Leaders for Small Colleges

W. Kent Barnds considers the skills that may be particularly needed during a period of dramatic change in higher education.

February 27, 2013

Recently, I found myself thinking about the most important skills leaders at colleges like Augustana College, where I am executive vice president, should cultivate during the next 5 to 7 years. It was an interesting and challenging task. To think about how a mindset and natural gifts might inform strategy for small colleges is not something I do every day.

One of the first things I did was review a number of presidential position descriptions for colleges transitioning from a fairly traditional president to a president who faces disruption never seen in a generation. I thought I might be able to learn something profound from the process and the prospectus that accompany most presidential searches. Knowing that the average tenure for a small college president is 7 to 10 years, I thought institutions in transition of leadership would be thinking seriously about what leadership must do in the coming years. But to be frank, most of the position descriptions struck me as traditional and neglectful of the dramatic changes under way and ahead for private education at small colleges.

Dickinson College’s ad for a new president came closest. It seemed to be fairly clear in stating what the search committee wants from leadership in the future, with an awareness of the challenges in the coming years. Dickinson’s position announcement included the following "… seeks a president who will: strengthen the academic and global profile; be resourceful; and, be an engaged, community citizen." This is a distinctive combination of qualities. I might boil this down to seeking someone who will help the college go global, will be more flexible/nimble, and will be high-profile on campus and in the community. (Dickinson has selected a new president and you can read more about her here.)

After looking at the other position descriptions, I sought out general information describing skills leaders will need in 2020, and found Jeanne Meister’s article "5 new skills needed for leadership in 2020." I believe it is this set of skills (plus a couple of others) that will create the foundation for small-college leadership in the challenging and disruptive years ahead:

1. Collaborative mindset
2. Team development
3. Tech savvy
4. Globally focused and culturally attuned
5. Future-focused

Skill One: Collaborate and forge new relationships and partnerships

An important role for leaders of small colleges in the coming years will be to develop strategic partnerships and collaborative agreements to strengthen a college’s academic offerings and facilities, and provide students with experiences that will enable them to stand out.

Some colleges already have created partnerships with medical facilities to enhance and improve science facilities. There also are great examples of consortiums like the Great Lakes College Association, etc. However, in the future small colleges may need to think about partnering with other colleges to share faculty positions and other resources in order to retain smaller majors and programs. Colleges may look to deliver classes in locations off-campus to leverage facilities owned and operated by other organizations. Perhaps theater classes will be taught at a municipal theater, and multimedia classes at the local TV station. The days of "building our own" seem to be numbered for all but the wealthiest colleges. College leaders must identify and eliminate barriers (internal and external) and must embrace collaboration and partnership as a way to expand reach and reduce expenses.

Several excellent examples of a collaborative mindset include the following:

St. Ambrose University and Genesis Health Systems partnership

Carlton and St. Olaf partner to keep costs down

Southern consortium experimenting with course sharing

Skill Two: Develop campus leaders and a strong bench

The president of tomorrow will need to focus on developing the strongest possible senior leaders across campus. Gone are the days when the CEO/president is the only one who can make decisions; there’s too much to do, it must be done too quickly, and mistakes come with too many consequences.

Similarly, other campus leaders (senior staff, cabinet, etc.) will need to develop and keep talented leaders. Leadership today and into 2020 is about preparing and strengthening the team of leaders surrounding the president. The model of "wait until a new leader is installed" is a model that may result in a failure to achieve strategic goals, or a preference for the status quo. The focus for small-college presidents should be on having a strong and capable "bench" so that students, board, alumni, faculty and all other important stakeholders have sufficient confidence that the college is run by a great team of leaders. This greater emphasis on the quality of the "management team" likely will mean multiyear contracts and efforts to hang on to talented leaders, rather than let them escape to leadership positions elsewhere.

This will be new territory for many college boards, in particular, which have historically focused retention efforts almost exclusively on the president. Talent management and development of senior leaders (and the next line of leaders) will be of critical importance. In the business world we’ve seen more attention paid to succession planning; small colleges will need to do the same as a generation of strong, charismatic leaders retire.

I asked several friends and colleagues for good examples of succession planning on campuses, and was somewhat troubled by the responses I received, which ranged from "No one wants to be a president these days” to “I can’t think of a single example." These responses reveal how important this aspect of leadership will be in the next 10 years.

Skill Three: Technology must be a priority

Leaders at small colleges will need to be advocates for appropriate and engaging technologies that improve learning and expand the college’s reach by attracting students well-versed in using the newest technology.

