon tactics, reporting strategies, and consistent timeframes. From there, Drinan said, it was critical “to constantly speak language from the plan” to ensure that people understood the strategy, the plan, and its implementation.

When Roger Casey arrived at McDaniel in 2010, he made a list of the college’s strengths, opportunities, and challenges. The challenges included a recent name change from Western Maryland College to McDaniel; a 40-page strategic plan “that was not a plan and not strategic”; visible deferred maintenance; stagnation in net tuition revenue; a distinctive but expensive general education program; many low-enrolled, low-yielding majors; and a remote campus in a town with little diversity. The list of positives on campus included a supportive board that was interested in change; an unbelievably student-focused faculty; a historic focus on first-generation college students; inclusion in the book Colleges That Change Lives; participation in a great athletic conference; and diverse income streams, a graduate program, a campus in Budapest, and a for-profit arm. In the past 15 years, McDaniels’ student body has become much more diverse, moving from 7 percent students of color to 38 percent students of color today.

Casey formed a critical strategic thinking group, created a single set of 20 comparison institutions, and focused on the financial plan of the college. “We wrote a new mission statement and created a new, two-page strategic plan that boiled down to ‘students first, think great.’ That became the mantra that guided all decisions.”

They also focused on developing the quality of the prospective student experience. Casey explained, “We launched the Million Dollar Walk Project to improve visible deferred maintenance. We launched two programs centered on the student experience: First Stop for first-year students and the Center for Experience and Opportunity.” In addition, Casey “focused on pricing strategies, reinvested in NCAA Division III athletics, reassessed and made significant changes to the general education program, restructured the senior administration, merged the academic and student affairs areas, and reduced a number of positions…to save money.”

Casey also created Global Fellows, a program that allows students to internationalize any major; Encompass Distinction, a multidisciplinary entrepreneurship curriculum; and Educator’s Legacy, a guaranteed scholarship for children of K–12 or community college employees.

The McDaniel faculty is now in the midst of a complete strategic overhaul of the curriculum in which majors will be eliminated with the savings to be reinvested in the faculty. Casey said the keys to success are to “have an extraordinarily high internal locus of control,” tell the truth constantly, be decisive, keep students first, and realize that “faculty members are the keepers of the flame, and it’s really about their culture, in terms of what defines the institution.”

During Billy Hawkins’s 11-year tenure at Talladega, student enrollment has increased by more than 70 percent, finances have been restructured and stabilized, new buildings have been constructed, and new academic programs have been added. In addition, the college gained reinstatement into the National Association of Independent Athletics and won three national championships in men’s and women’s basketball.

But when Hawkins arrived on campus, the college had only 280 students and was on the brink of closure. “We had every financial problem you can think of. The institution, the buildings, and the grounds” were in disrepair. With full support of the board, they made major staffing changes, partnered with the city of Talladega to clean up the campus, and reintroduced the brand of “Academic Excellence” that Talladega was founded on 151 years ago.

Given this brand, Hawkins decided that “if we can put our athletic teams in uniform, we’re going to put our academic scholars in uniform as well.” The Presidential Scholars initiative was thus born. “We bought very nice powder blue blazers for the scholars…and then we saw our culture changing and how proud those students were to come to convocation wearing those blazers…. We put academics first and put it right out front.”

Hawkins had another “crazy idea” about starting a marching band. “Everyone told this crazy president that you can’t start a marching band without a football team. And I said, yes, I can, it’ll be a show band. This is a leadership point that I’m making here.” Today that band has 300 members and does over 40 performances per year all over the country, including recently the halftime show for the New Orleans Saints.

In fall 2018, Talladega introduced its first master’s program and opened a $7 million dormitory. The college soon will open a new student center along with a 2,000 seat attached arena. In addition, enrollment increased nearly 60 percent this past fall. Hawkins concluded that, “as the president, you’ve got to stand tall, stand strong, and stand for what you believe in.”

Bahls noted that it is fairly easy to get support in the strategic planning process, but “we often fall down in execution of those plans.” He asked, “How do you motivate faculty members, staff, and administrators to work with you in execution of strategic plans?”

Drinan discussed undertaking online education to solve revenue problems. After much naysaying and discouragement, ultimately “that strategy was an unbelievable success. It took us from revenues of about $5 million in 2014 to revenues close to $80 million last year. That is an unbelievable example of a single focused strategy that at first failed but then succeeded with perseverance.” Now Simmons has a small undergraduate population of 1,700, about 2,000 on-the-ground graduate students, and close to 4,000 online graduate students. “We’re in every state in the union and in Israel. That could not happen for Simmons University without a strategy, teamwork, and real perseverance.”

Casey emphasized that keeping people focused on the strategic plan, transparency, and using data to explain the budget is key. “It has been critically important for everyone to understand where the money comes from and why we made certain decisions.” He also maintained that dismissing members of the team who are not 100 percent committed or who do not have the skill set for their jobs is critical. “This constant education process and this sort of obsession with getting the right people to make the mission happen have been critical in our positive moves.”

Hawkins agreed that transparency is important in the strategic change process, but he added that “engaging the faculty in every aspect of the decision making process and bringing equity within the faculty ranks” also is key.

Sessions Explore Strategic Change in Enrollment, Business Models, and Student Outcomes

In addition to a stimulating closing plenary panel, a number of concurrent sessions addressed the 2019 Presidents Institute theme of “Leading Strategic Change” directly, pointing to strategies that presidents can use to conceive, plan, and manage necessary change to help their institutions thrive. Whether the primary goals concern the business model, financial stability, enrollment growth, or student outcomes, the presenters in these sessions provided clear strategic ideas and examples to help presidents lead their campuses through productive change.

Considerations for Higher Education Business Models

Three presidents—Elizabeth Davis of Furman University (SC), Lawrence M. Schall of Oglethorpe University (GA), and Elizabeth L. Paul of Capital University (OH)—discussed their approaches to business models.

