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Campus of Claremont McKenna College

Claremont McKenna College is among the inaugural cohort of 25 higher education institutions to receive designation under the new Carnegie Elective Classification for Leadership for Public Purpose.

Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education has unrolled the new Carnegie Elective Classification for Leadership for Public Purpose. It’s designed to recognize institutions with leadership initiatives that benefit the collective public good, including justice, equity, diversity and liberty.

“Our traditional degrees don’t necessarily develop leadership skills on their own—it requires intentionality on behalf of the institution. In this moment, we need leaders who speak beyond the sound bites and can understand the impact different policies are having in the world,” said Marisol Morales, executive director of the Carnegie Elective Classifications at the American Council on Education.

“Institutions that go for [the classification] are trying to take deliberate steps to foster leadership across campus that is broader than parties or political positions and is really about what aligns with the well-being of our society and our democratic values,” Morales said.

While Carnegie’s basic classification categorizes universities based on research activity and degree types awarded, the organization also oversees two elective classifications: the community engagement classification, which launched in 2006, and the new leadership for public purpose classification, which launched last month.

The leadership classification is open to public and private institutions of all sizes, locations and missions. The 25 colleges and universities selected for the 2024 inaugural class include Arizona State University, Simmons University and Claremont McKenna College in California.

“This is the one classification that allows all institutions to play in the same sandbox,” Morales said, noting that community colleges, research universities and liberal arts colleges are all represented. “Over the years, there’s been a lot of development in leadership as part of institutional mission statements, but how do we know folks are doing it well and prioritizing the public good?”

The new classification is working to answer that question by requiring a robust, peer-reviewed assessment of how well an institution’s leadership initiatives benefit the broader public interest. Cataloging such efforts will also give the broader higher education field more insight into which strategies are most effective at supporting leaders working in the public interest, said Bernard Banks, director of the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University, which is among the inaugural cohort of classified leadership institutions.

The Doerr Institute, which uses regular surveys to empirically measure growth of student leadership qualities such as confidence and coachability, first pitched the idea of the new classification to Carnegie in 2018 and partnered with Carnegie and ACE to establish the classification’s final framework.

“There are countless people and organizations that say they do an outstanding job of developing leaders, but when you ask what evidence they have to back up their assertions, it’s almost always anecdotal,” Banks said, noting that higher education leadership programs aren’t evaluated with the same rigor typically applied to other industries, such as finance.

“We believe, given how important leadership is, you absolutely must apply that same level of rigor because the stakes are so high,” he said.

Rigorous Assessment

The selected institutions submitted extensive applications to demonstrate measurable, campuswide leadership efforts—for students, faculty, staff and alumni—and how those efforts influence the broader community, including in private business, public and nonprofit institutions, neighborhood and community life, professional associations, and civil, government and religious institutions.

Institutions can demonstrate the strength of their leadership programs in numerous ways, according to the classification description, including by:

  • Enhancing their learning, teaching and research missions by developing leadership abilities in all institutional stakeholders;
  • Contributing to the public scholarly understanding of leadership as a public good as well as of the sociopolitical contexts, systems and practices that surround leadership; and
  • Preparing students for lives of leadership for public purpose in not only their careers and communities, but also within society.

“In higher education there seems to be a key focus on student leadership development, and yet there’s a concern of a lack of rigor and a lack of evidence-based practices being used,” said David Day, a professor and academic director of the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna, who also served on the national advisory committee that developed the new classification. “It started with a focus on student development but matured and evolved into something that was much more comprehensive.”

Claremont McKenna, which is set to host a meeting for all members of the cohort, submitted a successful 48-page application that outlined how it’s invested nearly $10 million in various leadership-focused initiatives, including scholarships, fellowships, a leadership sequence curriculum, advising and professional development.

In its application, the college described one of those initiatives, the Open Academy, as providing “pervasive opportunities for students to build foundations, expand capabilities, and develop mastery of CMC’s commitments to freedom of expression, viewpoint diversity, and constructive dialogue.”

And while earning national recognition for those initiatives is validating, Day said the “real value of the classification is in the self-study and continuous improvement,” adding that the classification for Claremont McKenna and the other institutions in the 2024 cohort will be re-evaluated in 2030.

“The process of doing this allowed us to have a much better understanding of where our commitments are and where we need greater commitments on the campus around responsible leadership,” he said. “It also makes us a role model for other campuses who are in the process or interested in developing more of a leadership culture on their campuses.”

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