Closing SLA Seminar Focuses on Legal Issues, Strategic Planning, Accreditation

Twenty-seven mid-level college and university administrators participated in the closing seminar of the 2015–2016 Senior Leadership Academy (SLA), held at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC, on June 23–25. The year-long program prepares mid-level administrators from all divisions for vice presidencies and is jointly sponsored by CIC and the American Academic Leadership Institute (AALI).

Participants explored such topics as expectations of cabinet officers, top legal issues facing higher education leaders, human resources management, accreditation and assessment, crisis communications, strategic planning, and institutional fit.

Dan Carey, president emeritus of Edgewood College (WI) and former president of Benedictine College (KS), said that as president, the qualities he sought among his vice presidents were “integrity, willingness to work in a strong team setting, values that match the president and the institution, and a good sense of humor.” He also looked for cabinet officers who were “self-starters, driven to achieve, intellectually curious, and highly ethical.” He advised the SLA administrators to develop competence in their area of expertise; to work hard to bring out the best in their staff, peers, and supervisors; and to be a “big picture thinker while still able to focus on achieving the details.” He reminded them that their positions were intended to serve students and the institution rather than their own agendas, and he urged them to view the institution as an integrated entity rather than a set of silos and to seek opportunities to bring outside perspectives into campus deliberations. Above all, Carey said, “avoid trying to be a turf builder, a clone of the CEO, a negative thinker, or high maintenance…. Where the executive team is concerned,” he said, “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

In the legal issues session, Jim Newberry, attorney at Steptoe & Johnson, PLLC, predicted that “Years from now, when the history of higher education is being written, this time will be recorded as one of the most pivotal in American higher education.” The current hot legal topics in American higher education, he said, begin with issues generated by financial distress; handling accreditors, lenders, attorneys general, and state and federal departments of education; and compliance with Title IX, which has evolved from a mandate to balance intercollegiate athletic opportunities for women and men to its application regarding sexual harassment and assault and the treatment of transgender students. Participants also explored the impact on independent colleges of new overtime regulations, the unionization of adjunct faculty members, and wage stagnation leading to employee dissatisfaction. He advised institutional leaders to develop thoughtful plans of action. For example, leaders should personally engage employees about their work, watch for warning signs of low morale, and outsource functions that college staff cannot manage effectively. In addition, when dealing with risk management issues, especially around accreditation, social media, and criminal matters, Newberry recommended that administrators follow the advice of a good insurance agent to ensure that the institution and its directors and officers are covered and to engage a good public relations firm to help manage problems and crises. To prepare for emergency situations, Newberry said campuses must conduct drills, maintain mass notification systems, develop working relationships with first responders, and develop crisis communications plans.

In her lead-in to the accreditation session, Patricia O’Brien, senior vice president of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, said, “It is a fundamental truth that accreditation achieves dual purposes: to assure quality and to foster improvement.” Institutional accreditation certifies that the college or university “has appropriate purposes, has the resources needed to accomplish its purposes, demonstrates through evidence that it is accomplishing its purposes, and has the ability to continue to accomplish its purposes.” Yet institutions face many challenges in the accreditation process, and the U.S. Department of Education has begun to exert more influence over the process. “Does it really matter if the scales get imbalanced?...If compliance becomes more important than improvement?...If the U.S. Department of Education gets to define quality?” Yes, O’Brien responded emphatically, especially now that the collective understanding of quality has shifted away from measuring inputs (How many books and databases are in the library?), toward process (Do students use the library?), to outcomes (Have students developed the skills of information literacy?). To improve the accreditation process, O’Brien said educational leaders should:
  • Understand and accept the responsibilities of self-regulation;
  • Work on student achievement and success—and public disclosure;
  • Prepare candid accreditation reports;
  • Stay up-to-date on current issues in higher education; and
  • Provide feedback for improvement to accreditors.
SLA participants also learned about the process of developing mission-centric strategic plans following the approach taken by Hartwick College (NY). President Margaret Drugovich said Hartwick’s multi-step planning process serves as the foundation for campus improvement, identifies priorities, and will guide campus developments for the next two to 15 years. Among the steps Hartwick took, Drugovich said, were to develop a comprehensive campus master facilities plan; convene a cross-campus leadership group consisting of faculty members, students, senior staff, and former board members to "create a sustainable vision for the future of the college"; and ask the lead faculty governance council that reviewed all current undergraduate majors and programs to determine whether the offerings would meet the educational needs of an emerging generation of learners. During the planning process the college community:
  • Created a vision for, and mapped a framework to guide, the college;
  • Clarified the college mission statement;
  • Developed a set of organizing principles and a strategic framework for monitoring progress of board-approved strategic goals;
  • Recommended facilities improvements, internationalization, innovation, employee diversification, scheduling to enhance experiential learning, and new approaches to student engagement;
  • Recommended eliminating two academic programs, creating eight new academic programs, and conducting an annual review of demand for all academic programs; and
  • Identified revenue-generation programs and explored funding mechanisms for innovation.
Among the “Mission Driven Innovations” that resulted were the development of summer online courses, innovations within the nursing curriculum, the introduction of a three-year degree program in 22 majors,  and the opening of the Hartwick College Center for Craft Food and Beverage that is expected to generate revenue by providing product-testing services, advisement on marketing plan development, and business plan development services. These services are needed in growing upstate New York industries, and students develop marketing skills through their active participation in them. Drugovich urged the emerging leaders to follow established channels of governance when making change, while setting and honoring realistic deadlines. This is especially true when handling issues of curricular change. "If faculty do not consider the plan to be legitimate, they will ignore it. They may even undermine it. It will be difficult to make change happen."

The 2016–2017 SLA cohort will meet in November. For more information about the program, visit​​​