Davis said that she consistently frames Furman’s business model when discussing with trustees specific business decisions the university plans to make. She describes Furman’s market position as determined by its programs and its prestige, measured by U.S. News & World Report rankings, and she uses the model as a strategic tool to determine how to strengthen that position relative to the institutions with which Furman competes for student applications. The business model’s components include the student profile, the Carnegie Classification and U.S. News categories, degrees offered, revenue sources, operations, and financial management. Davis showed how Furman compares with its competitors in each aspect of the model. Every decision the university makes that impacts one of these components is a business decision: “Size is a business decision; Division I athletics is a business decision,” Davis exemplified.

Davis speaks from podium to participants seated at roundtables
Co-panelist Elizabeth Davis, president of Furman University (SC), discussed approaches presidents can take to reconsider and redefine the institution’s business model.

Schall explained that Oglethorpe’s business model is based on three key strategies: “Partner or perish” to create new sources of revenue; “focus on net tuition growth, not the rate of discount”; and tightly manage operating expenses without compromising the mission. He showed that in comparison with other national liberal arts institutions, Oglethorpe “is on the low end of per student spending,” but that still enables the university to serve its students effectively. Combining these strategies has helped Oglethorpe prosper in difficult times by increasing net tuition revenue by 80 percent, net assets by 300 percent, and net revenue from operations from a negative $4 million a year to a positive $4 million. Although the discount rate has increased, Schall sees this as far less important than net tuition growth.

Paul discussed the important role of business model analysis in addressing current financial challenges in higher education. Rather than focusing intently on how to achieve a balanced budget, she advocates studying ways in which the business model may be shifted to achieve greater financial strength and institutional effectiveness. At Capital University, Paul has conducted an in-depth analysis of the university’s business model—identifying areas of opportunity and challenge—and she warned “Organizational culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” Paul also highlighted the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) project on higher education business models. NACUBO’s Economic Models Project encourages institutions to focus on the opportunities of the future instead of past legacies. It provides a four-part framework essential to economic sustainability—mission, structure, strengths, and resources—and offers key questions to consider in each category as well as opportunities for innovation and transformation. She suggested that the NACUBO model is useful for stakeholder engagement, strategic planning, accreditation self-study, enterprise risk management, or leadership transitions.

Presidential Leadership and Innovative Strategies for Fiscal Stability and Growth

The analysis of an institution’s business model often suggests that new avenues for increasing revenue are needed. Presidents who were seeking new ideas participated in a session on leadership and innovative strategies for fiscal stability and growth. Panelists Lucie Lapovsky, principal of Lapovsky Consulting and former president of Mercy College (NY), and presidents Lori Varlotta of Hiram College (OH) and Marylou Yam of Notre Dame of Maryland University outlined innovative approaches their institutions have taken to meeting financial challenges. After reviewing circumstances at their own institutions, the two presidents discussed how they made academic changes through prioritization and assessment processes and how they branded and marketed the changes. Lapovsky followed those presentations with a discussion of pricing and marketing strategies undertaken by other institutions.

Hiram’s process led to a comprehensive redesign of academic structures and major changes to the undergraduate experience, including a new common first-year experience, a coherent core, integrated majors, and experiential practices. The goal, said Varlotta, is “a 21st-century skill set and mindset.” One of the innovative programs to emerge from the overhaul is Tech and Trek, which teaches students how to use technology creatively and critically to augment learning, navigate the educational journey, and prepare for today’s workplace.

At Notre Dame of Maryland, a wide variety of new programs were added or are under way, including programs for higher education and occupational therapy doctoral degrees, undergraduate and graduate art therapy degrees, an accelerated BSN degree, and degrees in hospitality and risk management. In addition, the university enhanced its online offerings and developed “programs and institutes of distinction,” including the Women’s Leadership Institute of Baltimore, the Women of the World (WOW) Festival in Baltimore, and the Rice Institute for Global Leadership. The university’s marketing emphasizes four pillars of women’s education for the 21st century: personal leadership, mentorship and sponsorship, global awareness, and teamwork and communication.

Both presidents showed marketing videos that vividly illustrated the focus of their newly reimagined academic programming on individual student experiences. Lapovsky concurred that in seeking to diversify revenue sources, institutions must balance issues of enrollment, market sensitivity, and mission. “Too many think only about institutional survival,” she emphasized, “rather than about the need to be student-centered.”

Developing a Strategic Response to Enrollment Shifts

In an energetic and interactive session, Beck A. Taylor, president of Whitworth University (WA), and Kevin W. Crockett, senior executive at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, discussed principles and a model of developing a strategic response to enrollment shifts.

Crocket opened with a summary of the enrollment story all too familiar to independent colleges and universities: Student demand is flattening or shrinking in parts of the country, following an incredible expansion in higher education from roughly 2.5 to 20 million students overall between in 1949 and 2016. Participation rates have slowed down, after steep increases since 1980. Student demographic profiles are changing significantly. Finally, net tuition revenue overall has stagnated in the last decade. Simply put, most campuses have two options in response: Let decline happen, or “engage in constant strategic enrollment planning.”

In Taylor’s experience, strategic enrollment planning consultants can help by providing both expertise and technical know-how as well as by “holding a campus responsible” in every phase of the process. For example, consultants can provide a data-driven situational analysis, strategies and tactics identification and prioritization, and realistic enrollment goal setting. In addition, they can help guide implementation, monitoring, evaluating, and adjusting the plan year after year. Although Whitworth started the process before a financial crisis had emerged and its strategy reflected specific circumstances, Taylor argued compellingly that every campus must make investment resources available before making strategic enrollment changes. “Don’t even think of starting the process if you don’t have capital to invest in new strategies,” Crocket concurred, noting that borrowing can be an option. Through focused and admittedly painful program costing analysis and other cost-reduction measures, the effort at Whitworth netted $3.7 million that over time can be invested in strategic program areas.

Taylor involved every campus constituency in identifying growth strategies demonstrated to be revenue producing and to net at least 25 more students each. “That process has to be collaborative and take advantage of shared governance,” Taylor emphasized. But he also said that presidential leadership, involvement, and frequent and transparent reporting is a key success component. “Definitely avoid the ‘STP problem’—relying on the same ten people.” The Whitworth working groups ultimately submitted 75 proposals. Thirty-six were deemed viable, and several—ranging from undergraduate, graduate, market penetration, retention, and athletic program strategies—are currently being implemented. Those projects are projected to net 51 new unduplicated students in year one to 474 in year five with $30.9 million in additional net-revenue.

