What gives me license to write about presidential leadership, crisis management, and universities at risk? First, an unorthodox entry to higher education administration – 12 years in the paper and allied products manufacturing industry right out of a bachelor’s degree. A mid-30s hard-drive to a PhD with a wife and two kids, at a level of personal and professional maturity far beyond most much-younger, still green graduate students. Nine years advancing through the faculty ranks and tenure at Penn State. Reporting directly to the president at three subsequent universities, and then serving as president at four universities. I have always thought of myself as an industrial forester who just happened to stumble into higher education administration. I have held tightly to the belief that universities are businesses, albeit not-for-profit. Neither the Fortune 500 company I served or any of the nine universities that issued me a paycheck could spend money it did not have.
My most recent CEO gig gave me a very special perspective. As a six-month, time-certain Interim President, I had to leap into the deep end, assess the context, evaluate the team, compare actual to potential, and make near-immediate adjustments (major and minor) to bridge the gap to permanent leadership. The Board asked me to pave the way for an exemplary president who could hit the ground at full speed, with most of the obstacles, potholes, and road debris already addressed. I repeated the refrain often that my preceding six positions had given me ample opportunity to make most of the mistakes available for learning. The definition of experience – that thing you get right after you needed it! I came to the Interim Presidency with a great deal of hard-won experience.
Assessing University Status, Risks, and Potential
I will speak from my aggregate experience, both as a CEO and on senior administrative teams. I’ve cloaked the identity of individual universities. We’ve all seen the criteria signaling financial risk. The more boxes checked, the greater the vulnerability:
- Rural location
- Poorly endowed
- Non- or weakly-selective admissions
- Excessive deferred maintenance
- Significant debt
- High discount rate
- Declining enrollment/revenue
- Weak alumni base and tepid annual giving
Closer inspection might reveal other serious problems that reach beyond risk to imminent peril:
- High Accounts Receivable
- Composite Financial Index already in the Zone or below
- Successive years of budget cutting and mid-year expenditure reductions
- Insistence upon saving as the way to prosperity
- Satisfaction with adequate
- Poor retention and low graduation rate
- Uninspired leadership – both Board and administration
- Absence of passion and purpose
- No clear brand, identity, distinction, or reputation
My Ecosystem Approach — As a forester and doctoral-trained applied ecologist, I view universities the same way I might any organism in a natural ecosystem. My doctoral research evaluated soil-site productivity. That is, the potential for a given set of conditions to produce biomass and forest products and services. Often, the actual forest in place may express past treatments and poor management, and not be truly reflective of the potential. I used independent measures of soil, slope, fertility, topography, and other objective metrics to assess potential. If a great site is supporting a poorly performing stand, then investments in rehabilitation could return dividends. If the site is poor, no investment will return dividends. The same is true for universities.
Is a particular university worth attempting salvage and rehabilitation? Is the site (the collective factors constituting potential) such that a new approach, refreshed leadership, and rededicated efforts can right it? Is it time to cut losses and abandon the institution? Not every university at risk can be saved. Not every Board can rise above itself. Some CEOs cannot lead even a healthy institution. Some leaders cannot ask the right questions, much less answer them.
A university with which I am familiar brought on a new president two months after it had added a million dollars in long term debt just to meet operating expenses on a $15 million annual budget. It had just opened a new residence hall, named after a Board member who donated a sum equal to just four percent of the total project cost. Its endowment was a mere $2 million. Deferred maintenance costs were excessive. For example, brick spalled from the south side of the gymnasium. Enrollment sagged. The discount rate exceeded 55 percent. The Board held the unenviable reputation as the most inept of all institutions in the state. The Board repeatedly refused to approve entrepreneurial ventures… efforts that might have lifted the university to a recovery ramp. This institution stood at the abyss. Salvageable? Not with that Board. With a new Board and outlook? Perhaps.
I know of another university, well maintained with solid potential, exciting programs (existing and envisioned), competent faculty, and manageable debt. Yet, the administration had a fatalistic attitude. That is, believing that decreasing state funding and weak high school graduation demographics led to an inevitable spiral of lessening enrollment, revenue, staffing, etc. Satisfaction with adequate, suppression of ambition, and acceptance of mediocrity destined the institution to a slow, inexorable decline. Instead, new leadership ascertained what stood within reach, awakened the institution to its potential… stirred the Board, administration, faculty, staff, alumni, and its broad community to rise far above what had been accepted as inevitable.
The university (in my metaphor, the forest) flourished under innovative, challenging, and inspired leadership. Rich soil on a wonderful site nourished recovery and response. All the ingredients were in place. A systematic assessment, innovative ventures, strategic programmatic investments, organizational realignment, critical senior-level adjustments, and an infusion of passion, power, and purpose into a decent Board set the university afire.
Failing, or even falling short of potential performance, constitutes a crisis. Better to anticipate and address the situation proactively. In the first example, the hole had already grown too deep. The second, far too close for comfort, yet still in time for decisive, firm, and strategic action.
Look, See, Feel, and Act
I have embraced four essential verbs as critical to dealing with any enterprise, whether a multi-million-dollar university or a family. First, I implore those involved in leadership roles to Look – to focus with eyes open, and attentive to the world around us. I’ve seen many people open their eyes, however, without actually seeing. We are too often blinded by the distractions of life and our digital environs. I implore folks to See… to pay attention with senses alert to multiple dimensions. To see deeply, through layers of the visual… beyond and beneath the surficial. Looking and seeing alone do not suffice. We must see deeply enough to evoke Feeling. Feeling, emoting, and striking empathy for the organization and the cause sufficient to spur Action. Without action, looking, seeing, and feeling accomplish nothing. The first institution operated blindly for far too long. Fresh eyes, sharpened with deep experience, brought insight, offered remedies, and urged action in time to lift the second university to new heights.
University leadership must be fully attuned to the environment… the ecosystem within which the institution operates. Look, see, and feel to a level sufficient to assess whether action investments can be fruitful. Effectively operating any enterprise demands a business-like approach. Again, a university is a business, albeit not-for-profit. Operating requires revenue. Over some timeframe, revenue must exceed or equal expenditures. Although a noble cause, higher education still must abide by the rules that dictate business – you cannot spend money you don’t have. And like a forest, an education enterprise cannot grow to be The Mighty Oak on shallow, impoverished soil on an exposed upper slope. Site resources are too limiting. Nature, nor business, allows the impossible and even the best of sites will not produce The Mighty Oak with inadequate management practices.
Because I still operate with my industry orientation to action, I have observed with frustration that universities approach decisions with tendency to “ready, aim, aim, aim, aim….” The opportunity window too often closes without decisive action. I prefer “ready, fire, aim,” then, if necessary, tune the aim. Act before inaction assures failure. A dear fisheries biologist friend once said to me, “Steve, there is only one way to guarantee you will catch no fish. Don’t throw a line in the water.” The first example university avoided fishing. The second, with counsel, fresh looking and seeing, and urging, decided to throw a fish fry!