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UBTech 2016 Conference Keynote Address: “How can college and university leaders encourage a continual push for improvement that, in turn, cultivates innovation?”

June 7, 2016

President Lambert speaks at UBTech 2016 conferenceIn 2006, the late George Keller of the University of Pennsylvania wrote a short case study of Elon University titled Transforming a College: The Story of a Little-Known College’s Strategic Climb to National Distinction

George was convinced that there was a hunger in the world of higher education for good, readable case examples of institutional transformation. 

And I think he was right, because the Johns Hopkins Press printed the first edition seven times. Institutions bought the book in bulk as a common reading for boards of trustees, and even the entire faculty and staff at some schools. An updated second edition of Mr. Keller's book was published in 2014.

So, how did a small, relatively undistinguished college that enrolled most of its students from North Carolina and Virginia transform itself into a selective, mid-sized University drawing students from all 50 states and 50 other nations? How did an institution that Keller undiplomatically called “an admissions bottom feeder” come to rise so far in academic quality that it now shelters a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa? How did the university reposition itself to become a most productive campus for graduating Fulbright Scholars and men and women who would attend Harvard Medical School, Columbia and Chicago Law Schools and the Yale Drama School? How did the physical and technological transformation of the campus occur, resulting in the construction of 100 new buildings in the past 18 years and leadership in sustainable design and construction? The answer to all of these questions is “campus culture,” which I’d like to focus on this morning using Elon as a case study.

Happily, the theme of this meeting is “A National Summit on AV, IT and Student Success.” I want to especially emphasize the words "student success" because that is our common work, is it not? Four colleagues and I published a book just last month with Jossey-Bass titled The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. You've heard the prevailing, negative public narrative about higher education—that we are producing "excellent sheep" and that college is no longer worth the investment. But our book makes the case that American higher education is filled with examples of practices and programs that not only lead to student success, but create transformational change in students’ lives. In his foreword to our book, the wonderful President of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Freeman Hrabowski III, writes these wise words: “the substance of an institution’s culture is particularly critical to what we can achieve.” 

If institutions of higher education wish to foster cultures of innovation and student success, what are the most important characteristics of that culture? From the title of our book, I'd like to talk with you about What Matters Most, based on my 18 years of experience leading Elon. Here are some ideas we live by that have led us to become a thriving institution.

Stewardship of Culture

First, the most important act of college and university leadership—your job and mine—is the stewardship of institutional culture. Strong and positive institutional cultures are focused, authentic, and very, very carefully cultivated and nurtured. A strong institutional culture is the mortar that holds a campus together.

At the core of Elon’s culture is this question: “What is best for students and their learning?” We believe that if we let this be the guiding question, we will almost always make the right set of decisions.

At Elon, every faculty and staff member’s first priority is to create a rich, vibrant, intellectually stimulating and safe environment for learning. The creation of this environment is the common work of a committed group of colleagues, whether they are professors or IT professionals, deans or landscapers, the president or the bus drivers. Faculty at Elon appreciate deeply how essential their staff colleagues are to students’ success. There is a world of difference between a culture of “doing my job” and a culture of “being part of team that is dedicated to building an unparalleled environment for learning.”

We have also achieved success because we’ve stuck to our knitting for several decades. We’ve worked hard to build a distinctive approach to undergraduate education, to build a reputation for excellence in experiential and engaged learning, to be a national leader in global education, undergraduate research, internships and many other high-impact practices, and to unabashedly uphold excellent and rigorous teaching as the most important work of the faculty.

We are also a restless place, but in a good way. George Kuh of Indiana University and National Survey of Student Engagement fame has coined the term “positive restlessness,” which I think describes us perfectly. We benchmark ourselves against the best and are always asking the question, “How could we have done that better?” At Elon, you’ll never hear the term, “We’ve arrived.” We are always in the process of becoming a better version of ourselves.

Strategic Planning and Execution

The second aspect of Elon’s culture that has been essential to our institutional success—and thus quite directly our students’ success—is a relentless focus on strategic planning. I know what you’re thinking. Everybody does strategic planning. Here are three ways ours might be distinctive. 

First, we are daring. Many years ago, one of our leading trustees challenged the university to dare to be great and to rise above the commonplace. His name is Wallace Chandler, and he’s now a life trustee. Early in my presidency, Wallace said, “My job as a trustee is to get you to think scary thoughts. I want you to lay awake at night feeling scared about how great Elon could become!” During my predecessor’s watch, Elon began to declare some really big stretch goals – goals that even people who loved the institution didn’t think would ever be realized.  But they were. And then institutional trust was built and then even higher goals were aimed for. And so a virtuous cycle of risk-taking, stretching, careful execution, achieving and trust-building was realized, and this has been the fuel for our engine ever since.

Second, we execute. Most strategic plans fail because they are never executed. They are filed away because the accreditors left town. They are shelved because of a short-term presidency, and then the next president wants to create a new strategic plan, sending an institution zigging and zagging. Or no one ever linked a budget plan or a fund-raising plan with the university’s most important strategic goals, so the goals naturally were not fully realized. Our culture compels us to believe that if a measureable goal is in the strategic plan, every good-faith effort will be made to see it through to completion. 