Asked to share parting notes, Crocket advised: “Make sure every step of the process is data-driven. That cuts down on the failure rate significantly.” Taylor encouraged: “It is not too late to start, and every campus can do it.” But he warned: “Do not underestimate the time it takes, including for presidents, to do academic program costing and strategic enrollment management. Also, realize that for the foreseeable future, enrollment management will be a key presidential priority year after year. It is an ongoing process.”

Leading Strategic Change: Lessons from the Field

Three presidents from vastly different institutions led a session titled Leading Strategic Change: Lessons from the Field. David W. Andrews of National University (CA), Ivan L. Filby of Greenville University (IL), and John P. Marsden of Midway University (KY), shared their experiences in leading institutions through pivotal decisions to innovate and change and, ultimately, succeed against the odds. The institutions included a rural institution with financial and enrollment issues, a single-sex institution with a large online presence that led to image and financial problems, and a largely online university with an unconventional story that thrives on disruption of traditional academic models.

Filby told participants that, as a first-time president, he was an unexpected choice when he was named president of Greenville University six years ago. He was the fifth CEO at Greenville in eight years, yet the red flags that heralded the appointment only encouraged his commitment to communicate fully to students, the community, faculty members, and trustees the vision that was, he said, in his heart and mind. The most urgent problems the university faced were financial, caused in part by the institution’s desire to pay back debt in an expeditious manner and a prohibition against multi-year budgeting. Filby advised session participants to make deep cuts the first time they set academic priorities and to communicate deliberately. Filby employed the use of a countdown clock that mapped out a 1,000-day transition from Greenville College to Greenville University, with opportunities for sharing the message, obtaining buy-in during the transition, and reaching out to the community to identify new opportunities. For example, at Greenville, students that worked with a business incubator designed three high-end pieces of furniture that resulted in royalties to the university. Other advice that Filby offered were to “hire people that are smarter than you are” and to never waste a crisis. “They [crises] are horrible,” he said, “but they are brilliant. They are a gift. They allow you to do things that you never could have done before.”  

Filby speaks from podium in front of slideshow screen to participants seated at roundtables
Co-panelist Ivan L. Filby, president of Greenville University (IL), described experiences in leading a university to innovate and change.

When Marsden joined Midway University in 2013, the institution served three student populations: traditional students who enrolled in its small women’s college; students enrolled in undergraduate online programs; and students in one graduate program. Marsden recognized two significant related problems: First, Midway had a weak identity and, to compound that, its large online program led some to believe that it was a for-profit institution. The second problem was a weak culture, also attributable to the online program, where faculty members were absent from campus. Some administrative assistants were advising students, and some faculty members had additional jobs elsewhere. A $3.5 million budget shortfall revealed serious financial issues at a time when Midway faced an upcoming site visit for a ten-year reaffirmation of accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

The leadership team took immediate action to reduce the workforce by 30 percent through layoffs of staff and faculty members. They also eliminated perquisites such as college cars and free meals, and then looked for ways to increase revenue. They collected unpaid tuition, lowered the discount rate from 60 percent to 51 percent, increased the number of graduate programs, added international partnerships, and moved into coeducation programs. At the same time, a failing institution approached Midway for assistance with teach-outs and a home for some of its male athletic teams. The university soon began to expand, with record increases in enrollment. Marsden also increased his contact with the board chair, scheduling calls several times a week to ensure the board was fully aware of the challenges ahead and the solutions deployed. He was communicative with the campus, but learned to be less specific with the information he shared. “Not everyone has the best interest of the institution at heart,” Marsden said, and noted that oversharing can lead to misinformation being shared widely on social media. But, he added, “communicating with the campus is important so that there is hope.” Finally, after five years, he and his new executive team were able to give raises in January 2018. “In the beginning,” Marsden said, “we could not recruit board members. Companies did not want to work with us. Students weren’t interested. We were borrowing to make payroll. Now, everyone wants to work with us. Now, we are raising millions of dollars to support our growth.”

Andrews quickly acknowledged the difference in scale, mission, and strategy that his institution—National University—represented on the panel; but, like the co-panelists, he too was focused on change strategies. “Sometimes crises can motivate change,” Andrews said, “but sometimes you need dual transformation. Even as you are running your trains on the smoothest tracks, you still need to build new tracks, especially in this time for higher education.”

Andrews came to National from Johns Hopkins University, where he was dean of the School of Education, and earlier Ohio State University. His credentials were favored among faculty members, who were relieved that he might ground National in a more traditional approach. But, Andrews explained, the board wanted him to push innovation, which aligns more closely with the university’s origins and history. National was founded in the back of a veteran’s van in 1971, and today its faculty consists of 300 full-time and 3,000 adjunct members. The university serves a mostly working adult student population and provides 75 percent of its courses online. It caters to veterans and active service military members, who comprise a third of National’s student body. Andrews noted that knowing students well is key to strategic change. “If you know enough about your students at a granular level,” he said, “you can do a two-sided market match that is unlike anything we have seen in education. It allows you to serve up the right kind of support and education.”

Strategies at National include an emphasis on asynchronous online education, which lets students control their schedules; personalized, precision education that uses data to measure a student’s proficiency and identify areas for improvement; and the restructuring of schools and colleges. Andrews achieved this by building what he called a coalition of the willing. “It means a coalition of those who wanted to participate. I asked people to raise their hands, and the first ones became part of the club. The rest had to wait their turn to participate in the changes that were taking place.” Andrews also pointed to distinctions in the “what” and “how” of change. “Board decisions provide a mandate on ‘the what,’” Andrews said. “But to determine ‘the how’ to change requires room to maneuver, to speed up and slow down the process of change.”