Small colleges cannot continue exclusively with traditional educational methods. They will need to step up and create new ways of using technology to accomplish their educational goals and improve student-learning outcomes. Small colleges will need to be in a better position to collaborate or partner with like-minded places, and will need to successfully leverage the availability of technology for convenience and enhanced student-learning outcomes. College presidents need to be advocates for enhancing technology use on their campus and provide thought-leadership to equip others (board, faculty, alumni) to think about the possibilities rather than the vulnerabilities of technology.

The most prominent example of this is Wesleyan University and Wellesley with their noted efforts with Coursea and edX. Others are experimenting with Carnegie Mellon’s Online Leaning Initiative.

Leaders at small colleges also should demonstrate an understanding of and facility with using technology. College presidents need to organize and participate in more online meetings. They should use technology to interact with others — whether Facebook, a blog or Twitter. Small college leaders will need to adopt GoToMeetings for board committee meetings and become comfortable with the technology they ask others to adopt. Leaders can’t expect others to use technology and not use it themselves; there are too many examples of this at present. Leaders at small colleges also must use social media in a more intentional manner. Leaders should lead by example and communicate with students and others where and how they communicate most naturally.

Excellent examples of this include:

--Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, a.k.a. Hip-Hop President, who is a prolific Tweeter. Follow him @HipHopPrez..
--Janet Riggs, president of Gettysburg College, whose blog Cupola Conversations enables her to communicate with students, employees and alumni.
--Scott Miller, president of Bethany College, who has more social media efforts under way than I can name.

Skill Four: Go global, somehow and some way

Leaders at small colleges need to be advocates for global expansion and improving a community’s cultural barometer. Expanding international recruitment and enrollment is a must for a variety of reasons, even beyond diversity — which I believe is far too narrow and maybe even superficial for "going global." Leaders need to ensure students leave their college with what Peter Hart describes as a "global context." This will require more careful preparation of students studying abroad to ensure successful outcomes of the experience and more intentional integration of international students and faculty into the life of the campus. Leaders at small colleges will need to knit global efforts together so that they make sense for the college’s desired global footprint and resources. A college’s global presence (on and off campus) has to matter and small colleges need to think big about how being global can work for them. They will also need to be a better job of tracking the positive outcomes associated with going global.

It is very likely that an increasing number of professionals in leadership positions will have international backgrounds, strong relationships with international partners they’ve developed over the years, and/or will have had a transformational study abroad experience as part of their own undergraduate education. Those with all of these attributes will be in a stronger position to develop global learning for their campus.

There are many examples of colleges with a large international population or a large number of students studying abroad. The colleges that best reflect “going global” are those that strike a balance between the two. Good examples include Beloit, Dickinson, Earlham, Macalester, Middlebury and Lewis & Clark.

Skill Five: Focus on the future, rather than longing for the good old days (which really were not that good, anyway)

Leaders at small colleges must be future-focused. Today’s and tomorrow’s leaders need to begin thinking about "creating a new status quo" — a message I heard loud and clear from Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, in his keynote address at the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education this year. He called for leadership and recommends that rather than looking at what everyone else is doing, and then trying to do the same, leaders should reward experimentation and innovation.

Small colleges need to break new ground. They need to take on some big issues. They need to rethink general education programs. They need to think differently and more intentionally about career preparation. They should more carefully align the worth claim with what students and families want from college. They should rethink the meaning and mechanics of a liberal arts education to more effectively illustrate the skills developed. They must begin asking what they want their institution to be, and not just what and how it does.

Being future-focused means focusing on results and outcomes, and considering how and what happens on campus is perceived by the marketplace and policy makers. Small college leaders should shake things up and do some things like align courses and general education to connect more readily to the demands of the market, expectations of prospective students and desired outcomes of the experience — jobs, graduate school placements, and other meaningful work that defines success for graduates. Leadership will require some anticipatory thinking about the changing world our graduates will face and what will be most valuable about their education when they leave with a degree.

Skill Six: Stand up, stand out and take a position

Some final characteristics, not included in Meister’s list but particularly important for small college leaders, include taking a stand, upholding a commitment to transparency, and positioning oneself as an expert on campus, in the community and nationally.

Today’s and tomorrow’s leaders of small colleges also need to secure positions as leaders in higher education. They must take part in that national conversation, as they cannot afford to be defined by the flagship publics or the Ivy League. Becoming a leader with a strong voice in this changing landscape also is one of the most important ways to raise your college’s profile, which is critical in the noisy market where we all try to stand out.

I wrote all this down because recently my president, Steven Bahls, asked members of his cabinet for their thoughts about the future. And so I took a stand, positioned myself as an expert, and shared these thoughts.



W. Kent Barnds is executive vice resident and vice president for enrollment, communication and planning at Augustana College.


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