Third, we are doggedly determined. At Elon, we are sticklers to linking our annual institutional priority-setting and budgeting processes to the longer term aspirations of our strategic plan. Some of our really big goals—like sheltering a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa that I referenced earlier—had dozens of components—build better library collections, reinvent the honors program, revitalize the foreign languages program, make a stronger commitment to tenure and full-time faculty, support faculty scholarship, etc.—each with major price tags. Annual priority setting and budgeting processes help us keep the bigger strategic goals front and center, as well as to help all of our constituents understand that we are making progress each year on our strategic vision.

My CFO, Gerald Whittington, also reminded me to tell you about the importance of keeping funds in reserve to support grassroots, innovative ideas that sprout up all the time. That's especially important in campus I-T, where new technologies emerge quickly. This is certainly key to supporting an environment of innovation. When you see a good idea, fund it.

Leadership for Innovation

The purposeful identification and cultivation of leadership at every level of the university is also essential to building and sustaining a culture of innovation. If there is a style of leadership we prize at Elon, I would describe it as robustly collaborative. We work hard to maintain an environment with low walls, that is, to avoid having the campus become a collection of islands or silos. And, as we like to say, we like to play in each other’s sandboxes. Particularly on my leadership team, senior leaders are interested in and offer insights into my work and issues and that of their colleague VPs. And, when we have planning retreats, we include the academic deans, senior members of the provost’s staff, and the heads of the faculty and staff governance groups as well. I believe this openness is valued and, in turn, is emulated in many others areas of the campus.

We have benefited at Elon from longstanding administrative and faculty and staff leadership. I am only the eighth president in the institution’s history, and #6 just celebrated his 70th year of service to the campus! We watch rapid and frequent leadership changes on other campuses and cannot help but wonder how this must disrupt institutional momentum and morale. Because of the rapid growth of Elon over the past 20 years, our faculty includes a blend of wise elders and many younger faculty with new ideas and interests. We have enjoyed strong faculty and staff leadership in so many areas of campus, which makes an important difference, as you know.

We have worked hard at Elon to cultivate leadership from within. As an example, more than a decade ago I began the Faculty Administrative Fellows program, an opportunity for tenured associate professors to try their hand at administration. They join my senior leadership team for two years, take a reduced teaching load, and take on a major project of strategic importance to the university. The outcomes have been excellent. All Fellows have gone on to become promoted as full professors and most have chosen to transition to full-time careers in academic administration at Elon. One is now the Provost at The Citadel. Of course, we also hire externally, but the Fellows have become wonderful institutional leaders who understand our culture deeply, are well-respected by their colleagues, and have good instincts about encouraging innovation and change.

Balancing Tension Creatively

The last lesson of leadership I want to address concerning fostering a campus culture of innovation is about thoughtfully balancing the many tensions we face on our campuses every day. Every institution has significant tensions present. Many are common, but others are specific to a particular campus. The question, in my mind, is can we tune these tensions carefully to make beautiful music—that is, to support and sustain strong institutional cultures where innovation can thrive—rather than to allow too much tension to cause a string to break. Running a university and tuning a Stradivarius are not dissimilar acts!

On our campus, we face the tension of continuing to maintain the sense of intimacy of a small liberal arts college, even though we’ve grown into a mid-size university of almost 7,000 students. It has helped enormously that the faculty-student ratio has dropped from 19-to-1 to 12-to-1.

We balance our identity as a liberal arts university with students’ growing interest in professional areas such as finance, accounting, and communications. How do we sustain enrollments in key areas such as philosophy and religious studies, which are so essential to the liberal arts experience?

How do we support the many dimensions of faculty work—teaching, scholarship, service and mentoring—and stay true to our mission? 

How can the presence of graduate and law programs enhance the undergraduate experience, rather than detract from it?

How can the undergraduate experience be characterized by both experiential learning and academic rigor?

How can our campuses be models for civil discourse at times when hot-button issues and broader societal unrest threaten to upend our campuses?

These are the issues we think about, talk about, and worry through every day. And with lots of good conversation and good will, we’ve managed to keep the campus centered on its core mission and values and constant improvement.

So, I’ll list four challenges for leaders to manage simultaneously:

  1. Keep your finger on the pulse of campus culture and an eagle-eye on mission.
  2. Plan well, take some risks, and then do what you said you were going to do.  Execute.
  3. Recognize that it takes purposeful leadership at every level of campus to advance an institution. Cultivate leaders intentionally.
  4. Don’t ignore the tensions on your campus, engage with them.  You will ignore them at your peril, and hopefully realize an even stronger campus culture through the hard work of finding the right balance points.

This is not easy. But it is the privilege of a lifetime that we get to do this work, isn’t it?

In conclusion, I want to emphasize that each of you is empowered to affect the culture of innovation and student success on your campus. In writing The Undergraduate Experience, we discovered over and over again that many innovative practices begun by the actions and leadership of a single faculty member or a department or program had an enormous impact on campus culture. Total institutional transformation is hard work and requires decades of commitment and focus. But don’t underestimate how much influence one person can have on shaping a campus culture to focus on student success, and then how that influence can snowball with the right set of encouragements and support. I know many of you are those leaders, and the difference you are creating for students is profound.