Andrews pointed to transparency and carefully planned communication to keep strategic initiatives on track. He concluded by noting that National is exploring emerging opportunities that are not found at most traditional college and universities. “People now expect to learn anytime, anywhere, at any pace.”

Presenters Discuss Diversity, Inclusion, and Free Speech Challenges on Campus

Several concurrent sessions during the 2019 Presidents Institute addressed the themes of civility, inclusion, and viewpoint diversity that Jonathan Haidt introduced during his plenary address on January 5. Together, these sessions helped participants explore how strong campus leadership and clear academic missions can help shape constructive and thoughtful campus conversations about political, social, and religious differences.

Free Speech Challenges

In a session devoted to “Presidential Strategies for Free Speech Challenges,” Andrea E. Chapdelaine, president of Hood College (MD), and Zach P. Messitte, president of Ripon College (WI), described how their institutions responded to specific free speech conflicts that became magnified through social media and attention from outside groups. Emily Chamlee-Wright, president and CEO of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, added a national, cross-sector perspective on developing effective policies to protect free speech on campus.

four panelists speak from head table
James H. Mullen, president of Allegheny College (PA), moderated a session on "Presidential Strategies for Free Speech Challenges" with panelists  Andrea E. Chapdelaine, president of Hood College (MD); Emily Chamlee-Wright, president and CEO of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University; and Zach P. Messitte, president of Ripon College (WI).

The free speech clash at Hood began in April 2017, when the Hood College Republicans requested and received access to a public space set aside for poster displays by student groups. The display included quotes from conservative organizations regarding abortion and transgender identity as well as images and text that many students—and then faculty and staff members, alumni, and outside commentators—considered offensive or derogatory. Conversely, others, especially outside conservative groups, rushed to defend the campus group, leading to a flurry of media and social media attention from all sides. The outside attention drew focus away from two questions Chapdelaine and her leadership team considered to be crucial: Did the college follow its own policies in allowing the display, and what should they do next?

Chapdelaine reached out immediately to the Republican club (via their faculty advisor) to make sure that they understood why other students considered the posters “a form of harassment.” Also, in a pair of campus-wide communications issued within 48 hours of the poster display, she assured students and others that campus leaders were having discussions with students, administrators, and faculty members to come to a resolution that was consistent with the values of the institution, stating that “as an educational community, our best response is not with the act of taking down a display, but in how to move forward.” Meanwhile, after discussions with the faculty, senior team, and board chair, Chapdelaine decided to let the posters remain on display. At the same time, the college prepared a detailed set of talking points to respond to the overheated media attention.

Chapdelaine drew several lessons from this episode. When a free speech crisis erupts, college presidents need to “communicate as soon as possible and often,” relying on the advice of their communications staff. But they also need to “take as much time to act as possible,” so they can “separate personal reactions and emotions from what is in the best interest of the [institution].” Likewise, “do not make hasty policy changes—do thorough, transparent, and inclusive review when time has passed.” At Hood, this meant a new policy for vetting the factual accuracy of student poster displays prior to approval. And most important, “Let the students lead when possible.” At Hood, this included a campus forum where student leaders debated and passed a resolution about shared expectations for open, respectful discourse on campus and a “positivity campaign” consisting of hundreds of post-it notes around campus espousing self-affirming messages (such as “diversity is what makes us beautiful”). Chapdelaine described these as “the finest hour for our students.”

Messitte described a similar crisis at Ripon, which began in August 2018 as the local chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF)—a national conservative group energized by the recent presidential election—prepared for its annual 9/11 memorial. The memorial, in the form of mid-sized posters to be hung at public locations around campus, was titled “Never Forget” but emphasized images of post-9/11 terrorist violence that many on campus considered inflammatory and intentionally hostile to Muslim students.

The same poster had been displayed in 2017, prompting formal bias complaints but also spirited responses from other students who tacked up “counter-posters” for comments. When Ripon administrators met with campus YAF leaders to discuss how to promote more thoughtful opportunities for students to respond to the posters in 2018, a record of the meeting was shared with the national organization. The episode was reduced to an inaccurate summary on the YAF website that said Ripon administrators prohibited the Ripon YAF students from hanging the flyers. Almost immediately, the statement was picked up and further distorted on conservative social media, then mainstream media, in what Messitte described as the “YAF Social Storm.”

Ripon had already made the decision to allow the poster. Its challenge now was to correct the external falsehoods and defend the college’s reputation as “a moderate campus.” The ambitious plan was to respond to every alumni complaint and as many internet trolls as practicable. The college also reached out proactively to local media, the Associated Press, and, a prominent website for debunking internet myths.

“Don’t let falsehoods stay out there,” Messitte concluded. “There must be a counter-story to every negative story. Free speech, yes—but get the facts right,” whether on campus or off campus. Like Chapdelaine, he urged presidents to “allow students to come to their own conclusions.” At Ripon, this meant that YAF members quickly heard from their own peers how much the episode had damaged the institution’s reputation. Finally, he urged presidents to make sure that campus free speech policies are solid, up to date, and consistently followed.

Chamlee-Wright reiterated the need for effective “time, place, and manner” policies to help defuse free speech conflicts in advance. Drawing on her organization’s national work with public and private institutions, she offered the following advice to participants: First, make sure you articulate to others why colleges and universities must protect freedom of expression and “the truth-seeking enterprise.” Second, prepare principled policies in advance, with input from key stakeholders, “so everyone knows what the rules and guideposts are.” And third, “let content-neutrality be your guiding principle.”

Leading Multifaith Campuses

The increase in religious diversity at American colleges and universities has created new opportunities for interfaith conflict as well as interfaith understanding. This was the theme of a session devoted to “Effective Approaches for Leading Multifaith Campuses.”

four panelists speak from head table
Richard L. Dunsworth, president of the University of the Ozarks (AR), chaired a session on “Effective Approaches for Leading the Multifaith Campus” featuring panelists Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core; William J. Craft, president of Concordia College (MN); and Mary Dana Hinton, president of College of Saint Benedict (MN).

Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), which works with many CIC institutions to help create programs and opportunities that address religious diversity, began the discussion. Patel observed, “When I ask academic administrators what percent of their campus’s new student orientation addresses issues of diversity, the answer is usually a very high number. But when I ask the same question about religious diversity, the answer ranges from a very small percentage to none at all.” Yet, he noted, most students will encounter an ever-increasing level of religious diversity—not only at college, but throughout their lives. Patel suggested that colleges can prepare students for the world that they will encounter after graduation only if they provide students with information, tools, and resources they need to understand and to relate to people who “orient around religion differently.”

The remainder of the session was constructed as an interview, with Patel asking questions of the two other panelists: William J. Craft, president of Concordia College (MN), and Mary Dana Hinton, president of the College of Saint Benedict (MN). Patel asked the panelists to recall what event or moment made religious diversity into a presidential-level concern. Craft responded that the crystalizing moment occurred when he learned that, in the cities where Concordia is located (Moorhead, Minnesota, and Fargo, North Dakota), public school students speak more than 100 different languages. Such linguistic diversity often signals a high level of religious diversity. For Hinton, a number of issues in the news were important motivators: the Muslim travel ban, for example, and the widely varying reactions of different religious groups to LGBTQ issues. But she also discovered that the approach to faith, worship, and religious practice in her own institutional context—Roman Catholic and, more specifically, Benedictine—“did not seem to be resonating with students to the same degree as had previously been the case.” This was true, she said, even for some students who self-identified as Catholic. She recognized that students bring increasingly diverse cultural, linguistic, and stylistic appropriations of their religious traditions to campus. “Some institutions—even those that are grounded in a particular faith tradition—are not always well-equipped to face that reality.”

Patel then asked how each president had redefined the challenges related to religious diversity as a form of opportunity. Hinton observed that an institution’s mission can often serve as an important anchor in these conversations. For example, she noted, “the Benedictine values of hospitality and justice have been important since the college’s founding.” These values, she continued, underscore the need to face religious diversity with an open, welcoming, and equitable stance. She drew an analogy to the college’s past encounters with difference: At the outset of World War I, the Benedictine sisters made it clear that they would accept and educate the children of the German immigrants who had populated the Minnesota countryside, regardless of public animosity toward people of German descent. This, Hinton noted, is similar to the college’s present-day conviction that it should welcome people of any religious faith (or none), regardless of public opinion about people’s specific beliefs.

Craft echoed this sentiment, adding that Concordia College has emphasized a similar point through its Forum on Faith and Life. The key leaders of that initiative, he said, have explained that the college’s commitment to religious diversity is not an exception or caveat in its Lutheran heritage, but rather is undertaken precisely because of that heritage. Patel affirmed this point, noting that, in his encounters with colleges and universities throughout the country, there is often a positive correlation between the depth of an institution’s grasp of its own faith tradition and its ability to articulate its perspective on religious diversity. “The deeper an institution’s awareness of its own faith-based mission,” he said, “the easier it becomes to have fruitful conversations about interfaith concerns.”

The two presidents concluded the session with descriptions of concrete initiatives that each campus had adopted regarding matters of religious diversity. These included official recognition for student groups that focus on other religious and secular traditions; integration of religious diversity into the curriculum; development of partnerships with local communities, particularly with businesses that recognize the need for graduates who understand cultural and religious diversity; and incorporation of these issues into the institution’s strategic plan. During the question-and-answer period, several other CIC member presidents described additional efforts on their campuses to address religious diversity. In addition, presenters identified a number of resources for campuses, including the NetVUE Scholarly Resources Project book, Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, recently published by Oxford University Press.

Fostering Diversity and Inclusion

“Diversity and inclusion are terms that are sometimes used too loosely,” but every college and university must “appreciate the beauty that is difference and the challenges that come with difference.” With these words, Keith Taylor, president of Gannon University (PA), introduced a concurrent session devoted to “Fostering Diversity and Inclusion on Campus.” The three presidential panelists—Vivia Lawton Fowler of Wesleyan College (GA), Lyle D. Roelofs of Berea College (KY), and Sean M. Decatur of Kenyon College (OH)—lead very different institutions: a women’s college in the Deep South, a work college in Appalachia, and a rural liberal arts college in a deeply conservative corner of the Midwest. But they offered similar insights about the influence of institutional history and the role of institutional mission in building a campus community that supports diversity and inclusion.

Fowler presents from podium with slideshow screen behind her
Co-panelist Vivia Lawton Fowler, president of Wesleyan College (GA) discussed how to foster diversity and inclusion on campus.

Fowler started with the story of a newspaper investigation into the painful racial past of her institution that broke in spring 2017, just as she began the transition from provost to president at Wesleyan. From the 19th century, the college had a tradition of adopting a distinctive name for each new undergraduate class. In 1913, the students dubbed themselves the “Ku Klux Klass,” with echoes of the KKK name and some associated elements of racist imagery remaining part of campus tradition and lore until the end of the 20th century. When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote about this history in 2017, it re-opened old wounds, attracted intense social media attention, and raised doubts among many students, especially students of color, about the college’s commitment to inclusion.

Fowler and the leadership team moved to address this challenge on multiple fronts. First, they helped the reporter prepare an honest account of the KKK legacy, engaged a crisis communications firm to respond to the fallout, and accelerated a plan that was already in the works to prepare a comprehensive, transparent history of the institution. Then they pushed forward a set of curricular and co-curricular initiatives to promote racial healing, built around a model of facilitated conversations about divisive topics developed by the Interactivity Foundation in West Virginia. Wesleyan relied on a similar model of structured dialogue and a variety of other programs to reach out to alumnae who remain deeply connected to the college’s mission to educate women but felt unsettled or even betrayed by the public revelations of a racist past. Meanwhile, the college established three new committees or working groups specifically tasked to examine campus images and traditions for inclusion and to help students develop new traditions; to support racial healing and transformation; and to promote student diversity and inclusion.

