Winter 2021: The Art of Decision-Making

President Connie Ledoux Book talks about the four practices Elon has historically relied on to make effective decisions: feedback, paying attention to the higher education landscape, timely planning and a focus on student learning.

A masked male student talks to two females outdoors
Elon held its first in-person, socially distant College coffee of the spring semester on Feb. 9.

My dad taught me to drive in an empty Kmart parking lot near our home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He wasn’t known for his patience, and the “driving lessons” were painful. I don’t know what stressed me more, learning how to accelerate or the acceleration of his temper. After a few lessons, I did learn how to drive (a stick shift), and my life changed after that. I applied for a part-time job and drove myself back and forth to school, basketball practice and work.

Independence. I longed for it, but along with it came a new set of responsibilities. The same is true for Elon as an institution. I’ve frequently shared on campus that “Elon has Elon’s back.” This is my way to remind the community that we are an independent, private university. Unlike a state university or public college, Elon’s independence means we carry the opportunities and the challenges, the risks and the rewards. Decision-making in this independent environment is challenging, and doubly challenging during the pandemic. However, decisions are necessary as we learn and navigate the intersection between delivering our mission and staying healthy and safe. To make effective decisions, Elon has historically relied on four practices.

The first is feedback. The university has eight divisions, several units, councils and boards. Strong communication when faced with decisions has provided important context and understanding. “If this, then this” scenario planning influences details of our decisions. I’ve also appreciated that when we make a decision and some unintended or unexpected consequence occurs, Elon is humble enough to step back and say, “Let’s try this again and utilize the new information to improve? That humility is a hallmark of Elon. You find it in the willingness of our students and alumni to reassess and change direction.

The resilience of lessons learned during the pandemic, making strategic and student-centered decisions so that classes continue and student learning progresses have contributed to our ability to persevere.

The second practice Elon has embraced in decision-making is paying attention to what is happening across higher education. We have established a set of peer and aspirant colleges and universities that serve as important points of information, lessons learned and benchmarks for decisions. While we aren’t exactly like any single other university, we share common characteristics with many institutions. Learning from other higher education organizations has helped Elon make more informed decisions, particularly when it comes to the pandemic. We have worked with Davidson College, Duke University and Wake Forest University to learn from each other and to share what approaches are working well on our campuses. This effort has proved to be critical as each of our institutions faced decisions about reopening, health and safety protocols, and implementing testing programs.

The third practice in decision-making is related to time. Higher education is often tied to the visual analogy of ivy creeping up the side of a decades-old building. The visual signals a slower pace and leaves the impression that universities are timeless and unchanging. That has not been Elon’s approach. We are constantly making decisions and working to act on those decisions. Our strategic plans are 10-year road maps that embrace key decisions often requiring years of investment. Think about our strategic and public decision to deepen our residential campus that was made in 2010. By 2020, we had constructed housing for more than 1,100 additional students to live on campus at a significant cost and reward to Elon’s future.

The fourth practice in decision-making at Elon is to keep our focus on student learning. I often find this practice is the centering one, helping to clear the fog that can develop when several choices are in play. The simplicity of asking the key and enduring question, “And how is this beneficial to students?” resets the conversation and brings clarity to any decision. The pandemic has not afforded Elon (or any of us) the needed time to process decisions. Instead, we have had to rely on these four honed practices coupled with emerging knowledge, historical understanding of diseases and the wisdom of public health experts. As each decision is made, new opportunities and challenges emerge, and the cycle continues. Standing still is not an option. The pandemic has pressed us to keep moving forward to deliver and shelter the mission, the future of the university.

A student recently asked me if I found myself”stressed out” with the number of decisions that needed to be made. I shared our four practices with her and then added my fifth personal practice of inviting God to be with me in my decision-making. It reminds me we are not alone in this journey toward Elon’s future. Like the difficult driving lessons with my dad that opened a new world of independence for me, Elon also has a hard-earned independence. The resilience of lessons learned during the pandemic, making strategic and student-centered decisions so that classes continue and student learning progresses have contributed to our ability to persevere. Most importantly, Elon’s independence and institutional strength is in the powerful and committed community sheltering its future. In other words, “Elon has Elon’s back.”

Connie Ledoux Book