Roelofs shared a similarly dramatic story about the history of his institution, which was founded by abolitionists in 1855 as a co-educational and interracial college and remained about half-white/half-black until the end of the 19th century. After 1904, however, the college was forcibly segregated by the state of Kentucky and remained completely white until the Civil Rights era. During that painful era, Berea “lost the knowledge of how to be an integrated institution,” and is still working to fully recover that knowledge and to rebuild a truly interracial community, Roelofs said. Today 28 percent of the students are African American, making Berea one of the most diverse residential liberal arts colleges in the country. Numbers are not the full answer, said Roelofs. He added that fortunately, the college retained a specific commitment to racial equality as part of its mission, which provides a guiding question for contemporary efforts to promote institutional inclusion: “How do you take a diverse student population and make the diversity matter?”

The key to interracial education at Berea today, said Roelofs, is that “black students and white students have to tackle the issues together.” This includes the curriculum, which features required courses that explore African American history and culture alongside the “history and continuing presence of white allies,” as well as the co-curriculum—such as the inclusive Black Music Ensemble, which provides opportunities for urban black students to share their musical culture with rural white students. Normalizing racially mixed groups on campus, from the president’s cabinet to singing groups, is another important strategy to foster cross-racial allies and assure a “real diversity of perspectives.” Beyond that, Berea has introduced a specific model to facilitate difficult conversations, promote understanding across difference, and help students develop skills for civil discourse. The Berea approach, known as “T.R.U.T.H. (True Racial Understanding Through Honest) Talks,” is based on principles similar to those that inform the Wesleyan approach. As a result, Berea students feel empowered to take the lead in addressing controversial political and social issues on campus.

Decatur also began with the history of Kenyon, which has been a center of liberal arts education in rural Ohio since the 1820s and today is significantly more diverse and more liberal (politically) than the surrounding locality. Like the other panelists, Decatur emphasized the importance of a multi-front approach to building campus communities that supports diversity and inclusion: “it can’t be an isolated responsibility” of the president or chief diversity officer. At Kenyon, this means that every division—from the finance office to the faculty—is expected to develop annual, measurable, concrete diversity and inclusion goals that are explicitly aligned with institutional priorities for the year. One year, for example, the chief financial officer and his staff read Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do as a way to learn more about unconscious bias and improve customer service for students and families from diverse backgrounds. In other areas, the IT staff set out to reprogram campus software systems to accept gender-neutral identities, while faculty members in the natural sciences introduced new pedagogical approaches to address attrition of minority students in the STEM disciplines. “Every part of the institution,” Decatur concluded, “needs to embrace diversity and inclusion as part of the mission.”

Workshop on Viewpoint Diversity

four panelists speak from head table
Workshop chair Laura Casamento, president of Utica College (NY), with facilitators Ronald A. Crutcher, president of the University of Richmond (VA); Daniele C. Struppa, president of Chapman University; and Debra Mashek, executive director of Heterodox Academy. 

In addition, a workshop on January 5 flowed directly from the Haidt plenary session to explore “Presidential Approaches to Constructive Campus Engagement of Diverse Viewpoints.” Using a case study approach, the workshop was facilitated by Ronald A. Crutcher, president of the University of Richmond (VA), Debra Mashek, executive director of the Heterodox Academy (which was co-founded by Haidt), and Daniele C. Struppa, president of Chapman University. After remarks by each facilitator, groups of participants considered several case studies about the challenges and opportunities colleges may face when they address issues of viewpoint diversity and open inquiry. The case studies ranged from disinvited speakers to student protests in classrooms to controversial statements by faculty members outside of classrooms. The discussions sought to identify key conceptual and administrative tensions that presidents must navigate in such situations—and how these tensions might be resolved in light of an institution’s mission and values. The workshop also was an opportunity for participants to discuss candidly specific controversies on their own campuses.

Presidential Spouses and Partners Discuss Student Mental Health Issues, Fundraising by Presidential Couples, and More

one speaker presents while standing with a second speaker seated in chair
Chris McCarthy, vice president for strategy and design at Hopelab, and Nathaan Demers, vice president and director of clinical programs at Grit Digital Health, discussed “The Loneliness Cycle: A Campus-Wide Challenge.”

The 2019 Institute’s Presidential Spouses and Partners program featured a wide array of speakers and topics. Over 175 spouses and partners participated in concurrent sessions, networking opportunities, breakfast discussions, and the welcoming luncheon. Highlights of selected sessions follow.

The Loneliness Cycle: A Campus-Wide Challenge

Incoming college students often think “College is going to be amazing!” and are disappointed when the “hero’s journey,” in which new friends and new adventures simply appear, does not live up to expectations. Homework, learning to live as an adult, living with new people, and making friends are more challenging than anticipated. Loneliness especially can be an issue—for up to 60 percent of all undergraduate students over the course of an academic year, according to background studies conducted by Grit Digital Health and Hopelab. During the Presidential Spouses and Partners welcoming luncheon, Nathaan Demers of Grit Digital Health and Chris McCarthy of Hopelab and the Innovation Learning Network discussed loneliness on college campuses and new resources under development that may encourage students to get the help they need.

Loneliness is associated with anxiety, stress, poor sleep, depression, self-harm, and poor academic performance. So finding ways for students to reach out for help is important for student mental health as well as for retention, the presenters emphasized. Although students may be reluctant to visit campus counseling centers—either because of stigmas about mental health issues or because they fail to understand that they are experiencing such issues—many campus counseling centers are overwhelmed and understaffed.

Demers and McCarthy described tools they are developing that will reach out to students via their phones and computers to reduce loneliness and increase connectedness between students. With their colleagues, and using what they have learned from extensive research on loneliness and from intensive interviews with students, they are working to:

  • Destroy the myth of magical friendship (friendship that just appears when a student enrolls in college);
  • Empower students with tools that are user-friendly, non-threatening, and easy to try without stigma and that yield early encouragement;
  • Help students learn to respond to setbacks with empathy and self-kindness;
  • Build social skills over time; and
  • Leverage students’ environments for opportunities for connectedness.

A lively question-and-answer session followed the presentation.

Demers, McCarthy, and their colleague Carolyn FitzGerald, also of Hopelab, led a well-attended session for presidents on the same topic the following day.

Joint Session on Fundraising by Presidential Couples

In remarkably open comments, two highly successful fundraising couples lifted the veil on how they approach the difficult, time consuming, yet critically important task of securing support from individual donors and what they learned about it over the years. Panelists included Gregory D. and Lora Hess (president and spouse, Wabash College [IN]) and Elizabeth J. and Paul Stroble (president and spouse, Webster University [MO]). Both through their discourse and how they interacted, the couples demonstrated to a packed room the fundamental importance of partnership that does not suppress individuality. “You have to be yourself,” one of the presenters remarked. “And you’ve got to keep the ‘fun’ in fundraising,” added another, “and practice the three U’s: Upbeat, Unflappable, Undaunted,” which isn’t possible when playing a role that doesn’t fit one’s personality. The panelists advised that prior to arriving on a campus each couple should actively decide the degree to which “fundraising will be part of the family life.”

five panelists speak from head table
The session “Fundraising by Presidential Couples” featured Elizabeth J. (second from left) and Paul Stroble, president and spouse, Webster University (MO); Gregory D. and Lora Hess, president and spouse, Wabash College (IN); and chair Rachel Rumple-Comerford, presidential spouse, Otterbein University (OH).

How should couples combine forces? According to the presenters, fundraising is a lot about motivating potential supporters to open up and listening to them “to figure out what a person might be interested in supporting.” Having two somewhat different experiences can help, but it also helps just to have two people listening. “A partnership of individuals allows learning and hearing different things from the same person.” Presenters emphasized, however, that couples should prepare together: “Agree in advance on the reason for a meeting and the desired outcome.” For larger events, couples should “review the participant list together, identify who must be met in person, and divide up those. Before the end of the night, make sure all key guests received a personal touch. Later, compare notes about what was learned.” Make no mistake though, “It is always the president who should make the ask,” the presenters agreed.

The presenters provided some general advice:

  • Spouses should clearly communicate schedule and travel preferences to campus staff who book and arrange trips. Spouses will need to decide how public they want their personal calendars to be.

  • “A semester planning meeting can be helpful to both establish main event dates and to block time for the couple’s personal time.”

  • “Early on, practice travel efficiencies.”

  • Decide together an approach to invitations from donors to stay at their house: “Sleepovers can be eye-opening but also challenging. One does not want to disappoint. Food preferences and alcohol are often awkward.”

  • Do not assume who holds the purse: “You never know which person controls the finances. It may not be the alums that you expect.”

  • And, of course, “Tiptoe carefully around controversial topics. Sports, weather, architecture, and travel are safe. Prior administration, politics, and health matters get complicated quickly.”

While peppering their comments with practical advice, all four presenters emphasized that ultimately the impact of all interactions rests on believability. That applies in at least two dimensions: “Presidential couples need to set the tone and example of generosity. They should participate in as many opportunities to give back (time and resources) and represent the college at fundraising events for other worthwhile causes as often as possible.” Social media can be a great channel to signal widely one’s community engagement. In turn, to represent the college or university effectively, fundraisers need to be deeply engaged with what they are selling: “Learn the song, fully own the culture of a place, and understand the touchpoints.”

Other Topics of Interest to Presidential Spouses and Partners

three speakers read from books while seated in chairs
The session “Readers’ Theatre: Historical (and Hysterical?) Presidential Spouse and Partner Roles,” featured Randy Richardson, presidential spouse, Westminster College (PA); J. Lawrence Smith, presidential spouse, York College of Pennsylvania; and Robyn Allers, presidential spouse, McDaniel College (MD).

Participants in the Presidential Spouses and Partners program also found two other sessions especially engaging. In “Developing a New Program on Campus: Case Studies,” Traci Corey, presidential spouse at Olivet College (MI), and Michelle Dorsey, presidential spouse at Texas Lutheran University, discussed how they developed successful programs for students with the help of campus staff. Each described the process of developing and launching a program, from initial idea or observed need to final implementation. Both Corey and Dorsey emphasized the need for clear and constant communication with others on campus, helping students develop their own set of behavioral rules for the program (and hold each other to them), and acknowledging the help of staff. And in one of the last two spouses and partners sessions of the Institute, Robyn Allers, presidential spouse at McDaniel College (MD), Randy Richardson, presidential spouse at Westminster College (PA), and J. Lawrence Smith, presidential spouse at York College of Pennsylvania, performed a rollicking readers’ theatre on the presidential spouse’s role in the past and into the present. The text of the production was assembled by Richardson from books and articles giving advice to spouses and partners, parodies of Dr. Seuss and William Shakespeare (among others), and original material. Fans of the performance will be pleased to know an encore is in the works for the 2020 Presidents Institute.

Panelists Explain How to Develop a Crisis Readiness and Communication Plan

speaker presents from podium to participants seated at roundtables
A workshop on leading through crisis featured panelists David R. Anderson, president of St. Olaf College (MN), Jennifer Hellman (pictured), COO and principal of Goff Public, and Jody Horner, president of Midland University (NE).

As she led off the workshop, “Leading through Crisis: Developing a Crisis Readiness and Communication Plan,” Jennifer Hellman, COO and principal of Goff Public, pointedly summarized the key characteristic of media relations today: “Everyone is a walking journalist—every student, visiting student, professor…anyone with a smart phone.” The landscape of crisis communications keeps changing in unexpected ways, and media relations professionals and higher education leaders must be ready to anticipate and react.

“The bubble [that used to surround campuses] has popped,” Hellman continued. “That’s why your jobs are so difficult today and why you have to think and plan in advance. Because when something happens on your campus, you do not have a lot of time [to act].”

Fellow panelists David R. Anderson, president of St. Olaf College (MN), and Jody Horner, president of Midland University (NE), shared case studies of events that thrust their institutions into the spotlight. They contrasted today’s public platform for complaints to past professional practices on campuses that involved a judicious, step-by-step process for addressing concerns. Communicating with college presidents and the media via social media now is spontaneous and immediate. Moreover, controversy fuels what goes viral and attracts media attention—especially photos and videos.

Anderson shared his story of responding to a student’s public campaign against St. Olaf’s handling of her Title IX complaint. Although his initial reaction was dismay, given that St. Olaf had carefully followed approved policies that the campus had worked hard to implement, Anderson resolved to accept the criticisms of college policies and to conduct an inquiry in good faith to find problems and fix them. He acted quickly to form a working group and empowered group members to act independently, even to hire legal counsel and gather other resources to seek help and find a path forward. The group developed a list of recommendations that St. Olaf implemented in full. “All of the recommendations came under the category of ‘care,’” said Anderson. “We learned that we needed to handle cases like this differently, to take a case management approach. In the end it was valuable, helpful, and made us better at handling Title IX cases. Although a certain amount of confidence and trust in the college was initially eroded, we gained it back.”

Anderson concluded, “We listened to this student and invested in understanding how we could be better. We are a better institution as a result. We reaffirmed for ourselves that when we find ourselves in a difficult condition we can trust in our capacity for continuous innovation to do better. In the end it was not only about communications, but also about leadership.”

Horner dealt with a crisis when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos selected Midland University for a site visit. DeVos was interested in a new Code Academy at a satellite Midland campus, something that could garner positive national publicity for the university. Yet, as the time for the visit drew near, Horner and her staff found themselves with little information from DeVos’s office. They were trying to handle the public relations on their own due to a recent change in the institution’s marketing office; but minimal communication from Washington and a desire for strict confidentiality about the secretary’s visit created unease for Horner and concerns about the visit’s impact on the institution’s brand. “We knew it was good to be recognized for a new program,” said Horner, “but we wanted to protect Midland from politics.”

Horner called in a consultant who quickly put together a list of tasks. The sense of direction and reassurance gave them what they needed to spring into action. The consultant, Goff Public, helped Horner and her team develop a plan and key messages about the institution and the program. They then set up a social media team in a “war room,” where live tweets were posted throughout DeVos’s visit. Advance communication to the board and the campus community avoided surprise. And although there were protests, they were peaceful. Horner had 13 minutes with the secretary and a brief classroom visit before DeVos was whisked away. The spotlight on the institution lingered, but Midland was prepared for any media coverage that followed.

Horner’s takeaways for presidents were to stay flexible and don’t go at it alone. She advised campus leaders to call in experts to help plan and advocate for their institutional reputation.

Protecting institutional reputation is the job of crisis communications, according to Goff’s Hellman. “The one thing that separates you from others is your reputation,” she said.

Some takeaways from the workshop include:

  • Create a crisis-ready culture through preparation and training;
  • Sensitize staff members to spot issues;
  • Identify and prepare a response team;
  • Promptly establish the president’s office as the source of communication;
  • Set a proper tone and call on subject matter experts when appropriate;
  • Be thoughtful and accountable;
  • Be transparent. What more can you share to build credibility?
  • Re-examine media lists—breaking news teams are often different journalists; and
  • Know your institution’s record of dealing with crises.

Hellman advised session participants to remember one key principle for communicating during a crisis: “Respond appropriately and you will create goodwill.” The silver lining of a crisis, Hellman concluded, is, “Organizations often are measured more by how they respond to the crisis than by the crisis itself.”

Workshop Explores Nontraditional Approaches to Fundraising Campaigns

The 2019 Presidents Institute offered a post-Institute workshop that explored the topic of “Making It Your Own—Nontraditional and Adaptive Approaches to Fundraising Campaigns.” Led by Michele D. Perkins, president of New England College (NH); Larry Stimpert, president of Hampden-Sydney College (VA); Nancy Oliver Gray, president emerita of Hollins University (VA) and senior consultant at Gonser Gerber LLP; and Don Hasseltine, senior consultant at Aspen Leadership Group, the two-hour workshop included presentations, question-and-answer sessions, and breakout exercises for four working groups.

Stimpert and Perkins recounted their experiences of launching successful fundraising initiatives at institutions with untapped potential and a lapse in campaigns. For Perkins, she was faced with an institution, New England College, that had never conducted a capital campaign. Initial priorities for her, therefore, were to develop a strategic plan and build a strong advancement team. “Figure out the facts,” she advised. “Know your institution. Do you have a culture of philanthropy? We did not. Building that culture took as much time as identifying prospective donors.”

Stimpert’s college faced similar challenges, specifically the need to convince alumni to give generously to the college. Hampden-Sydney’s $170 million endowment had led alumni to believe that the college was financially secure and without need of much help. Less visible, however, were deferred maintenance issues and eminent reductions to staffing and benefits. Stimpert’s challenge was how to translate these needs into initiatives that stakeholders could embrace. “We all want to think we are very special and distinctive,” Stimpert said, “but you must tell constituents in an exciting and effective way what the college is trying to do.”

Gray remarked, “All fundraising is about maximizing the gift potential of our institutions. And the only way you can do that is to be creative, adaptive, and use either traditional or nontraditional methods, depending on what fits your institution at that particular moment in time.” She emphasized the importance of preparedness and cited key indicators of an institution’s readiness to launch a campaign, but she also urged presidents to consider their campus culture. For example, presidents should consider whether the campaign objectives directly link mission, vision, and the strategic plan and if the vision is clearly established to inspire, connect, and attract volunteers and donors.

Hasseltine, whose previous experience included serving in senior advancement positions at Brown University, Carleton College, Dickinson College, and Colby-Sawyer College (NH), noted that 78 percent of what motivates donors to give is based on personal values; the pitch is far less important. He urged workshop participants to focus outreach on people who share their institution’s values. “Shared values and impact are more important than prior affiliation,” he said. Hasseltine also emphasized that donors want to support presidents they perceive as strong leaders. They want to be certain that their contributions create momentum for the institution. He also reminded his audience, “No one has to give you their money. This is an altruistic move. Your conversation needs to be about what they want to accomplish.”

All four panelists discussed the importance of the board: its role, obligations, and potential effectiveness for building partnerships.

Key takeaways from group discussions included that presidents should build organizational capacity before they invest in major gift officers; be bold in offering a challenge to the board; remember parents; establish productivity measures for advancement staff; think about gifts from vendors; and develop a strong working relationship with the vice president for advancement.